A report from Simon Linford (President, Central Council of Church Bell Ringers).
The sound of church bells. A quintessential part of our soundscape, but something that has been sadly absent from bell towers across the country during the pandemic. Bells call people to worship, mark joyful occasions such as weddings, and muffled, they help us mourn the passing of loved ones.
Bells also perform a civic role. For centuries they have helped us to celebrate national and local events. They ring for feast days, Royal birthdays, coronations, the ends of wars and the anniversaries of them. Few things make people stop and take notice better than the sound of bells, and as there are bells in over 5000 of our church towers this can unite communities in a single act.
In this country, the sound of bells is not automatic. They don’t ring because someone at the church has pressed a button. In that bell tower, often hidden away, real people are exercising a skill and art that has been practiced for centuries, and which exercises their minds as much as their muscles.
Those people can be as diverse as the communities they come from, old and young, schoolchildren, teachers, health workers, business people and the retired. Ringing unites them in an all-absorbing passion. Bellringing stopped at the start of the pandemic. Bellringing is a team activity in which ringers stand together in the tower and sometimes practice their art for hours at a time.
This cannot happen when lockdowns or restrictions are in place, although guidelines were introduced to enable some bells to be rung safely for short periods. The bellringing community had to work very hard to keep ringers motivated and looking forward to the future.
First a single bell could ring, then bells 2m apart – gradually up to six became possible in large towers. As some towers have as many as 12 or even 16 bells this was not enabling the full range of bellringers’ repertoire!
Life for the bell ringers of St Luke’s Goostrey has never been so quiet as during the pandemic of 2020/21. But all that is about to change.
Like all activities that rely on bringing together teams of people, church bell ringing has not been permitted since March 2020. The UK lockdown regulations, especially the 2m rule, has made it impossible to operate safely in the confined space of nearly all church towers.
Despite some strict protocols, the tower of St Luke’s has never been completely silent. One bell has always kept ringing to remind the village that even on the darkest days the church is always here.
In the first lockdown a bell has led the NHS clapping on Thursdays, has tolled for remembrance and as tribute to Prince Phillip, and rings slowly for ten minutes before 7pm on Sundays to invite people to pause and reflect in prayer. And it rings joyously for five minutes before the start of Sunday morning service.
The ringers, supported by the Reverend Heather Buckley, are intending to get back to normal very soon. The ‘rule of six’ and double vaccination means they can resume full ringing for Sunday service and for two weddings during July.
Listen out for the bells on 15th and 17th July and on Sunday mornings. The tower practice is on a Wednesday from 7.30-9pm.
Goostrey is part of the Chester Diocesan Guild of Church Bellringers, an organisation of 112 towers from all across Cheshire. It has one of the lightest sets of bells in the county, which makes it a great place to learn to ring. If you want to know more about this fascinating exercise, contact the tower captain Tom Nestor 07775 747222.
Researcher and Writer