Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - April 2019 Report

Many will recall that we tried to ring a 3-hour peal last year in celebration of the Wedding of he Duke & Duchess of Sussex; that we didn’t succeed and that I wanted to have another go at it later in the year. Well, we are now hoping to have another attempt, in the week of May 20-27, just after the 4 Villages Fete. The ringing is to celebrate the fete and the coming together of so many people to raise money for ‘good causes’ and to enjoy themselves in the process. We may also have a baby Sussex to congratulate. The date will either be Tuesday 21 May or Friday 24 May.

Thank you to Madeleine Coward who drew my attention to an article in the Daily Telegraph in March, all about the health benefits of bell ringing! We all already know about the benefits of music and singing - in church environments: singing hymns - but a Prof. Narula of London’s St Mary’s Hospital has observed that bell ringing strengthens the extra thoracic muscles. These muscles unsurprisingly are in the upper abdomen. A man reported to the British Medical Journal a number of years ago that ringing bells provided him with excellent relief from his back pain. They didn’t need a survey to do that - we could have told them! It is something we have been saying for years. Another man reported that it had loosened the contractions in his hand and elbow following a road accident. Another benefit is that the rhythmic pulling of the rope encourages the flow of blood and lymph back up the arm.

What they missed out was the social pleasure, when we meet up with good company; the music of the bells; and the exercise - gentle, steady and warming. There is also the non-physical part: thinking about the changes that are rung, learning new routines (known as methods) and the thought that we are doing something for the community by ringing for weddings, funerals, fetes and services.

We are always pleased to see new faces. Do feel free to come up on a Wednesday evening and see what it is all about. (Note that we do not ring on the Wednesday before Easter). In the meantime, we ringers wish you all a Happy Easter.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - February 2019 Report

In my last report, I mentioned that Jack Sansom would shout “Change!” whenever he wanted us to change the order the bells were ringing in, and that we would then read off a card which bell we had to follow next. I continued that as there was no soundproofing, you couldn’t always hear. I have written many articles for this website, and I notice that I have never mentioned the sound levels within the tower, except as a passing comment.

Until Spring 2002, the ceiling to the clock chamber, where we now stand to ring, was a temporary fibreboard affair. Above it were the loose fitting floorboards to the belfry. This meant that we had to shout to be heard over the sound of the bells. Also, neither the ceiling nor the belfry floorboards fitted snugly to the walls, so we used to be covered in dirt and dust falling from the belfry above. Following a very generous legacy from Geoffrey Speak, we replaced the fibreboard ceiling with acoustic panels, and a foam filler was grouted into all the gaps in the belfry floor. The church weekly winding mechanism was replaced with two electric motors to keep the clock and the chimes going. The effect was dramatic and noticeable. We could talk to each other at normal conversational levels. This meant that a conductor could call ad lib changes without the restriction of a pre-written card, and vocal help and assistance could be given during ringing.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and the first casualty was the set of chiming ropes. These ropes were attached to small hammers, and by pulling on them, one person could chime out tunes on the bells from the back of the church. I would do this for services when we did not have enough ringers. Chimed bells are fairly quiet compared to when the bells are swung and rung, but it is better than nothing. Unfortunately, so much foam filler had been pumped into the gaps in the belfry floor, that the chiming ropes had stuck fast!

Nowadays, if we do not tightly shut the trapdoor into the belfry, and a gap of 1 mm is enough for this, we are reminded of how loud the bells used to be. It is surprising how much sound can get through such a narrow gap.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - December 2018 Report

Did you hear the bells ring at 12.30 on 11th November 2018, part of the nations marking of the Armistice Centenary? The ringers were Roy Jeans, Paul Dewey, Hazel Hinchley, Calvin Eales, Chris Kilner and myself (Julie Sykes was to have rung but was indisposed). Before it started, we recalled the names of the 5 DSM ringers who fought and returned (see the October 2018 Report) and also relatives of those ringing today who fought in the Great War, some surviving and others killed in action. it was very moving for all of us.

Last time I wrote that “incidentally, it was FJ Sansom (Jack) who taught me to ring". It was one Friday evening when he took a 16-year old lad up to the church tower, and, in the course of the evening, taught him to ring a bell. The next day, people were asking in the village shop “Who was it that’s died? It must be someone important - that bell was tolling all evening”! Of course, it wouldn’t be allowed like that today, as Safeguarding rules prevail. There were no regular practice evenings then either, and ringing seemed to take place whenever the ringers were all free. I next learnt to ring in time with other bells on the following Monday, and two days after that, went with Jack Sansom, Jack Edwards and Bert Howell to ring at Donhead St Andrew, where Bert was Captain. It was all exciting stuff, and I found ringing to be exhilarating, fun and worthwhile. I celebrated the 50th anniversary of that day on 30 August 2018 with a quarter peal that I conducted, the other ringers being the Master of the Guild and four from the Donheads.

To ring the changes in 1968 we used cards. A card lay on the floor in front of each ringer, on which was written the change number (1, 2, 3 and so on) and against it, which bell you had to follow. When Jack wanted us to change, he would call “Change!"'. This was all right for a while, but by the time we had reached change no. 23 or 24 or so, people would forget what number we had got to, and there would be general confusion for a while! After that, he would call out the next number. However, there was no soundproofing, so you couldn’t always hear what the number was over the sound of the bells which were only a few feet above us, so really the answer was just to concentrate all the time.

We shall ring for Midnight Mass and keeping the tradition of ringing out the Old Year before midnight on New Year’s Eve and ringing in the New Year just after midnight. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - October 2018 Report

Some of you may have read in the paper, seen on the telly or heard on the radio about the plans for the Nation's bells to ring out together to mark the Armistice Centenary on Sunday 11th November 2018. On that day, bells will ring out from churches and cathedrals in villages, towns and cities across the country, most at 12.30 but also in the afternoon and evening. Big Ben will also strike at 11am to mark the centenary.

During the First World War, 1,400 bell ringers lost their lives during the First World War. Church bells across the UK remained restricted throughout the course of the war and only rang freely once Armistice was declared on 11th November 1918. There were other reasons, as mentioned in the Guild reports. In 1915 the secretary wrote that “the ringing fraternity, always alert to interpret the proper sentiments of a Christian people, have rightly felt that in a time of such intense public anxiety the joyous tones of the bells should be little heard except on occasions of religious observance or national celebration. And a second reason redounds to the credit of ringers even in greater measure than the first. So readily has this great body of Church workers responded to the call of duty that the ranks of the Guild are considerably depleted by the absence of many of its most energetic members on the service of King and country”. In 1919 he reported that “in spite of the shortage of men, ringing on this momentous occasion (the Armistice in November 1918) was practically universal throughout the Diocese”.

Here in the Donheads we were fortunate in that all the ringers who fought in that war returned. The Guild Annual Report shows a change in tone as the war progressed. The Reports published in March 1915 and 1916 have a Roll of Honour, in which W Sansom & FJ Sansom from Donhead St Mary are included. These rolls were of those ringers who were serving in combat. No report was published in 1917 but that of 1918 had two Rolls: W Sansom, FJ Sansom and F Bridle are listed in the Roll of Service, whilst the Roll of Honour lists the names of those who had fallen.

Incidentally, it was FJ Sansom (Jack) who taught me to ring.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - August 2018 Report

After the Royal Wedding, we now have four local weddings to ring for, which will be very enjoyable. We usually only have 1 or 2 a year, but this year we are also welcoming weddings from Donhead St Andrew while that church is closed. They are really joyous occasions and of course we have a prime view from the back of the church. So I expect you will have heard us ring on the Saturdays of 14 and 21 July. Our other weddings are scheduled for 15 September and 6 October.

Wedding ringing differs from normal service ringing, in that we ring for about half an hour before and about 15 minutes afterwards. For a Sunday service, we ring till 5 minutes before the service starts. However, for a wedding, we ring until the bride arrives, unless she is late. It is difficult to time, as we cannot see out of our small window in the tower. I try to have the bells ringing as she comes up the path, and stop as she reaches the door. If the bride is late, we ring for a few minutes after the due time, and then stop and wait. Once we know that she is walking up the path, we try to give a few rings to welcome her. After the service, we ring for a quarter of an hour. Coming down from the tower, we never know whether we shall find a church deserted already, or everyone milling round taking photographs. The other big difference is that wedding ringing is recorded for posterity on sundry videos!

The Ladies Guild held their AGM at Charlton in June, and some of them enjoyed our bells during that weekend. They were very impressed by the tone and tuning, as well as the ‘good go’ of our bells (which means how easy they are to handle).

Some extra ringing over the next couple of months is in the calendar. On 30 August 1968 Jack Sansom taught me to ring, and I hope to celebrate that half-century with a quarter peal at St Mary’s, probably in the evening of Thursday 30 August 2018.

We are also hosting 2 practices for the Mere branch of the Salisbury Guild of Ringers: on Friday 10 August and on Tuesday 21 August, both in the evening. I’m afraid they all fall rather close together, but after that we are back to normal for September.


Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - June 2018 Report

On Monday, 14th of May, five ringers from the Salisbury Guild and I attempted to ring a peal in anticipation of the wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Markle. The attempt fell on the 80th anniversary of the Golden Wedding of John Sansom, who was Ringers’ Captain at St Mary’s from 1883 till the early 1940s. Unfortunately, a little over a quarter way through, we made a series of errors and had to stop. Perhaps it was not meant to be, as we had started over half an hour late because one of the ringers had been delayed by a puncture. I hope we shall try again later this year.

A peal is defined as a performance when over 5,000 changes are rung. This length derives from the fact that with 7 bells, all the possible combinations total 5,040 (7x6x5x4x3x2x1 = 5,040). A couple of centuries ago, when English change ringing developed, this was thought to be the peak of any ringing performance. A tower with 8 bells in it would have 7 bells changing and the tenor giving a nice steady dong at the end of each change. St Mary’s has only 6 bells, so the maximum number of combinations is 720. This means that we have to ring 7 sets of 720 changes to ring a peal. Within each 720, you are not allowed to repeat any of the changes. All of this is done without reference to any notes or crib-sheets. So you can appreciate that to ring a peal, which takes about 3 hours, is quite an achievement.

There are different methods of creating the sets of changes. To start, the bells ring in descending order: 123456, with 6 being the bell with the lowest note (the “tenor”). The essential rule is that you can only swap adjacent bells. So the next change from 123456 could be 214365, then 241635, and so on. Doing this in one’s head, and at the same time, ringing a bell, would be impossible, but we are helped by pre-defined methods of progressing from one change to another. If everyone in the band rings the same method, then a performance is possible. The challenge comes in remembering the method and how far you have got through it! A bit like barn dancing, but in virtual reality, because it is the sound that moves round, not the ringers who stand still.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - April 2018 Report

Last time, I wrote that it is now up to us to ensure that the skills and traditions of bell ringing are passed on to the future. That essentially English sound of bells ringing out over the countryside will otherwise be lost. If you are free on Spring Bank Holiday, 7th May, 2018 you can see a demonstration of ringing at Stourton church, by Stourhead, with displays and people to explain it all, and a small simulator bell to try your hand on!

With apologies to those who remember my writing about learning to ring in April 1998, I said that in the programme “Casualty”, a character remarked that “bell ringing is very easy - you just grab a rope and go dong”. If anyone did, they would end up in real-life casualty! However, properly taught, bell ringing is safe. Bells are large pieces of metal (the largest at St Mary’s weighs about half a ton), so you can imagine that the careless could have accidents. Like learning to drive, learning to ring takes time.

Ringing is a fun hobby for all ages from about 11 years old upward. Unlike driving, where other road users are impatient, experienced ringers are delighted to help. You will start learning to handle the rope safely, and in stages progress to ringing the bell unaided. Even at this point, you will be ringing your bell in time with other people, as your tutor will have dual control. As soon as you can control the bell on your own, you will start developing the skill of keeping in time and adjusting the speed. Then you learn to fit your bell in with everyone else and be part of the tune, as a conductor calls the changes. And so it continues.

Meanwhile, there is a strong social side and, if you are new to the village, it is an excellent way to make friends. It also holds true if you move away (please don’t!); indeed, if I am on an overnight business trip, I know I can go to the local tower practice night and be welcomed. Better than watching TV in a hotel room and the pub afterwards is more pleasant than the hotel bar as well.

To know more, feel free to come up to the tower at 7.50 pm any Wednesday evening without committing yourself, to see what it is all about.

Christopher Sykes

(Editor’s Note: you can contact Christopher by clicking here, and when the new page opens, select the 'Contact Form' tab to send an email to Christopher from this website.)

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - February 2018 Report

Some of you may have read in the paper, seen on the telly or heard on the radio about the plans for the Nation's bells to ring out together to mark the Armistice Centenary on Sunday 11th November 2018. On that day, bells will ring out in unison from churches and cathedrals in villages, towns and cities across the country. Big Ben will also strike at 11am to mark the centenary.

To mark the final year of the First World War centenary commemorations, 1,400 new bell ringers will be recruited in honour of the 1,400 that lost their lives during the First World War. Church bells across the UK remained restricted throughout the course of the war and only rang freely once Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. The campaign to recruit bell ringers, Ringing Remembers, will keep this traditional British art alive in memory of the 1,400 who lost their lives – linking together past, present and future.

Here in the Donheads we were fortunate in that all the ringers who fought in that war returned. Two of the Donhead ringers, W & FJ Sansom, are listed in the Roll of Service (Guild members serving in combat) for the entire duration of the war. Fortunately FJ Sansom (Jack), like the other Donhead ringers listed, returned, and survived to become Ringers’ Captain, from about 1942 till 1970. His father, J Sansom, had been Captain from 1882 before him. It was Jack Sansom who taught me to ring when I was 16.

It is now our turn to ensure that these skills and traditions are passed on to the future. Ringing is a fantastic hobby for all ages from about 11 years old on. You need only to be tall enough to be able to reach the rope and have the coordination to control it. You do not need to be a weight lifter to do it! Equally, for the ‘not so young’ it is excellent medium exercise. Apart from that, it is great fun! You can enjoy all or part of what ringing offers, from musicality, rhythm and movement, being with friends, or tinkering about with the bell mechanics (“under the bonnet”).

If you want to know more, feel free to come up to the tower at 7.30 on any Wednesday evening and you can watch and learn without committing yourself, to see what it is all about. My phone number is in the front of the Digest.

 Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - December 2017 Report

In the last report, I wrote about the Guild Striking Competition, which our local branch hosted, and I have no doubt that you all went on-line to see whether the branch entry won. No? Well, in that case, I can now reveal that we came, according to the certificate, “Forth”. The winners had a clear lead over the next three bands, who were closely grouped, and the band that came fifth had a bit of a disaster in the middle of their test piece, and came a distant last.

At the end of August 2017, we were joined in our practice by some ringers from Tollard Royal, including three youngsters. They were infectiously enthusiastic and they really enjoyed ringing at St Mary’s. One of the adults who came with them was unable to manage our staircase; its open structure and unrestricted view down the nave unnerves some people. I have written before about the friendliness of the ringing world. We were invited back to join them at their practice and this we did in October. In the interval, we enjoyed home-made cakes washed down with tea or coffee. The ringers at Tollard stand at the back of the church round the font, so the congregation has a good view of the ropes flying up and down. It is also the perfect place for watching weddings! The church was beautifully decorated for their harvest festival, but the font was unadorned. I rang once at a church where the flower arrangers had put a very ornate display on the font. Now the thing about ringing from the ground floor is that it is a very long way to the bells high in the tower; and that means long ropes, which can have a tendency to snake about. Yes, one or two flowers did get caught; I think we managed to get them back more or less where they came from!

As ever, we hope to continue the tradition of ringing out the old year and in with the new, so listen out for the muffled bells ringing between about 11.30 pm and 11.50 pm on 31st December, followed by the open bells welcoming 2018 just after midnight. In the meantime, the ringers all wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - October 2017 Report

When I was a teenager, my parents always despaired at my habit of leaving everything to the last minute. They say that with age comes wisdom. So it is that with only an hour or two to the deadline for submitting my copy to the editor, I am writing on the same day as the Guild Striking Competition.

I have written before about the Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers. Both Donhead towers are affiliated to it and one of its five aims is to advance the art of ringing and to cultivate Change Ringing. Before the Victorian reforms, bell ringing was an unregulated activity, which had evolved from the days of the 17th century Puritans. They had realised that bell ringing is very enjoyable, and, as you were meant to devote yourself to pious works and thoughts on Sunday, enjoyment was frowned upon. Thus, bell ringing was allowed on any day except Sunday. So it was that the English style of change ringing emerged. In those days, ringers were paid to ring the bells for church events, including Sunday services. On other days, great competitions were held in towns in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bands of ordinary ringers strove to outdo one another. On days of competition the ringing was often preceded by a large meal at the local pub and followed by the presentation of a ‘good hat’ or a pair of gloves to each ringer in the band that had performed the best. By the 18th century, standards of behaviour deteriorated with bell ringers described as layabouts and drunks. Attendance at church services was considered no part of bell ringing.

By the early 1700s, the science of being able to ring peals for 3 hours had developed and at Leicester in March 1731 one of the ringers commented; “we upon bells completed the whole peal of Grandsire Triples in three hours and two minutes to the great satisfaction of thousands both in town and country”. Over the years, change ringing fell in social esteem, and there were frequently great arguments between ringers and clergy. By the 1880s, the clergy were regaining control of the belfries and reformed the activity.

Today, the Mere Branch of the Guild hosts our competition. The event now encourages ringers to improve their ringing by having a goal to aim for. We shall not win a good hat or a pair of gloves, but our name on the cup. No large meal or drunken revelry today, but a marvellous tea of cakes and scones, whether we win or not!

(I am grateful to for the above historical details.)

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - August 2017 Report

In August and September 2017, we have two weddings to ring for at St Mary’s, which are always very pleasant for us. We are glad to be part of a joyful occasion and we also have a “front: seat” for seeing the bride and all the guests’ outfits! As we live in a village rather than a town, we frequently know the families as well.

In 2014, I wrote about how we try and ring until the bride is at the door, and how we are alerted to stop. Up in the tower, we cannot see what is happening outside, so there is a small servant’s bell that can be sounded from downstairs when the bride is about to make her grand entrance. This system normally works, but occasionally can go wrong!

At one wedding, the usher pulled the cord so violently that the little bell flew off its bracket and across the floor. After :hat, we gave the ushers a little tuition and practice before the guests arrived. On another occasion, the usher forgot all about us. We carried on ringing, wondering why the bride was so late. Meanwhile downstairs, they were singing the first hymn. Then someone realised the bells were still sounding out. Misunderstanding the instructions to pull the light cord (which is attached to the little bell), an usher instead switched off the main fuse box. All the lights went out, the organ fell silent and upstairs we were plunged into sudden gloom! But we did stop ringing.

Many years ago, the clock was wound by hand, and the cables and pulleys that carried the weights projected into the ringing chamber. You had to be careful when ringing one of the 2 heaviest bells that you did not stand too close to them, or you would get oil and grease on your clothes. We always welcome visiting ringers, and at one wedding a guest asked if he could join us, even though he was in his top hat and tails. Of course we said yes, and warned him about the cables. However yes, you’ve guessed — when he finished, his white shirt looked as if it had been used as a rag in a garage!

Christopher Sykes