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

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - June 2017 Report

When Bill Sansom died last month, he was my last local link to the 19th century. He came from a family of bell ringers and was the prime source of my Millennium project researches into the history of the bells.

In 1968 my parents told me that their neighbour, Jack Sansom, was teaching them to ring the bells at St Mary’s. Jack was Bill’s father. As a teenager, I was reluctant to try what my parents were doing, but eventually, one evening, I was persuaded to go up to the church under Mr Sansom’s tuition. It transpired I had an aptitude for it, and I have enjoyed the hobby ever since.

The Sansom family came to Donhead St Mary in 1888. John eloped from Ottery St Mary with his wife to be and they were married in this church. John had learnt to ring in Devon, and he soon became captain of the ringers here. He took a keen interest in the newly founded Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers. Under his guidance, a band flourished through the early part of the 20th century. Both his sons, John (known as Jack) and his brother Bill, learnt to ring. Several of the ringers saw active service during the Great War and all returned alive. The ringers were all local, including a gardener at Donhead Hall. On 14 May 1938, Mr Sansom did not go to the Guild’s AGM, as it was his Golden Wedding. A message of congratulation was passed at the AGM. A letter to the Donhead Digest a few years ago (I do not know the date) from Mrs M W Butson (nee Lawes) said:

DSM Bell Ringers in 1938“John Sansom ... lived in the house almost opposite the Church. He was a blacksmith, then started as a Cycle Maker and Agent, and later, with his two sons Bill and Jack, opened another garage at Ludwell on the main London road. This site is now used as a Tea Room. His Grandson Bill Sansom carried on the business there, before opening another garage at Birdbush (now the Mobility Shop)... My grandfather, John Sansom, was Captain of the Bell Ringers for forty years, and had been a bell Ringer for over fifty-six years. On their Golden Wedding Day, teams of Bell Ringers from Mere St John, Semley, Berwick and Gillingham, came to Donhead and peals of bells were rung at intervals throughout the day to show their appreciation of his work during his association with the Diocesan Guild of Bell ringers, The bells were also rung muffled, at this funeral when he died.”

So far as I know, young Bill did not learn to ring, or if he did, he did not keep it up.

In the photo of May 1938 (above right), young Jack Sansom (who taught me) is on the far left, while his father John is 4th from left with the buttonhole. His son Bill (young Bill’s uncle) is behind him. (Note: click on the photo to see a larger version).

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - February 2017 Report

In the last report, I wrote about our outing when we rang at other towers in October 2016. Although in essence all belfries are the same – a number of bells hung in a frame, attached to a full wheel round which a bell rope is attached before going down to the ringing chamber – each is different in character, sound and behaviour. Consequently, ringers need to adapt their style when ringing. The nearest analogy is to driving different cars.

At St Mary’s, our 6 bells are of medium weight, on axles with ball bearings in a metal frame and hang about 20 feet above the ringers. They are well in tune with each other and the harmonics within each bell are also fairly true. They go well, sound good and are joy to ring. Donhead St Andrew’s 4 bells are of similar weight to St Mary’s, on axles with plain bearings in a wood frame and hang about 12 feet above the ringers. The ceiling is not sound-proofed, and so the bells are very loud. As the heaviest bell (the tenor) is almost the same weight as at St Mary’s, and on plain bearings, they are heavier to ring. Semley has 6 bells in a very solidly built tower, and they show the West Country preference for really heavy bells with a 26 cwt tenor (almost 3 times heavier than Donhead). The ringers stand in a “minstrels’ gallery” at the back of the church, so you can turn and watch them ringing from your pew. As they are so heavy, they have to be rung slowly and steadily. If you really want to see ringers in action, you can go to Chilmark, or Dinton. Their ringers stand in the body of the church at the front of the pews, just in front of the pulpit. Both these churches have central towers and the ringers need to be adroit to manage the long ropes. The longer the rope, the more it can move about and magnify any technical weaknesses in controlling them. And, of course, all in public view! The bells themselves hang fairly high up the tower and are not any lower just because the ringers are at ground level.

So, even in a small locality, the variety is really interesting.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bell-Ringers - December 2016 Report

The Bell & Crown at Zeals did us proud for our Christmas Dinner, in October, which we had at the end of a day’s ringing and exploring round churches in Purbeck. Unfortunately, quite a few people could not join us due to illness but we still enjoyed the evening with ringers past and present. The social aspect of ringing is extremely important and is one of the things that make it so much fun.

During the day we had been to Spetisbury, where the ringers stand round the font at the back of the church. The bells are heavier than ours, so are a bit more stately. Then it was on to Sturminster Marshall, with even heavier bells, and again at the back of the church in full view. The tower is large so we stand in a wide circle. It is very imposing. Although it was the 22nd of October, the weather was warm and fine enough for us to have a picnic lunch at Kingston with a magnificent views across the fields to Corfe Castle in the sunshine. Kingston Church is known as the Cathedral of Purbeck. It was built in the 19th century by Lord Eldon and designed by George Street, who also did the Law Courts in the Strand and Cuddesdon College. It is an exemplary building, and looks and feels as if it has materialised straight out of a textbook. There are 10 bells here and this extension over our usual 6 is for me very musical. For two in the band it was the first time on this number of bells. We closed the day’s ringing with a visit to Corfe Castle and rang these beautiful bells well. As it is so busy with visitors, parking can be a challenge and the ringing has to be as good as possible.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is at St Mary’s so we hope to ring before that and also to keep up the tradition of ringing out the old year at 11.35pm on the muffled bells and ringing in the new just after midnight with the bells open. \We wish you all a happy Christmas and New Year.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bellringers - October 2016 Report

Some of you may have the seen the recent BBC item, also picked up by the Daily Telegraph, headlined “Church bell-ringers shortage prompts concern”. In the clip, which you can find via Google, the band at Sheffield speak about why they enjoy ringing, and also say that they find it harder to recruit new ringers these days. These views mirror the results of a survey carried out earlier in the year that showed that whilst over 75% of towers find it “hard or fairly hard to recruit young ringers”, 60% of those surveyed reported that the demand for bell ringing had increased in the last 10 years. It has been my experience in this village that our youngest ringers have generally tended to have relatives who can ring bells.

It is said that people have “less time to do things” nowadays. There is more choice of hobbies, it is easier to travel (to do anything from Pilates to choirs, from hiking to golf, and so on) and people have more spare cash and spare time than they had 70 years ago, when most were limited to a walk to the pub, an evening in front of the telly or something they could go to on the bus. All societies and hobbies are reporting that it is generally harder to attract new members. It cannot all be blamed on tablets and mobile phones; even bell ringers have got an ‘app’!

Both our towers in the Donheads are affiliated to the Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers, which exists to promote ringing. In August, I helped out on a Young Ringers’ Day, organised by the Guild. The 6 teenagers who went on it had a great time. We took a minibus to Zeals, where there is a colour CCTV set up so you can see the bells swinging in the belfry, and then to Motcombe for further ringing, where everyone was amused by the floor mats hand-made by the ringers, that no one may walk on! For variety, we had a midday trip to Haynes Motor Museum and then finished up at Cucklington, where the ringers ring in the porch! By the end of the day, the teenagers were confident enough to organise themselves and they benefitted hugely and had a good day out.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bellringers - August 2016 Report

July 2016 saw national commemoration of the Battle on the Somme. How did the Great War affect bell ringers in the Diocese and in the Donheads? We can turn to the Annual Reports of the Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers (the ‘Guild’), which showed 6 members in St Mary’s; St Andrew’s had not joined the Guild then.

The Annual Report for 1914, issued in May 1915 for the AGM, has a Roll of Honour for “Ringers who are serving their King and Country”, including W. H. J. Sansom from DSM. The report says “the war has inevitably curtailed the activities of the Belfry and that for two main reasons. In the first place, 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”. A year later, it reported that 23% of Guild ringers were on war service. The Roll of Honour is now in Gothic Script. No report was issued for 1916 but in the 1917 report the Roll of Honour is for the fallen, and there is a Roll of Service, which shows W. Sansom, F. J. Sansom and F. Bridle from St Mary’s. At the end of the war, all 3 returned home safely. The Guild reported that “525 out of a normal membership of a little under 750 [had] responded to the Country’s call to arms, the great majority in the days of voluntary enlistment”. Ringing had been greatly reduced “due to restrictions on travelling and other difficulties created by the War”.

Donhead was lucky. Berwick had 6 ringers (out of 8) in service, of whom one fell. In the Guild, 69 fell.

Christopher Sykes

Donhead St Mary Bellringers - June 2016 Report

Celebrations for the Queen’s 90th Birthday continue, and the weekend of June 11th-12th is the Official Celebration, as you will know. In the last Digest, I wrote about our intention to ring a Peal of 5,040 changes on April 7th. I am pleased to say that we succeeded. The ringers came mainly from outside the parish; they included the Ringing Master, the next President and the Treasurer of the Guild, the Ringing Master of the Salisbury Branch of the Guild, a ringer from Sherborne and myself, who conducted it. It was the first time I have conducted a peal and could not have done it without such an experienced band of ringers to help me along. The quality of the ringing was good, and I hope that all who heard it enjoyed the sound of the bells on this special occasion.

On June the 12th, there will be a national initiative to ring all the bells in the country during the Patrons’ Lunch, that is, between 12 and 2 pm. (It seems to me no ringers have been invited to the Lunch!) As there are other celebrations going on in the village, and as we shall be ringing for the 6 pm Evensong on the same day, we have decided to go for a quarter peal attempt at 5 pm before the service and to dedicate it to the occasion (if we succeed). This time, it will be mainly our own ringers in the band.

Our next local celebration will be ringing for Livi Coward’s wedding on 30th July. In addition to our regular Wednesday practice, we shall be hosting a practice of the local branch on Tuesday evening, 21st of June.

Christopher Sykes