Have you been to Whitstable, Margate, or Newent ? Whitstable is in Kent and is a small sea side – well more Thames estuary town – famous for Oysters, perhaps you have been to Margate, also in Kent, a larger more traditional sea side town. We were there in May for our bell ringing outing to Kent. The idea is simple in that we book up and ring at a number of churches in a small area, we go as a group with other ringing friends and spend the day together. Every single bell is different to ring and the places we ring at are as diverse as the churches and areas we visit. It’s usually a very social and enjoyable day away. Whitstable has two churches with ringing bells and the one in the middle of the town has a set of 8 bells and perhaps the lightest bells most of us have rung, which is a challenge in itself.
So when we were asked by friends from Barking to go on an outing along the River Wye by the Welsh boarders, five of us said yes to a weekend in sunny August, staying in Newent on the boarders of the Forest of Dean. It got a bit complicated as they wanted to keep us secret to surprise Clive who was arranging the outing. We knew him when he was Ringing Master at St. Margaret’s, when before leaving to move to Gloucester , he was teaching his young son to ring. His son is now about six feet tall and getting ready to go to university and still rings. Eight of us gathered during the Friday – meeting at the George in the evening where we were staying for the weekend. On Saturday we surprised Clive, he must be good at poker! Then it was off to ring at Ross on Wye, being Clive he not only gave us details of the route but also details of each bell. I know the oldest bell was 1480 at Goodrich and the newer ones were at Abergavenny all 10 bells were cast in 1947 but with the newest being the 6th bell at Ross and was cast in 1977. Most sets of bells are usually 6 bells or 8 bells some have been added to make 5 to 6 or 6 to 8 (like St. John’s ) so dates on bells greatly vary. The number of bells usually go up to 12 but a few have more.
About 24 of us met at Ross which for an outing is good as it means we can all take turns at ringing and vary what we ring. The ringers ages ranged from young to the not so young with some good ringers and some learners, well really we are all learners but some have a better excuse as they have only just started. After Ross we went to Goodrich, the church was slightly outside the village and where we went up a flight of steps outside the tower. Clive like Romeo and Juliet on the balcony ( I must point out that Clive does not look like either ), gave us pronouncements of what to ring, from the top of the steps, as the ringing room was crowded if it had more than six people. Those who waited outside in the sunshine enjoyed the view of the green valley.
We moved on to the bells of Monmouth. Now don’t get me wrong, Monmouth was very nice – ringing on a balcony-- however it was a long time since breakfast , so lunch at the Kings Head in Usk was calling us. Now don’t get me wrong but a pub with good beer and good food seems to have a much higher gravity pull for ringers so we were a bit late starting to ring at Usk. We’ve learnt over time to get hold of menus early on (at the first tower ) and phone our choices through, after all 24 of us all arriving at once could be a problem but it still seems that time speeds up at lunchtime. As Clive gently pointed out – we do have a timetable! Now don’t get me wrong but the ringing after lunch always seems better and the bells are always easier to ring, as it was in Usk.
With Clive’s detailed directions we arrived at Abergavenny via a car park, seemingly full of gentle “bikers”. At this point let me explain that our driver – flying Newentair –was Andrew, Ringing Master at Barking and all eight of us were in his people carrier, he does not like the word bus as he drives trains. The main problem with this was that excuses for humour were being bounced between us all day! Having been to Abergavenny before I knew we were going to enjoy the 10 bells, that were also the heaviest on the tour. Now don’t get me wrong but getting to the place where we ring can be various, entertaining and sometime convoluted and Abergavenny came into the third section. Three of the “bus” thought there was a more straight forward route into the church, thus setting off the church alarms. At each church we have someone, usually a ringer, to open up for us and give us the details needed to start ringing. They give up time for us, they welcome us and look kindly on us as we savage their bells, so the two who met us might have wished us somewhere else. We passed through the town four days later and I’m sure we could still hear the alarm ringing.
On Sunday we hiked to the local church at Newent to ring for the Sunday Service – we crossed the road –where again we got a warm welcome. Our final ring was for a later Sunday Service just up the road at Huntley, a small gem of a church again some way from the village. Before leaving we thanked Clive for all his work; we went off to Brecon, one of the others met friends for Sunday lunch and the rest returned to London and guess what -- did more ringing.
Visiting churches on outings all over the country, over the years gives me a small snapshot of the churches, many of which are not on any tourist routes, you see different ideas and ways of church life and sometimes bring them back to St. John’s. Years ago we kept seeing everything laid for Coffee/tea after Sunday Services so after quite a hard sometimes unpleasant debate we started it at St. John’s. On our travels we noticed that ladies were singing in church choirs, so we tried that, another hard debate, mind you at one point we only had one choir member, Alan Fairbourne. I got the idea of “prayer partners” from another church and having Deputy Churchwardens from some others. Even printing up reports for the churches A.G.M’s. was another idea, mainly to foreshorten all the business and open up the meeting for more spiritual matters. What we are now seeing in a lot of churches is that they are changing their layout and using different areas of the building in different ways. How you approach the church for the first time, lots of glass doors to open it all up making it more accessible and user friendly (sorry about that word ), better lighting and heating, even seating – in the good very old days, churches did not have seats –and afterall who sits on a plank of wood for an hour or more today.
Some churches stay the same which does make more continuity for many, some change and dare I say some close. We live in the 21st. Century and our churches are not museums set to a fixed time in the past, many are struggling both with funds and people but our job is to keep them going, worshiping, praying, teaching, singing and even bell ringing. We are custodians of some of God’s houses for yesterday, today and tomorrow.