Andrew Clark, 2001
Record figures just released by the KCACR suggest that there are more people than ever before involved in the quintessentially English art of campanology. It is thought that 5000 people nationwide could have taken it up in the past four years but it is not all good news, because although the amount of ringers is increasing, so is the age of the average ringer.
The reason for the huge increase in the number of ringers, was the largest national ringing event ever staged - Ring In 2000. A three year campaign designed to make a mark at the beginning of the new millennium, Ring In 2000 was the attempt to get all of the church bells in Britain to ring at 12 noon on January 1st, 2000, and achieved a fairly impressive success rate of 90%. Towers looked to poster campaigns and specially designed leaflets, as well as the local and national press, to advertise the event and to try to attract enough ringers to allow each and every tower to ring. At the same time there was a lot of work done on the bells themselves, with previously unringable bells being repaired and extra bells added to existing rings. The Lottery Millennium Fund supplied cash for towers such as Wittersham and Wye in Kent to complete the sets of bells; Wittersham having two bells added to their existing six to form a musical octave, whilst Wye was augmented from an eight to a ten.
Master of the 'Leeds Youths', Chris Cooper, would say that such projects get away from what Ring In 2000 should have been about."I never agreed with Ring In 2000," he says, "in my view it was too much about getting enough people for January 1st and nothing about after that. I've trained people not for 2000 but for the future."
One young ringer, Ben Edwards, ridicules the notion that Ring In 2000 was not about the future; "People might start ringing for the event but once we have got them interested they are not likely to give it up just because 2000 is over." He may well have a good point as there seems to be an inherently addictive quality to ringing. Currently, 34 people hold over 50 years continuous membership of the KCACR with one person, Mr. Edward Barnett, having been a member since 1928! In the KCACR there are also over 60 people with life membership who presumably expect to be ringing into their old age.
One ringer who can attest to its addictive nature is Graham Coker. Originally a ringer from Hertfordshire while in his late teens, he gave up ringing when he signed up for Voluntary Service Overseas and was posted to Ghana, which suffers from a total lack of church bells. Thirty years later he heard about Ring In 2000 and having some spare time in his evenings, he ventured up his local tower to take up the art again after 30 years - making him incidentally the person who has taken the second longest break from ringing in his tower. He came into the tower with the words "I do no know how much I will get into this" but now rings an average of two or three nights a week, as well as at two towers on Sunday mornings. Eighteen months after he first came up to Kennington he became tower captain, when the previous captain went to take charge of a neighbouring tower.
"I enjoy the mental requirements, the physical requirements and the fact that, however good you are there is something else to learn," he explains. "I especially like training other people to ring and the fact that it is a country-wide and even worldwide hobby. If I am away from home I can always find a tower to ring at and I am always welcomed."
And despite the amount of ringing that he does it does not satisfy his insatiable appetite. "Without restriction I would probably ring every night," he says, but he does seem concerned about causing marital distress. "I have a very tolerant wife, who does not object when I go out every night of the week. However I do not believe this is fair on her, especially when I am out at work all day and often travelling."
This could be the reason why there seems to be so many families involved in ringing. Richard Edwards recently rang a peal - a piece of continuous ringing usually around three hours in length - at Appledore near to his home tower of Tenterden to commemorate one that was rung there exactly one hundred years and one day earlier by his great great uncle Robert Edwards. Mark Marshall is the ringer who holds the world record for the number of church bell peals rung in a year with a staggering 209. Sadly Mark is no longer with us, but his wife, son and daughter, their relevant spouses, and some of his grandchildren ring at various towers around the county.
Kay Chittenden had reason to be grateful that she had children when she was looking to raise enough people to ring at Great Chart, where she is the captain. In the two years running up to Ring In 2000 she taught both of her children to ring. Clive in particular was only ten when he started to ring.
Unfortunately, they are amongst a decreasing number of young people that ring. David Thorne, Publicity Officer for the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, identifies this as a major national problem: "The main problem that we have is the age pattern. We have too many mature people rather than young people."
This is certainly true in the KCACR which had significantly less junior members in the 1990s than it did in the previous two decades. This can be seen as particularly worrying considering that we have already seen that people stay with it, or often come back to it, and so these are the ringers of the future and it is likely that they will supply other ringers of the future, in the form of their own offspring.
Despite this problem David Thorne is not alone in hailing Ring In 2000 as "a great success." He draws attention to the amount of publicity that it raised which is evident in the fact that Richard Edwards' commemorative peal received a full page spread in his local newspaper. When there are less young people ringing and less family stability generally in the UK than ever before, ringers have to be found somewhere other than the traditional places. A rise of 5,000 from the normally steady level of 40,000 ringers can be considered a massive start especially as the Central Council expect a large number of them to have kept ringing, boosting the numbers when they need it most.
They do not want to stop there however. The next big event is designed to work with what Ring In 2000 achieved and carry the work forward. Towers will be asked to ring sometime during the day of the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002. Mr. Thorne hopes that feedback from that will provide them with better information about the number of ringers that are currently ringing and see if Ring In 2000 made such a big change after all. But it is also a challenge, to all those bands that got together for Ring in 2000, to see if they can improve the standards of what they can ring and how well they ring it. Bell ringing has been forced to change with the new millennium, before it became stale, but provided it can keep going the way it has started, then the art will continue for a long time to come.