Let the bells ring out for Christmas Day

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FIONA FINCH meets the local music makers who are an essential, but most definitely unsung, part of the county’s Christmas festivities.

As the bells ring out for Christmas Day this year, spare a thought for the unsung music makers.

Bellringers at Broughton Parish Church

Bellringers at Broughton Parish Church

If you are fortunate to live near a church where bells are rung, you may well take the musical peals for granted.

But it is thanks to dedicated teams determined to keep the art of bell ringing alive that we have this musical backdrop.

They are the volunteers who put in hours and hours of practise through the year to turn out on high days and holy days.

At Broughton’s St John Baptist (Broughton Parish Church) Tower Captain Susan Holden says new recruits are always welcome.

Tower Captain Susan Holden

Tower Captain Susan Holden

She has been in charge of bell ringing at the Garstang Road church on the outskirts of Preston since 1984. For her it is a skill that was meant to be. She explained: “I started down at Samlesbury at St Leonard the Less church. My dad was vicar there. Bell ringing and choir is what I grew up with. I moved to this area and started ringing here and have been here ever since.”

Susan, a 51-year-old accountant, (pictured right), said: “It’s working as a team, being able to make the bells do what you want them to do. It’s challenging, it’s a skill and it supports the church.”

Even your reporter was able to briefly try her hand at bell ringing during … and realised it could become addictive.

It is skill, not strength, which is required I was advised, as I pulled maybe a tad too hard on the rope.

The Broughton Handbell Ringers

The Broughton Handbell Ringers

“Don’t look up, don’t look up” instructed Susan, aware that every beginner feels the need to check the progress of the bell rope on its journey high and low.

In truth I was astonished at how fast everything seemed to happen when I was charged with helping catch – in my case grab - the rope on it return.

From a distance the bell ringers are seen working in gentle timely harmony, hardly exerting themselves. But the experience taught me timing, counting and concentration are crucial, as well as dexterity.

There are also health, safety and practical considerations – for example, when catching the rope you take hold of “the Sally”, the part of the rope covered in protective tufted material which protects hands from rope burns and enables you to secure your grip.

The Broughton Handbell Ringers practising for Christmas

The Broughton Handbell Ringers practising for Christmas

There are six bells at Broughton, the largest, a tenor weighing half a ton and some 10 ringers.

Newcomers pick skills up at varying rates. Susan said: “We’ve a young girl who started four weeks ago and she’s ringing bell on her own with no problem, with others it takes a little longer.”

Their most senior ringer Bryan Hill is 81 and started when he was 12 and living in Northamptonshire.

Bryan, Ringing Master at Blackburn Cathedral for 10 years, said: “I was a chorister then my voice started to break and I couldn’t sing up or down. I just moved across into the tower and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s good exercise, it keeps the brain working and it keeps you fit.”

Belllringing has, I discovered, its own vocabulary. Depending on skill levels church ringers can have a limited repertoire, but it is possible to build up to do full peals of more than three hours.

For this you use all the “methods”. I was advised this is the technical term for the different patterns of ringing.

First there are the “rounds” - one bell played after the other starting with the highest and descending on to the lowest note and heaviest bell. Then there is “plain hunt”, where the bells change at the same time and then the “surprise method”, which is, said Susan, “very complicated”.

Retired engineer Les Green, 72, started ringing 32 years ago when his children were in the choir and has stayed. He explains why: “The companionship and you’re keeping some of the old English skills alive.”

Bev Harper, 58, joined four years ago after an appeal in the parish magazine: “I had just gone part-time at work and was looking for something a bit different to do.”

Yvonne Smallshaw, 60, joined the bell ringers in 2014, explaining: “I walked past and heard the bells ringing. I went in and they were just finishing and I thought I might fancy having a go.”

Meanwhile Ray Lamb, a 72-year-old retired account manager who used to live locally, travels back to Broughton from Lostock Hall to ring. He said: “I enjoy the exercise, it’s useful and it keeps me young.”

As if the big bells were not enough, some of the team ring the changes in a different way by also playing handbells.

In the run up to this year’s festivities shoppers at a city supermarket and visitors passing through the entrance foyer at the Royal Preston Hospital were due to be cheered by the sound of much loved carol melodies being played on the gleaming handbells by The Broughton Handbell Ringers.

This year the group was also asked to play at a summer event and can see their “season” extending.

• Saturday December 23: The Broughton Handbell ringers will play at Broughton Parish Church from 5.30pm to 6pm and the big bells will ring out from 6.30pm- 7pm, prior to the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

• Sunday December 24: the big bells will be ringing out from 10.30 to 11am, prior to morning service .

• Christmas Day, Monday December 25: the big bells will ring out from 9.30am to 10 am.