Bellringers of Dartmouth
The bells of St Saviour’s and St Petrox churches in Dartmouth have been a constant presence in the town for hundreds of years, calling parishioners to church services, joyfully celebrating weddings, honouring the town’s dead at funerals and heralding the start of events every morning during the Regatta period.
The peal of the bells also resonate around the town centre for 90-minutes every Wednesday night when the bell ringing team practice their pulling skills.
Tower Captain Tim Chapman started bell ringing as a young lad in the Cub Scouts and has been tinkling the chimes ever since. In 32-years he has only ever taken time off once, for a three week holiday to America.
When he started bell ringing at St Saviour’s there were only two other ringers. Now there are a regular team of 20 or so who pull on ropes anchored to eight bells in the bell tower, which range in weight from a silverback gorilla, a small speedboat and the heaviest, at one tonne or the equivalent of a Volkswagen car, the tenor bell.
It’s very unusual for a parish church like St Saviour’s to have so many bells and to have not just one, but three churches, including St Clement’s at the top of the town, all with their own set of bells, said Tim.
Aside from actually hearing them, anyone who happened to be in the church when the bells are ringing would know about it because ‘everything moves,’ Tim said. ‘Everything begins to rattle, the pictures on the wall, even the chandelier, and the tower itself moves.’
Tim says anyone can learn how to ring church bells in just a few weeks, although it takes about a year of practice to be fully proficient at it. And, with such heavy tools of the trade involved, you need to keep your wits about you, as Tim knows to his cost having dislocated his thumb while ringing the tenor bell.
‘I caught my thumb around the rope and was pulled six-feet in the air,’ he said. ‘I then came down and hit the floor with a thud. It is a safe thing to do providing you take your time to learn. Like anything there is an element of danger to it, even for people who have been ringing for a long time.’
Different notes peal out of church towers across the country, depending on the weight of the bells they house. St Petrox has six bells which are lighter than the heaviest bells at St Saviour’s.
One of Tim’s regular bell ringing roles is calling the changes to follow recognised patterns, or sequences, such as Queens, Kings and Seesaw. Although I had an inkling that there were probably lots of different ‘tunes’, I admitted to Tim that to my untrained ear they mostly all sounded the same.
He agreed, laughing. ‘Even to ringers, once they get going with a pattern, it’s very hard to recognise it. You can mix it up, you can do whatever you want and part of the fun is just to make things up.
‘A few years ago I was calling the changes for a regular pattern and I made a mistake but it sounded so musical. You can be as creative as you want with bells but you have always got the recognised failsafe ones to fall back on.’
St Saviour’s Church bells, which date back to 1732, were out of action for five months when they were recast in 1938. They won’t need recasting for a good while yet, although they may need re-tuning at some distant point in the future, Tim explained.
That’s as well for the ringers who as well as their chiming duties, take part in regular competitions in different host churches including St Saviour’s each November.
Anyone is welcome to join Tim’s team of bell ringers, he said. ‘We are known as a friendly tower. We all have a go at ringing, whether you have been here for ages for ages or are a novice. If we were doing bell ringing the old way everyone would have their own bell and women wouldn’t be allowed. You only got to back to the 1970s when there were no women bell ringers, but now we have more female ringers than male ones.
‘Most churches still do it the old way. We just enjoy ourselves. We have a tea break on practice nights and people become good friends – it’s like a club as well. We’re not the best bell ringers there are, we don’t often win the competitions, but the people that come actually enjoy it and to me that’s the most important thing.’
First Published October 2012 By The Dart