Inside the bell chamber at St James, Bushey

Ring Out Wild Bells

20th June 2014

One of the more ‘appealing’ events on the Bushey Festival calendar is the opportunity to go up the 15th century tower of the parish church, St James, watch a bell-ringing demonstration, try your hand at the ropes yourself and then go right up to the roof to enjoy the best view for miles around.

Bells have rung out over Bushey for more than five hundred years, but there’s a risk that they may soon fall silent. Jill Glenn meets the St James Tower Captain, Sue Morton, and hears about the race against time to save them.

Sue Morton, Tower Captain

It’s not unknown to have a female Tower Captain, but it’s certainly less common. Sue Morton, now 48, has only been in charge of the team of ringers at St James, Bushey, for a couple of years (although she was Tower Secretary for 20 years before that)… but it was almost inevitable that the job would come her way one day.

Sue has been ringing since she was a child of nine or ten, and it’s something of a tradition in her family. She’s descended from generations of ringers, and met her husband Guy, who’s now the Steeple Keeper at Bushey, through bellringing. “In fact, she adds, “My father met my mother ringing, my sister met her husband ringing and my son met his wife ringing.”

The eight Bushey bells are rung by around a dozen volunteers, whose ages range from 20s to 80s. They train once a week and ring twice on a Sunday, often with the input of guest ringers. It’s quite a common occurrence for Bushey ringers to be guesting at other towers, while incomers are welcomed here. Sue herself travels to other venues; recently she rang at Canterbury Cathedral, and while she appreciated the gravitas, she loves to come back to her home tower.

Bushey used to be a really strong team, and, despite the practical difficulties it’s currently facing, of which more later, it’s still “a very well-known tower for bellringing”. Sue’s proud to be able to say that she is its captain, and proud to have “one of the most famous ringers in the world” in her team: Roger Baldwin, now in his 70s, has rung thousands of peals, composed new methods (the name given to the mathematical sequence of changes that creates the distinctive sound of English bellringing), taught countless numbers of young ringers and is, according to Sue, “an exceptionally good ringer.” This willingness to give credit – she speaks warmly of all her ringers – illustrates one of the things she says she likes most about bellringing: the sense of community. “It’s the ultimate team… from a binman to a judge, everyone is equal, with the Tower Captain in charge. It’s very welcoming, very accepting: it doesn’t matter what you look like, or how you dress.”

Men outnumber women as bellringers, especially in the older generation, and most ringers are in their 50s and 60s. “It’s difficult to get a commitment from the younger generation,” Sue explains. “They like the idea, they especially like the idea of ringing at weddings and being paid for it, but they shy away from turning out on a Sunday morning, or coming to practice week in, week out.”

Bellringing is a fascinating, challenging hobby that certainly keeps the body fit and the brain active, although you don’t, surprisingly, need to be musical. “I am the most unmusical person there is,” Sue says, “but it doesn’t matter. You just need to be able to count from one to eight.” (Or, in bigger towers, to 12, and even, at St Martin’s, in the Bullring, Birmingham, to 16.)

St James would like to be able to recruit more volunteers – but the bells, although they themselves are sound, are now becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The fittings and bearings are wearing out, and there is significant frame movement because the supporting structure is inadequate and members are too slender for the forces they must bear. Without attention the bells may become unringable, and the tower will no longer call the faithful to prayer, announce weddings or mark special occasions of national importance.

Modern materials and techniques will make a vast difference, but the work will cost in the region of £90,000. Around half of that has been raised in six months, through donations and grants, but there is still much fund-raising to be done. Sue hopes to be able to implement the restoration this coming winter, when there are fewer weddings; the bells will be out of action for three months, while Whites of Appleton, the oldest continuously trading bellhanging company in the country, undertakes the project.

Bell No 7, cast c1450

The highest toned bell in a tower is known as the treble; the lowest the tenor, and those in between are numbered. At St James, the treble and tenor, along with bells two, three and four, were cast in the 1880s; numbers five and six in 1664 (just before the Great Fire of London, to give a historical context) and number seven in around 1450, when Henry VI was on the throne and the The Hundred Years' War not yet over. It’s thought that this bell may have been cast in the churchyard itself.

As part of the restoration number seven will be repaired, and all the others will be tuned to fit round it. The tenor will be completely replaced – “it just doesn’t fit, musically” – and other major maintenance will be carried out. The bells will hang in a new frame, mounted on a secure grillage as a foundation. All the fittings will be renewed – that’s wheels, bearings, stays, sliders, clappers and pulleys – and the medieval bells with cannons will be mounted in modern cannon-retaining headstocks.

The bells were rehung in the 1970s, but the current crisis proves that ‘patch and mend’ is not adequate in the long run. The aim now is to create a ring of bells that will serve Bushey for the next hundred­ years or more with little attention…

See to donate, or email Sue on to find out more.

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