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Oxford Chronicles: The Village Bell-Ringers

A pearl-bright morning lit the sky my first Sunday in England as I set out to find the church in the village where I spent my first few days in the UK. A walk down deserted, cobble-grey lanes brought me and a few friends to the open door of the church. The main door, sturdy as fortress gate, was still closed for “choir practice,” so we turned through a narrow entrance to our right, thinking it would lead to the balcony.

But the higher we climbed, the farther went the stair, and the narrower too. Lancet windows let in a cut of light now and then, but the passage narrowed and darkened as we climbed the chipped stairs until we were almost on hands and knees at each step. Go back? Never. The height and mystery egged us on, faster and faster, until, with a startle and stumble, we arrived at a square little room. It was crammed with people. We eight joined eight more, six elderly men and two women, all of whom stared wide-eyed at our accidental intrusion.

The bell pulls looked like caterpillars.

But there was no time to tarry. “Mind your feet,” rasped one old man with a wild halo of grey hair.  “Stand back against the wall!” cried another in a neat, fair isle vest, his pleasant, square face red with excitement. We obeyed in an instant, wondering what was about to fill that little room. The wild-haired man nodded emphatically, catching the eye of his comrades and with a sudden coordinated movement, they were off. And it was music that filled the room, for we had stumbled upon the village bell ringers.

Each held a sturdy rope threading up through a small hole in the plaster and beam ceiling and with jerks of solemn purpose, they now tugged and released. The ropes sprang upward through their hands as the bells above leapt to life and bellowed a Sunday greeting. Rosy in face and panting a little more each minute, the ringers glanced back and forth at each other, eyes quick and lit by their effort.

They began to call, back and forth, with words that sounded to me like sailors guiding a ship, merry sailors steering great bell ships to the port of fine music. “Heave one!” cried the bushy-haired man, his shirt now untucked so that it billowed with every vigorous lift and tug of his arms.

“Now to five,” nod to one corner, “and three,” nod to the the red-faced man, “and four,” nod to an unflurried woman who calmly pulled her bell. “And six,” intoned a round-jowled man with a permanent frown and heavy brows. His expression, the very muscles of his face, seemed immoveable except for the fantastic leap of his eyebrows as he nodded to the next ringer as if to point his hand.

Round and round they all went, brisk, business-like, all self and sinew given to their work until with one great lift of his eyebrows, the serious man cried, “and HOLD!”

The ropes ceased their rodent like dart into the ceiling; the bells swallowed their music and the eight solemn ringers wiped their wet brows.

“Well now,” said the fair isle man, “we don’t ever get visitors. Would you sign our guest book?” He pressed a battered navy notebook with faded names and dates into our hands. I glanced through before I signed and saw that the signatures stretched back forty years. They pressed forward now with a dozen questions as to who we might be.

We peppered them back with kindled curiosity in this rare, tower world into which we had stumbled. They answered back in slow, friendly words, passing a basket of candy round and round the room. The  man with the expressive eyebrows made an eager and kindly host, proffering a binder with countless sequences of six numbers, each a tune or pattern for the bells.

“There are countless permutations,” he rumbled, his face still smileless, but his blue eyes flashing interest with every peek at us they got from under his brows. “We must practice hard once a week… when the village will let us.” He rolled his eyes and the rest of them laughed and the flashing of his eyes seemed almost to provoke a smile. One glance at the clock nipped that in the bud. The time had come for the next round of music and he made a rush for his bell.

“Stand back!” they started again, but this time we needed no prompting.

My eyes roved more freely this time as I stood in stiff-muscled silence in the corner. The room was tiny; we sixteen filled almost every inch, but it was a tower room with a high ceiling and narrow windows sliced through the stone so that the high cool walls were washed in daylight. The sun made a muddy gold of the dust on every surface; books and papers piled on sills, old pictures impossibly crooked on the wall, their frames filled with the proud, sturdy faces of ringers past. On the stone just behind me, I found this framed prayer:

Gracious Lord, source of all skill and beauty, who has entrusted to us the ringing of your bells, give to us the needful skill and grace for the faithful performing of our art, that the sound of the bells may awaken in the hearts of all who hear them the desire to worship you in spirit and in truth: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

This last round of ringing proclaimed the start of service, so we prepared to troop down the stairs lest we be late. Our hands were cordially shaken a dozen times, more candy was pressed upon us, and, if we could ever make it back from our studies, the offer to come of a Monday evening and learn to ring the bells ourselves. If I can ever defeat the mountain of essays to be written, I just might do it. To learn “a needful skill and grace for the faithful performing of my art,” is good practice for writing, for learning. For life. And the fun of joining that merry group would be a gift in itself.

Bless those bell ringers. The Oxford Chronicles: Bod Card


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