A look behind the scenes at Havant church recruiting new bell ringers

Every Sunday morning across the country, the air is filled with the sound of church bells.

Friday, 22nd November 2019, 12:32 pm
Updated Friday, 29th November 2019, 8:38 pm
St Faith's Church in Havant is in need of new bell ringers.

Like a glorious birdsong alarm clock, the bells call worshippers to services and alert those who have slept in that it is time to get up.

This has been the case for hundreds of years – and it’s a tradition that the people behind the music are determined to preserve it for many years to come.

Campanology – the technical name for bellringing and the study of bells – is a quintessential part of British culture.

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Gillian Harris ringing the bells with fellow bell ringers at St Faith's Church, Havant. Picture: Habibur Rahman

From St Mary’s Church in Alverstoke, Gosport, to Portsmouth Cathedral – bellringing is a serious business and an integral part of church life.

But there is always a shortage. St Faith’s Church in Havant –parts of which date back to the 13th century – is appealing for new bellringers to join the team.

On Tuesday nights, a dedicated group meet at the church, in the town centre, to practice ringing in tandem with one another.

The church has eight bells in total, with the heaviest weighing 750kg.

The bells at the top of the tower in St Faith’s Church, Havant. The largest bell, the tenor, sits in the middle.

Bill Skiletter, the captain bell ringer at St Faith’s, started in 1983 when he came back from the Falklands War.

He says: ‘I was 40 when I started bell-ringing and have enjoyed it ever since.

‘There is a great comradeship among us all and we have formed a strong community.

‘But it’s not just Sundays when we ring the bells – we also do weddings, funerals, and will ring the bells in the event of a monarch’s death.’

Christine Guymer, Tony Smith and Robert Smith ringing their bells at St Faith's Church, Havant. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Unlike learning to play a guitar or the piano, being a bell ringer is not necessarily about musical talent.

Instead, Bill says, it’s more of a mathematical affair.

‘The learning process is about learning to control the bell,’ he explains.

‘Doing it for the first time is like driving a car for the first time, there’s a lot to take in and concentrate on.

Bell ringers at St Faith's Churh, Havant. Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘Then you learn to do it in a round with everyone else, before you move into a method, which is our equivalent of tunes.’

Rector Canon Tom Kennar says the bells in the region’s churches create a ‘beautiful’ sound quite unlike anything else.

He says: ‘For us, the bells are such a gift, both to the church and the community.

‘There aren't many scenes more beautiful than a bride and groom stepping out of a church to the sound of the bells ringing behind them.

'Watching them do it, you see their focus and intense concentration.’

Bell ringers come from far and wide to practice together.

Robert English, 80, usually rings the bells in St Mary’s Church in Portchester Castle.

He says: ‘The church in Portchester Castle has three bells, so I come here to ring alongside a bigger group.

‘I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old, so it’s always been a part of my life.

‘My favourite bell is the tenor – it's the largest one and has a great sound to it.

‘But this is also good company, you get to meet other bell ringers from the surrounding area and you’re always learning new things together.’

Robert's practice at Portchester Castle takes place on Mondays, meaning he has more than one place to learn his craft.

In Havant, he practices under the watchful eyes of Bob Wilson, from Langstone.

The 87-year-old is one of the most talented conductors in the region, having taken up ringing at the end of the Second World War.

‘My father got me into it – the vicar said all our bell-ringers died in the war so I took it up in their place.

‘It’s my job to call the changes, like calling for the second and third bells to switch over when we’re ringing.

‘I’ll also call the method, which is the sequence for the bells to ring in.

‘We’re church people and the bells are a crucial part of the church, so it’s a real honour to ring.’

In Portsmouth, there are three churches with bells at the top of their towers – Portsmouth Cathedral in Old Portsmouth, St Mary’s in Fratton and St Agatha’s in Landport.

Gillian Harris, from Havant, says church bells are a representation of how timeless parts of British history can be.

‘Everywhere you go, there are church bells that can be heard,’ she said.

‘Wherever your local church is, if you can ring the bells you find yourself welcomed with open arms.

‘A lot of people start ringing at a young age, but I only picked it up about 10 years ago, you really can start it at just about any age.

‘Like anything else, it does take a lot of practice and there are techniques that you must learn, but once you’ve picked it up you can progress even further.’

But for many churches, there is a pressing need for more bell ringers to join their ranks to keep the future of this ancient skill alive.

Bill from St Faith’s Church says: ‘The need for more bell ringers isn’t a new concern, but rather something that we’ve battled with for a very long time.

‘It’s the case right across the Portsmouth region – you can never have too many bell ringers because pretty much everywhere is currently short of members.

‘A lot of people fall by the wayside because there are a lot of hours that go into doing this.

‘It’s a lot of commitment but when you realise how special it is to be a bell ringer, it becomes so worthwhile.’

To find out more about becoming a bell ringer at St Faith’s Church, call (023) 9249 2129 or pop into the church on Sundays.

Technical terms

As with many niche skills, bellringing has a whole host of terminology for newcomers to learn.

The first thing you are taught is that you don’t play ‘tunes’ but rather, learn a method – the sequence of bells from treble to tenor.

After that, you learn how to hold the rope, and the separate parts; to pull down, you hold on to what’s known as the sally (part of the rope covered in a softer material) with one hand wrapped around the tail of the rope.

There are also different types of performances for bell ringers, split into changes of method or peals.

A quarter peal lasts for roughly 45 minutes, with a full peal taking about three hours, with thousands of changes during that time.

The world record of 21,216 changes is currently held by South Petherton Church, near Yeovil.