Bell ringing practice for Rembrance Ringing
This year we want to focus on our contribution to “Ringing for Peace: Armistice 100", which is the nationwide bellringers’ contribution to commemorating the final year of the First World War and the Armistice.
Patrons: Eileen Harrison-Topham, Richard Craven-Smith-Milnes and Rodney Tennant
Dedicated to the memory of Corporal John Sarginson, Thomas Sarginson and Harold Collinson, Middleham ringers devoted to their bells who gave their lives in the Great War.
Our fantastic volunteers had previously transformed the belfry by painting the walls with lime wash as well as cleaning and painting the massive steel frame in which the bells hang. The bell ringers are delighted that the bells now swing easily and smoothly, ensuring we hope that they will remain ringable for a further hundred years before major maintenance is again required.
The bells were re-hung in time for a peal to be rung on 1 June 2018 to mark the centenary of the death in the First World War of Middleham bell ringer Private Thomas Sarginson. Private Sarginson was killed at the age of 30 and left a widow, Elizabeth Alice Sarginson, whom he had married in 1916. At the time of the 1911 census, he was a travelling greengrocer, selling his goods from a horse and cart.
The peal was rung beautifully in a time of 3 hours and 3 minutes by a visiting team of expert ringers from the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers on a perfect English summer’s afternoon. It was moving in this sublime and peaceful setting to contemplate the pain and sacrifice of Private Sarginson and so many others. (Photograph of Private Sarginson courtesy of the Craven Community Project website).
The re-hanging of the bells has been possible by virtue of the hard work and generosity of many. It has been a great example of community teamwork. The public appeal was launched on 24th March 2017 with a music-and-food event at the church. The music was kindly provided by Musicality, a ladies choir based in Richmond, and ukulele group The Yoredale Strummers, to both of which we are extremely grateful. The event was hard work and many contributed to its success: publicity was organised; utensils and containers were begged, borrowed and purchased; food was prepared, heated and served; wine was bought and then sold; raffle prizes were donated and raffle tickets were sold; furniture was moved; dirty crockery and cutlery were washed; money was given, collected, counted and banked; and everything restored afterwards to its rightful place.
After the launch event, other fund raising events were organised - and were supported by local people. An astonishing amount of money was donated in a short time, enabling the church to pay for the indispensable work of Taylors bell foundry.
A photographic collage of the launch event.
Thank you so much to everybody who has given of their money, labour or both. Whatever your contribution, the bell ringers are hugely grateful. Our special thanks go to the belfry volunteers, who over the period of the project have given more than 750 hours of their time.
The dismounting and re-hanging of the bells on their new bearings has occupied merely a small part of the time expended on the restoration work. The greater part of the time and effort has gone into the very hard graft of cleaning the bell frame, and painting it firstly with a rust-resistant coating and secondly a beautiful red top coat. The original bearings leaked oil, which had to be continually replenished, and the accumulation of oil and dust over many years resulted in a sticky black coating over the entire surface of the massive frame. It proved to be extremely hard work to remove the dirt coating but it was found that the most effective technique was to brush it with Co-op cat litter using a wire brush.
The belfry walls were greatly improved by coating with limewash, which serves to inhibit dust and grit from falling off the walls and onto the bell mechanisms. By cleaning and painting the frame ourselves, we saved about £7,000 that it would have cost to have the work professionally undertaken.
The volunteers also saved money by assisting the professional bell hanger with his work, which involved dismounting the bells from their 1911 bearings, separating each bell from its heavy steel “headstock” that serves to carry the bell in the bearings, and lowering the headstocks to the ground for return to the Loughborough foundry where new bearings were fitted. Then the procedure had to be reversed when the restored headstocks had been returned from the foundry.
The belfry workers: Shown from left to right are Steve Fowler, Simon Burren, Jonathan Couchman, Colin Gouck, Mike Warden, Steve Byford and James Lundie. Simon is the brilliant engineering officer of the Committee and work leader. Jonathan Couchman, Committee Chairman, did little work in the belfry.
So far we have completed two phases of the project, but a third is planned:
Refurbish the clappers
Replace the bearings and the pulleys (pulleys not shown on diagrams)
Improve tower interior, including modifying louvres to stop ingress of rain & snow, modify or replace access to belfry and clock to improve safety, install radiant heaters.
To donate, please click here (download).
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Bells were wonderfully popular in England from Saxon times onwards, gaining for it the reputation of the “Ringing Island”. But it is from the time of the Reformation that the most truly English of all bell-ringing activities, “change ringing, came into being. It is the most tuneful, technically difficult and popular of all uses to which bells have been put. “Change ringing” is to change the sequence in which the bells are rung while ringing them.
Our parish has two churches with bells for change ringing, namely Middleham and East Witton, and a single band of friendly ringers to ring the bells. To find out more, follow the links on the left.
Upon a Ring of Bells
Bells have wide mouths and tongues, but are too weak,
Have they not help, to sing, or talk, or speak.
But if you move them they will mak't appear,
By speaking they'll make all the Town to hear.
When Ringers handle them with Art and Skill,
They then the ears of their Observers fill,
With such brave Notes, they ting and tang so well
As to out strip all with their ding, dong, Bell.
John Bunyan, 1686
We have a single band of friendly and committed ringers to ring the bells of East Witton and Middleham churches. We ring for as many Sunday services as possible, with most of us ringing for a single service each Sunday but some ringing for services at both churches. Of course, there are other occasions to ring for, notably weddings, and we meet for weekly practices. Occasionally, we travel to another tower to ring or have a social event without ringing, such as our annual dinner.
Not all of our bellringers attend church services, though many do and for many the main purpose of ringing is to call parishioners to worship. There’s an inscription in a Devon church which explains it all:
"That folk may come to church in time, I chime;
When pleasure’s on the wing, I ring;
To speed the parting soul, I toll."
Bell ringing always starts with ringing ‘Rounds’, that is the highest tuned bell (the Treble) rings first and then down the scale to the bell with the lowest note (the Tenor). We will then change the order of the bells by swapping the position of at least one bell with a bell ringing either immediately before it or immediately after it. In this way, the bells ring in changing order to create the evocative sound of English bell ringing. The same bell cannot ring twice in immediate succession, and each bell can change position only by moving one position up or down the sequence, and for this reason ordinary tunes cannot be rung – with rare exceptions.
We practice at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesdays. We practice at Middleham on Wednesdays: on the last Wednesday of the month we have a full practice at 7.30 but otherwise we have an improvers practice at 8.00 p.m. If you are not a regular member of the band, please use the contact details below to check in advance.
The Middleham bells are due to be out of commission for restoration from about Monday 19 March 2018 to about Friday 18 May 2018.
Almost anybody can learn to ring bells, from the age of about 10 upwards. That is not to say that ringing is easy: it requires physical skill (not necessarily strength) and concentration to ring the bells in the right sequence and at the right time. It can provide a lifelong hobby that always leaves more to learn. Ringing gives the body a gentle work out and the mind a more demanding one: it is therefore good for health and for maintaining mental faculties with age. As well as gaining all this, by ringing bells you preserve part of our living heritage.
Bellringers are a friendly lot and, if you learn to ring, you will be made welcome at any bellringing tower that you go to.
If you are interested in learning to ring bells, please get in touch via the contact details below.
Each of the bells of Middleham Church, cast in 1911 by John Taylor & Co, bears an inscription identifying the donor. The inscriptions are recorded in the Inscription Book of John Taylor & Co, from which the following are reproduced:
Bell 1 (Treble)
We are cast to the Glory of God
Grace Topham Gave Me
For God and the King I Ring
In memory of Edward Clough Topham
Sophie Gave Me
I call to Prayer
In memory of Ann Topham
Nephew and Niece Gave Me
I call to Worship
Jim and May Birch Gave Me
St Alkelda’s Name I Keep
The Parish Gave Me
H.G. Topham Rector
Henry Pauli Churchwarden
A Eyles Churchwarden
What I Gave I Have
John Breare Gave Me 1824
Hear my Voice, O God!
Harry and Edith Topham Gave Me
Bell 8 (tenor)
Time Passes, God Calls
Lupton and Joan Topham Gave Me
Reflections on Middleham Bells by Nigelle Munro 1999
Important events in the lives of people and nations have always been marked by the sound of bells, joyous peals for celebration and tolling for mourning. During the last war the ringing of church bells was to have been warning of a German invasion - happily, this was never necessary. In Middleham and East Witton we have fine peals of bells and dedicated ringers. We shall be able to celebrate the millennium in fine style.
I have been lent a treasure. The family of the late Harry Parrish, a notable bellringer for fifty-eight years and captain of the Guild of Middleham Bellringers since the end of the First World War, have entrusted me, a mere incomer, only resident for a paltry ten years ,with Harry's notebook. This treasure is full of yellowed press cuttings, cards to commemorate 5040 changes of grandsire triples, old photographs and lists compiled by Harry. It ends with the press reports of his death on February 23rd. 1968.
From this collection, I have learned that the earliest mention of Middleham bells is 1640, when one of the two bells was recast. A note in the Parish Register of 1684 states that: “The great bell was cast the 28th day of August and was hung the 11th of September”. So in the 18th. century services were announced by three bells. In 1824, John Breare, Esq. gave a ring of six bells and a local humourist produced this rather less than elegant verse:
Oh, Middleham is a pleasant place and seated by a moor
Where they train horses for to race that never raced before.
But in the winter time, it's often cold and dreary
So now they've got six bells to chime, put up by Mr Breary.
Our present peal of eight bells are the gift of the Rev. H.G. Topham and other members of his family. Like the bells of York Minster they were supplied by Messrs. Taylor and in June of 1911 the Bishop of Knaresborough came to dedicate them. The ringers, who at that time were famous and very active and claimed record performances of such mysteries as Kent Treble Bob Major, 5056 changes, which would have rocked the tower, were in fact putting themselves in danger. When Mr Breare's bells were installed nearly a hundred years earlier, they were hung on two huge base beams, which had supported the three old bells. The beams were decayed at the ends, so they were "spliced and bolted”. By 1911, when Taylors came to install the new bells, “the old bell frame on removal was found to be very decayed and the joints on the weather side of the tower quite perished”. It was indeed fortunate for Harry and the rest of the Guild that this state of affairs was discovered in time.
Harry joined the ringers when he was 16. One of his lists names 42 churches which he visited. He rang 12 times at West Hartlepool, and in all, he made 324 visits to churches, mostly in Yorkshire, which gives some idea how well-known was the Middleham Guild in the area. Also they were renowned for their skill with handbells and had the honour of performing before Neville Chamberlain when he was staying at Swinton Castle. After his death in 1940, a letter conveys the ex-premier's wife's thanks for their sympathy.
Middleham is a source of endless fascination. From a shabby exercise book names and faces, some of the faces well known but rather younger, and facts and stories of a Middleham that was quieter, smaller but still the same in essence. I wish I had met Harry, but his smiling face behind those big glasses, and the notes and cuttings he treasured, bring back something of the character of a man who loved and worked for our town and earned the respect of visitors and locals alike.
There have been bells in East Witton for at least a couple of centuries. To be sure, the old church in Lowthorpe had no tower, only a bell turret and when this church was demolished in 1809 its two bells were, it is said, sold to a new church then being built in Cottingham. Are they still there? Almost their last ring here must have been when "mischievous youngsters climbed up the outside, tingled (sic) the bells and were pursued by Miss Howson, the Vicar's daughter".
In recent years, thanks largely to the enthusiasm, patience and skill of Mr Tom Oakshott, the sound of church bells has once more become a regular feature in East Witton and also in Middleham. Most people seem to be glad of this and to have enjoyed the peals which welcomed the new millennium. There are, of course, a few dissentient voices ranging from the well-meaning ("What a blessing the wind blows mainly from the west"), and the disingenuous ("Bells? What bells?”) to the acid ("Oh, I like bells - when they're rung properly”). We ringers are, however, on a learning curve and must crave indulgence. What was written in the Parish Magazine of January 1947 is equally true today:-
"Our team of ringers is advancing. Not content with ‘ringing round’ and 'call changes’ they are now tackling change-ringing proper and working hard at methods."
Change-ringing was practised, remarkably enough, from the time in 1812 when the bells were hung as a gift of the Marquis of Ailesbury. In this respect East Witton was the leader in the district. This was due to one William Tebbs who came from Leeds to work on the building of the present church. He taught the first band of ringers and later became noted as a composer of methods.
The bells are dated 1809 and, like most of the bells of any size in the neighbourhood, bear the name of T. Mears of London. Other, larger, places had their ring of six bells earlier, Richmond in 1739, Bedale 1755, Masham 1766 and Northallerton in 1802. Middleham followed some fifteen years after East Witton. East Witton's are by far the lightest and the magazine of May 1912 asserts rather snootily, "as weight adds to the beauty of tone, they are hardly worthy of the noble tower or of its tradition as pioneer of change-ringing in Wensleydale”. Ringers today may not altogether agree with this, but they will agree, if somewhat diffidently, with these trenchant words written in the magazine of January 1914: "Bell-ringing is a service of both sacrifice and effort. Each member of the peal has to feel that there is a call to him for practice and for sacrifice. It is an office in which none can be spared." So next time you hear a clash, remember: Don't shoot the bell-ringers - they are doing their best!
If the above note about bells and bell-ringers gave the impression that the belfry is a place of solemn and earnest endeavour with no scope for fun, perhaps a few words about the lighter side may be in order. Certainly, though the ringing itself demands total concentration and co-operation, there is no shortage of laughter and the atmosphere in the belfry sometimes resembles that of a rather unruly classroom.
Occasionally this is provoked by visitors, for example the couple who asked if they could join in saying, by way of apology that they had only some forty-five years' experience. They then proceeded to ring with astonishing accuracy and to bark out orders with such rapidity and in such rich Devonian accents as to throw us into complete and hilarious chaos. Or the American who burst in, demanded to have a go, seized a rope, gave it a confident but ill-advised yank and was at once swept off his feet and almost into orbit. Or again the lady who, having listened with increasing contempt to my explanation of the mechanics of bell-ringing, retorted "What a waste of man-power. In Germany we have a switch”.
There must have been much merriment when the bells first came. As the Parish Magazine of May 1812 records: "The bells arrived when Mr. C. Bucktin was at dinner, but dinner was forgotten in his eagerness to see them. The treble bell was turned upside down and it became a loving-cup for the nonce. It was filled with beer and doubtless the ringers drank success to the bells and those who would manipulate them." The first peal was rung, understandably some little time later, on August 7th, 1812. The bells had cost about £400. The cost of the beer is not recorded.
Over the following years there must have been many outings for the ringers. Here is the magazine's account of the one which in 1910 took the form of an excursion to Blackpool. "A pleasant day was spent notwithstanding the rain which fell heavily in the afternoon. Unfortunately aviation was impossible and our East Witton folks had an additional disappointment in consequence. We must evidently wait a little longer before we get a sight of the flying men. Possibly, however, we may have aviation so common in the future that these graceful machines may be found startling the curlews on Witton Fell." I shall think of that when the next Tornado startles me on Witton Fell!
We are left to guess how the ringers overcame their disappointment but the passage ends with just a hint of pious reproof. "We hear that the return journey was not accomplished till 2 a.m. - a time certainly when all good East Witton folk (except the Bellringers) were in bed."
Finally, in answer to the lady who considers Middleham's ringers to be better than East Witton's, we are in fact one and the same team. This is, after all, a united parish!