Ringing the changes

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

The ringing of the magnificent Buckfast Abbey bells has been much missed during the many months of lockdown.

An integral part of life for the monastic community, the congregation of the Abbey Church, tourists and of course, the volunteers who ring them, the bells have been silent for longer than those at many other churches. This is because ringing traditionally stops at the Abbey during Lent before joyfully pealing on Easter Sunday. This year, the abrupt ending of the ringers’ schedule when the national shutdown came in March, means the Buckfast bells have not been heard since Sunday, 16th February.

The Warden and Site Manager of Buckfast Abbey, Geoff Pring, a keen campanologist, says: “From the eighth century onwards, the primary purpose of ringing church bells has been to call the faithful to prayer, but in an age without timepieces, bells were crucial to daily life. They were also used to mark saints’ days, the accession or death of a monarch and emergencies, such as imminent invasion. Bell ringing remains part of village life and this is no exception at Buckfast Abbey.

‘I took up ringing around five years ago, joining a mixed group of volunteers, from villages and towns far and wide who ring the Abbey bells on various Sundays and at different times through the year, to celebrate particular dates in the church and monks’ calendars. The ringing enhances the liturgy of the church, while at the same time reaffirming its presence at the heart of the community: ‘We are here’, the bells proclaim.”

According to the lavishly illustrated book, Buckfast Abbey: History, Art and Architecture (edited by Peter Beacham), published to mark the Abbey’s Millennium in 2018, the church had at least five bells at its dissolution in 1539.These were bought by Buckfastleigh residents for the nearby parish church and remain there still.

The modern-day Abbey has 15 bells including the largest, a huge Bourdon bell named Hosanna. Weighing nearly eight tons, it was cast by John Taylor and Co of Loughborough and arrived in procession on Lady Day, March, 1936.

The bells are arranged so that a peal (or set) of 12 bells can be rung at one time. There is also scope for a 10-bell peal, with four types of eight bells, three major tones and one minor. This is usually only used in Advent and Lent. The Hosanna is rung by itself to mark the great festivals of the church, and although it has not been heard much this year because of the pandemic, it has been silent for longer in recent history. During the Second World War, it was quiet for two years before a joyful peal in 1942 to mark Allied victory at El Alamein, a turning point in the conflict.

Geoff says: “This is one of the heaviest ringing bells you will find anywhere. It is in the middle of the bell chamber, near the top of the tower. When the bells were first hung, one of the monks described Hosanna as ‘like some great hen with her chickens all around her, looking to the strong mother for protection and the cluck of encouragement.’

‘The bell itself is relatively easy to ring, in that the huge counterbalance on the clapper, the piece in the middle which strikes the bell, assists in the process. At almost a ton on its own, the sheer weight of the clapper is something to behold, especially when you consider that it’s bigger than most village bells.”

One of the monks at the Abbey, Fr Gabriel, recollects how ringing was undertaken when he first arrived in 1947. “At that time, all monks learned to ring as part of their duties. As well as ringing for Mass, they had to ascend the long spiral staircase a few other times a day to chime the bells to call their brothers to prayer, a bit like a factory hooter summoning workers to clock on.”

The chiming involved pulling ropes arranged across a wall so that the bells were struck rather than rung. Fr Gabriel recalls speaking to some of the monks who had been ringing before the 1930s when the tower was extended, and the bells housed higher up. Before that time, ringing took place around the viewing gallery halfway up the present tower, beside a low stone wall and with a sheer drop of 100ft to contend with.

Geoff continues: “As amazing and inspiring as the Abbey bells are themselves, it is surely the actual ringing of them which we all miss. The absence of ringing from our Churches robs many of the opportunity to socialise with like-minded individuals and often the ringers are connected to their village churches in many other ways.

‘Ringing provides that opportunity to share a passion, to learn a new skill, but also to be part of the church itself. It is sad to think that for many months, funerals and weddings have taken place in such a low key way, with an absence of bells, choirs and organs.”

Recently the Abbey has been a forerunner in using technology to enable people to hear and interpret ringing from the comfort of their own homes and without the need to climb the hundred or so steps up the winding staircase in the church tower. In 2018, technology was installed in the church and tower to enable the broadcast of the many major services held during that year of celebration. For the first time, this meant that it was also possible to stream the ringing of the Abbey bells and the sight of ringers themselves. This was put to good use for the inaugural Buckfast Abbey Bell Ringing Festival in August of that year. Visitors were able to make the connection between the sound of the bells and the ringers pulling ropes in the chamber below.

The festival attracted thousands of visitors who came to hear the bells, have a go at ringing on one of two ‘mini rings’ and hear the simultaneous ringing of both the Abbey bells and those of the former parish church in Buckfastleigh, Holy Trinity. Buckfast Abbey was featured on BBC Spotlight for two nights, including once with a flare let off by Dartmoor Rescue on the top of the tower as a signal to commence the ringing of the two towers.

Over the past two years, the technology has continued to be used, with many of the peals rung to mark days of celebration live-streamed on social media. This has sparked interest from around the world and many ringers have been quick to offer practical advice on technique. Since March, live streaming has also been used to broadcast services to worshippers in the absence of public services.

So, where does the current situation leave ringing now? Geoff concludes: “With the prospect of even tighter restrictions, it would seem that it will be some time yet before our villages arise to the greeting of their churches on a Sunday morning or the sometimes-tuneful practices on weekday evenings.

‘What is sure is that there will be a dedicated band of volunteers waiting to ring the bells. I hope, like me, they can imagine ringing again as being like riding a bike and remember what to do!”

Local Life