Ring out the old, ring in the new

Time was when to open one's front door at midnight on New Year's Eve at Weston-super-Mare was to hear the old gas works' hooter sounding, the competition of steam

Time was when to open one's front door at midnight on New Year's Eve at Weston-super-Mare was to hear the old gas works' hooter sounding, the competition of steam railway engine whistles, and the pealing of church bells. Last year when I went to the door and, with TV gaiety in the background, stuck my head out into the night and looked down on the street lights, all was silent. The New Year came in on tiptoe!The hooter, which throughout the year was a timekeeper for many workers, has long been silent, and the steam railway engine also belongs to the past. The eight bells still hanging in the tower of Weston Parish Church, and the six in Uphill's old church on the hill will be silent, but the time-honoured custom will be maintained at St. Martin's, Worle.In the magnificent church towers dotted around the Somerset and Avon countryside some of the bells will be silent for lack of ringers, but tradition survives so strongly in some villages that if the bells could not be rung for lack of ringers here are old men who would rise from sick beds to give a hand for fear of dire disaster to follow if the tower was silent on New Year's Eve.Campanology, to give bell-ringing its title, is a centuries-old art, and at its best calls for highly skilled teamwork. Practice night down the years was looked upon as a social occasion by the ringers. Ringing is a healthy, even warming exercise, but church towers are notoriously cold and draughty places. It is not surprising that ringers were inclined to take along a drop of something warming to drink in the intoxicant line. At some places they were encouraged to do so by being recompensed for their services not in cash, but in ale.Inevitably on occasions drinking was carried to excess. Ringers regarded themselves as having control of the bell tower and often refused to give up the key. If a parson in a bid to suppress bad behaviour had the lock changed to keep the ringers out, they would change it again!That eccentric archaeologist clergyman, the Rev. John Skinner, who was rector of the rip-roaring Mendip coal-mining village of Camerton in the early 19th century, had much trouble with his ringers on the drink issue. His journal records that when he took this issue up with the tower master, White, he told him that he would give the ringers a Christmas box on condition that they rang the bells for church regularly, but White in reply was impudent."White told me afterwards," he wrote, "that the reason he had not rung for the past two Sundays was that he had gotten drunk Saturday night, and had too bad a headache in the morning to bear the sound of the bells."Some of the huge beer mugs used by the ringers' clubs of old survive. There is one at Beccles, Suffolk on which is inscribed a verse beginning:When I am filled with liquor strongEach man drink once and then ding dong.In some towers ancient boards bearing the ringers' rules survive. In many of them failure to comply could mean a fine in cash or ale or "cyder." The ringers at Dunster had their "articles" drawn up in verse, one of which read:If anyone shall wear his Hat When he is Ringing here,"He straightway then shall Sixpence pay, In Cyder or in Beer.The bells of Lydlinch church, near Sturminster Newton, were the subject of a poem by William Barnes the Dorset dialect poet. Its opening verse reads:When skies were peale wi' twinklen stars, An' whislen air a-risen keen;An' birds did leave the icy bars To vind, in woods, their mossy screen;When vrozen grass, so white's a sheet, Did scrunchy sharp below our veet,An' water, that did sparkle red At zunzet, were a-vrozen dead;The ringers then did spend an hour A-ringen changes up in tow'r;Vor Lydlinch bells be good vor sound, An' liked by all the neighbours round.That great naturalist, Gilbert White, in his History of Selbourne, relates how in 1725 when a new "ring" of bells was hung in the parish church, the treble bell was filled with strong liquor to celebrate the occasion. The sound of church bells pealing into the night is not welcomed by everybody in a parish. There are those who prefer undisturbed peace, and an olden day parish clerk of St. Peter's, Norwich, went so far as to express himself strongly in verse:Ye rascally ringers, inveterate foes, Disturbers of those who are fond of repose,I wish for the peace and quiet of these lands, That ye had round your necks what ye pull with your hands!Astonishing records of long service have been recorded by bell-ringers, and there have been tragedies in towers because some old ringers persisted in taking part when they were no longer in a fit state of health to do so. One such tragedy is recorded by the following epitaph:Near to this place John Webster fell, Beloved by all who knew him well;He closed the peal, struck well the bell, Ceasing the same, down dead he fell.Equally if not more fascinating than the stories linked with the art of ringing are those concerning the bell-makers.Many bells have inscriptions that in themselves amount to a history of bell-making, and tell of the hopes of their makers, the generosity of their donors, and even something of the rivalry there used to be in the work of re-casting.In this area the most noted former-day makers of church bells were the Bilbies, of Chew Stoke. It has been said of the Bilbies that some of the inscriptions on their bells were more suited to the pothouse than to a church, but they achieved some very fine work.Bilbie bells are to be found in church towers all over Somerset, and a branch of the family made over 300 for Devon churches. Strange legends surround the Bilbie bell-makers. Of the six bells in the tower of Uphill old church four were cast by William Bilbie in 1775, and bear the name of Thomas Knyfton, a church warden of the time. One bell is inscribed:I to the church the living call And to the grave doth summon all.This is a common inscription that was put on bells at Banwell, Winscombe, Locking and other places in the district. A Thomas Bilbie bell was hung in Kewstoke's tower in 1748, and another Bilbie creation at Churchill has the endearing inscription: "Although my waise (waist) is small I will be heard amongst you all. Sing my jolly sisters. Ed. Bilbie casted me, 1722."Examples of the Bilbie self-advertisement were placed on bells at Axbridge, Winscombe, and Bleadon, and a Mark tenor bell dated 1727 blatantly proclaims:Come here brother founders and here you may see What sort of workman young Bilbie may bee.Hele challenge all England for casting a bell Who will be the workman can be but dun well.Legend describes the Bilbies as wild looking men with long hair who could scarcely read or write, who would never cast a bell except when it was full moon, midnight, and conditions perfectly still. There is still a Bilbie House near the site of their foundry at Chew Stoke, and it is suggested that the reason Chew Stoke has amazingly criss-cross roads is because a sort of bypass was constructed so that silence in making bells would not be disturbed by travellers on horseback or by carriages passing the foundry.The Bilbies, it is said, would never disclose the secret of what they put in their mould when making a bell. One day their sister, while they had gone off to have a drink is supposed to have found the metal just right for casting and to have made a perfect bell. But her brothers were not pleased. They did not think any woman should be given the credit for casting a maiden bell, and smashed it.Church bells, it will be recalled, were ordered not to be rung during the Second World War except as a warning of invasion. An exception was made in November, 1942, to celebrate the great victory in the Battle of Egypt. Never had church bells sounded so gloriously and happily for us. Later there followed the even more joyously heard peals that marked decisive triumph over the Nazi menace.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on December 30, 1977

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