Art of campanology in danger if church prevents use of lighter bells to encourage women and children

Bell ringers have warned that the sound of peeling bells could become a lost art form after a church judge ruled against the installation of lighter ones at an ancient Lincolnshire church.

Campaigners had wanted to install smaller and lighter bells at the church of St Nicholas in Haxey, in order to encourage women and children who find heavier bells hard to ring to take up the activity. 

The current peel of 6 bells, some of which pre-date the Reformation, weigh up to 2,000lbs,  twice as much as a standard church bells.

St Nicholas’s ringers say the current weight and hanging of their church’s bells means “even the lighter three bells present serious handling challenges”. 

In a bid to make the art of bell ringing a more accessible and inclusive activity they petitioned the Church of England’s Consistory Court in Lincoln asking for permission to install a set of four lighter bells at the church, which dates back 900 years and is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

A Picture Post photo essay from 1949 shows Garnham Blaxall pursuing "the unusual hobby of bell ringing" at Lavenham Church in Suffolk
A Picture Post photo essay from 1949 shows Garnham Blaxall pursuing “the unusual hobby of bell ringing” at Lavenham Church in Suffolk CREDIT: RAYMOND KLEBOE/PICTURE POST/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

The St Nicholas ringers stated: “The weight of the bells is providing a constraint on the growth of the team. Three learners who are women can only be taught on the lightest treble bell and will only progress onto the second bell.”

But a judge has turned down the request, saying the changes to the building required to fit the smaller bells would outweigh the benefits. 

The Reverend and Worshipful Chancellor His Honour Judge Mark Bishop also cited fears that installing an additional set of bells would require the existing hammers and bell cranks to be reset. 

Judge Bishop said that if not done properly this could potentially damage the ancient carillon, a musical instrument featuring 23 cast bronze bells which are played in chromatic order to create a melody. 

The Diocesan Advisory Committees (DAC) also warned against possible alterations to St Nicholas’ carillon, which dates back to 1680 and is of a distinct local design.

But campaigners argue that similar changes in churches around the country would help make bell ringing accessible for those lacking physical strength, such as women and teenagers.

Simon Meyer, of The Ancient Society of College Youths – which promotes church bell ringing – said: “If young people aren’t able to learn the tradition of bell ringing, the tradition will struggle to continue.”

Mr Meyer refuted the court’s concerns that the introduction of four lighter bells would render the four most ancient and heaviest bells obsolete.

He said that “without a new stream of people coming in”, which the lighter bells would encourage, “none of the bells will be used”.

Mr Meyer – who introduced his children to bell ringing at the age of four – described the debate as one between “ethicacy and history”,  and said the court’s ruling could make it harder for bell ringing to become more inclusive. 

“In my personal opinion, there is a tendency to be very sympathetic to history, but there are definitely ways of incorporating history into modernity,” said Mr Meyer, adding that he believed four new, lighter, bells could be installed at St Nicholas without compromising the overall sound. “It’s been done plenty of times before. Bellhangers know what they’re doing,” he said.

Main image copyright: Jeff Gilbert/Telegraph

Written by: Madeleine McDonald &Patrick Sawer,

First published 25.01.20:

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