The bells in our church have been rung regularly since they were first installed by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1896, apart, that is, from the time during World War II when bell ringing was completely suspended. During that time bells were to be rung only as a signal of enemy invasion, so it was not a sound people wanted to hear!
On the evening of Monday16th March the St George’s bell ringers met for their usual practice, but instead of ringing, those of us who were present decided it would be wise to discuss what we should do about ringing during the situation brought about by the Covid-19 virus. All sorts of restrictions were already beginning to affect ordinary, everyday life. We agreed that in the interest of social distancing we should suspend our weekly practices, but considered that those willing and able (some of us are over seventy and thus at higher risk) would attempt to maintain ringing for Sunday morning services. We have the facilities and provisions to enable hand washing (so important if handling bell ropes now cleanliness is absolutely essential) and our very large ringing room enables us to keep further apart when ringing than in most other towers. There was a feeling that the sound of the bells, in addition to being the usual call to worship, would remind of the presence of the Church and maintain morale at a time of national crisis. Nevertheless, we still had reservations – was this the appropriate action to be taking? Less than twenty-four hours later the decision was rather taken out of our hands; The Church of England suspended all services and events. With no services to ring for there was no alternative but to suspend all ringing until further notice.
Bell ringing is a very social activity, probably engendered by the team effort required to achieve a satisfactory standard of ringing. There are not many bell ringers who remember the war time ban, but records reveal that members of the various diocesan guilds and county associations continued to meet socially. For those who had the necessary skill, change ringing could be enjoyed on handbells. There was also plenty to discuss; how were people managing from day to day? There was news, such as was available, of ringers serving abroad in the armed forces, and the disheartening reports of the loss of rings of bells owing to enemy bombing raids. In all, forty rings of bells were lost, including the famous bells of St Mary-le-Bow, St Giles Cripplegate and St Clement Danes. Other losses occurred in such places as Liverpool, Plymouth, Southampton and Great Yarmouth. Fortunately, many of these rings were subsequently restored in the post-war period, but it took decades.
Though we shall not lose any rings of bells, the present suspension is considerably more far reaching in other ways: Church services, at which we could meet, are no longer taking place, we are not able to continue to gather, even socially, as was at least possible in war time. We are now isolated in a way we have not experienced ever before. Through the various forms of social media, the St George’s ringers will be able to stay in touch, but it won’t be the same – we shall miss each other’s company.
The bells are normally left it what is known as the “up” position, ready for ringing, but as they are now unlikely to be rung for some time, have been lowered into the “down” position. The ringing required to do this (only a few minutes) was logged in the register we keep of the ringing that takes place. As I was completing the details, the ball-point pen we have used for what seems quite a while ran out as I attempted to write the words “ringing suspended” – though the situation is temporary, this seemed to represent the uncertainty as to when we shall be able to resume ringing. It will be a very special day when the bells of St George’s are heard again, and for which we will give thanks to the God who they have called us to worship for so long.