ON AN otherwise quiet Tuesday evening, a group of six people, plus myself, climbed the winding staircase to the clocktower of St Mary’s Church, Andover, for the first rehearsal of the bell ringers since March 2020.

As the chimes rang out across the town, the walls and floor gently shook as the historic instruments were awoken once more.

I watched in awe at a process so unknown to me. How many times have I heard church bells, but not stopped to think of the skill and community behind them?

Captain of the bell ringers, Richard Paxford, said: “We had to silence them entirely [last year] because it’s a relatively confined space. We were able to ring for three or four weddings when lockdown eased, but this is the first proper practice back.”

The members were clearly pleased to be back at it. They told me there are six full-time members, plus people helping out from different towers.

Howard Smith said: “We can move from a different town and we are always made welcome.

“It’s good to see familiar faces”.

Richard added: “It’s a very sociable hobby!”

The group began by ringing the bells very close together, as they “wind them up”. At this point, I was warned to stay back and away from the ropes, as the bells could now be controlled, but were no longer in the ‘safe’ position.

“When the bells are wound down, they are safe, but you also can’t control them, so we have to wind them up,” explained Niccy Bull.

“It takes time just to get them up and running. Now they are wound around the wheel it’s more technique.”

The group proceeded to ring the bells in a series of different patterns, known as “change ringing”, skillfully manipulating the heavy ropes - I should know, they let me have a go! - and making a variety of pleasant tunes.

“It’s particular to the UK really,” said Niccy.

“There are some other countries in the world that ring with a full wheel and rope, but there are a lot of countries where they will have a bell that they swing and it crashes around, not particularly musically. That’s why we call it the art of change ringing!”

Although not especially heavy, the bell ringing is complicated and potentially dangerous, and so aspiring ringers must undertake months of practice before they are left unsupervised.

Niccy said: “It takes at least six months before you can handle the rope on your own. You need to be able to want to commit to learning, and then you can join in more.

“Then it can get more complicated if you want it to, or not. It’s like knitting, you can stick to a simple pattern your whole life, or not!”

Howard added: “Some people take to it quicker than others. You don’t need to heave and sweat and pull, not like in cartoons!”

St Mary’s Church was built in 1841, and the tower finished in 1845, but the bells date back to the 1780s because they were previously in the old Norman church.

The members told me they all had different pathways into the hobby, but that bell ringing is a very tight community.

Niccy said: “Some people will get involved because they attend church. Other people may get involved because they lived in a village where they heard them.”

Niccy got involved, first as a hand bell ringer, through a friend whose parents were involved.

“I heard the bells in the village where my grandparents lived and thought they were really nice,” she said.

“I also went to school with the son of the people who were in charge of the bells here at the time, and they also did handbells, so as his friend I came along and started with that.”

Niccy met her now-husband, Michael, through bell ringing at St Mary’s. He had returned home from university and heard the bells and decided to wait outside to meet one of the ringers.

The couple now have four children together, and even made bell-ringing a part of their honeymoon!

“We can go all around the country and be able to join in,” said Niccy.

“We went on our honeymoon to Penzance, and we went along there.”

The longest-serving bell ringer in attendance was David Close, who joined the group in the mid-1960s. He was in the church choir and a group trip to see the tower peaked his interest.

“The practice then clashed with my college, so I lapsed for about 30 years!” he recalled.

“Then I came back in the 90s.”

David said that, as a youngster, he and his sister learned together.

“She got married and moved to America, but she came back to visit about five years ago and hadn’t heard them in years, but within minutes she was ringing.

“It’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget.”

As the peals sounded across the town, I asked the group whether they get used to answering questions about the bells, but it turned out it's quite the opposite.

“We are up a tower out of sight,” said Niccy. “So people wouldn’t know who to ask!”

She continued: “Recently, I was out with some friends and it randomly came up in conversation, and they had no idea!

“In other, smaller, churches, we will ring downstairs in full view of everyone.”

The group rings for weddings and other occasions, and hopes to restart their weekly ringing for Sunday services from Advent Sunday.

For more information about getting involved, call 07719 994 538 or email hello@stmarysandover.org.