The Taxal bell ringers - keeping the Peak alive with the sound of music
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 August 2016
Mike Smith travels to the hamlet of Taxal near Whaley Bridge to meet the bell ringers who are keeping the Peak alive with the sound of music
Ever since the 11th century, when bells were first installed in Christian churches, they have been used to call people together for services and for other important events. At weddings and christenings their chimes are a joyful announcement of new beginnings whereas their tolling at funerals is a mark of respect for lives well spent. Church bells welcome Christmas, mark Easter, herald the New Year and are the soundtrack for many significant moments in our history. In recent times, church bells have been rung throughout the land to announce the start of the London Olympics and to celebrate HM The Queen’s 90th birthday.
The chiming of church bells is an unmistakable part of the British way of life, with many people in the country living within hearing range of their local bells. When the bells ring out from the ancient tower of the Church of St James in the little tucked-away hamlet of Taxal, their glorious sound carries to the nearby town of Whaley Bridge and their chimes reverberate around the Goyt Valley and echo across the surrounding hills of the High Peak.
St James’s Church had only three bells until the early years of the 20th century, when the parishioners decided to increase the number to six. One of the original 16th-century bells was beyond repair, but is still preserved in the belfry; the remaining two were recast and joined by four new bells, fashioned from an alloy of copper and tin. The six Taxal bells are rung regularly by a dedicated team of enthusiasts, all of whom are determined to keep alive the ancient art of bell ringing in their little hamlet.
Victoria Shelmerdine, who lives a short distance from the church with her husband and their two boys, became a member of the Taxal bell-ringing team four years ago. She said, ‘During one of my frequent visits to tend to the grave of our daughter, who had sadly died shortly after being born, I saw a notice on the door of the church asking for new bell ringers. I decided that I would like to volunteer my services, not only because I thought it would be good to acquire a new skill, but also because I liked the idea of helping to perpetuate a tradition and I felt that joining the group might be a good way of contributing to the spirit of the local community.’
Four years on, Victoria is the secretary of the Taxal bell-ringing team and also their social secretary. She helps to organise the group’s social events, such as meals at local pubs and restaurants, visits to the theatre and exchanges with other bell ringing teams. Victoria says, ‘Since joining the group, I have found that bell ringing is a great way of keeping fit. What’s more, our weekly practices are really enjoyable, because they are always enlivened by friendly banter and the sharing of local news.’
The longest serving member of the Taxal team is John Swift, who has been a ringer for more than 35 years. Explaining how he became involved, John said, ‘I was encouraged to join by my late wife, whom I met at St James’s Church when she was a bridesmaid at a wedding where I was the best man. When she became pregnant with our first child, she suggested that I could take her place in the church’s bell-ringing team. I have carried on ringing over the years because the bells summon people to church and it is part of my job as a church warden to encourage people to come to the church.’
Hilary Powell and Julie Bristol joined the team six years ago. Recalling her reasons for becoming a member, Hilary said, ‘I had always loved the sound of the bells in the valley and I had felt that ringing was something that I would like to do, but family commitments and shift work had made it difficult for me to get involved until my retirement.’ Recalling her decision to become a ringer, Julie said, ‘When Hilary joined, I thought that I would like to give ringing a go as well. I quickly became enthused, especially when I realised that you never stop learning as a bell ringer. Nowadays, I also ring at churches in Disley and New Mills.’
On the evening when I watched the Taxal team practising, their ringing was being ‘called’ by Margot Graham, a retired teacher, who gave up bell-ringing for a time when she was far too busy running a guest house, but she has now returned to an activity that she loves. She said, ‘Bell ringing keeps you agile, uses the brain and teaches you about patterns. In our team, we never chastise anyone for making a mistake; we just enjoy learning together.’
The Taxal team is regularly joined on practice nights by guest ringers Liz Simpson and Jeff Robinson. Liz, who rings at churches in New Mills and Disley, has been ringing for ten years and now rings up to three nights per week and on Sundays, enjoying the social side of ringing and regarding the activity as a great form of exercise – ‘my doctor says that I am living proof that bell ringing is a good way to keep healthy’. Jeff Robinson, a retired mechanical engineer, first started ringing in 1964 and is the team captain of the Disley bell-ringing group, which he helped to set up. He is very happy to help out at Taxal and share calling duties with Margot because he still loves teaching people to ring.
As well as welcoming the two members of the Disley team as regular guest ringers, the Taxal group has a twinning arrangement with the bell-ringing team at Pott Shrigley Church, whose members were so impressed by the way that Taxal bell ringers hosted a competition a couple of years ago that they invited them to ring at their church. The two teams now meet up on one night per month, using their churches as alternating venues.
I watched the Thursday-night practice at St James’s Church as the ringers stood in line and grasped the fluffy end of their bell rope (known as a ‘sally’) in one hand and the looped end in the other hand. As they began ringing, each member showed great concentration as they responded to the prompts of the caller by moving their rope before catching it at the right time and place to complete each ring. Like members of an orchestra making sure that their music would reach the upper circle of an auditorium, the ringers were soon sending the melodious sound of their bells to the very summits of the nearby hills.
Telling me that the group would love to add new members to the team, Victoria said, ‘We would embrace anyone who would like to join us. There is a minimum height restriction of 4 feet 8 inches, but people of any age are very welcome. Learning the many sequences of bell ringing is not only great fun and a good way of meeting new people, but is also a way of preserving an age-old British tradition that should not be allowed to die out.’
Anyone who would like to find out more about the Taxal bell-ringing group and try their hand at the ancient art of ringing can contact Victoria Shelmerdine at 01663 719430 or 07895055463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org