Learning the ropes of change-ringing
‘DON’T LOOK up! Look straight ahead!” says Martin Hough, who is trying to teach me how to be a change-ringer. I get distracted and look up at the rope as it disappears through the hole in the ceiling and it’s suddenly jerked out of my hands by the force of the bell. Hough looks a bit disappointed.“Martin is a very good teacher,” I hear someone else say a little later. “He never tells you what you’ve done is good if it’s not good.” “You’re very good Isabella!” Hough says on cue to Isabella O’Donovan, who is nine years old, has to reach the rope by standing on a box and rings with the determined, 1,000-yard stare of an expert. He never tells me I’m good.
I’m at the West Cork Ringing Festival in Abbeystrewry Church in Skibbereen, an event established eight years ago by Oxfordshire-born Diana Pitcher to teach aspiring locals how to ring the six tuned bells that were installed there in 2002. Now, each year, change-ringers from all over Ireland and England arrive to ring the bells of Skibbereen, Rosscarbery and Bandon as they were meant to be rung.
Sitting in the wood-lined ringing chamber, just below the bell chamber and accessible by a recently-installed iron staircase outside, I watch a team of experts. Led by calls from Martin Hough, six ringers, including Diana Pitcher, work closely together to ring the changes on the six bells, their concentrating faces and busy arms belying the melodious sound coming from over their heads. “Three to two!” Hough calls, or “Two to four!” or “Treble to two!”, and they seamlessly change the pattern of the ring.
It’s not a sound Irish people will be hugely familiar with, as most Irish church towers tend to have one mournful bell (some curmudgeons in Skibbereen say they prefer the church’s old bell). There are only 35 towers on the whole island with bells for change-ringing.
“I was a bell ringer in England and I missed it when I moved here,” says Pitcher. “So I twisted arms of people I knew and we did some fundraising and got the bells installed. The whole installation cost around £50,000 punts at the time and I started training people how to ring bells.” Hampshire man Martin Hough was one of the people who helped install them and he was also instrumental in restoring the long-silent bells of St Fachtna’s in Rosscarbery. Soon after, he and his wife moved over to west Cork for good. He and Diana Pitcher are trying to turn the area into a “lost pocket of change-ringing.” Ringing all potential patterns on a set of bells is called ringing “a peal”. It takes about 3½ hours. Hough once rang for nine hours, 47 minutes in Newport on the Isle of Wight. “We were doing it to get the record length of a method called Lincolnshire Royal,” he says.