Transcribed by Emily Watts using Sonix.ai
Tim Sunter: I was in the middle of the field in Wales when the thought occurred to me, I ought to learn to ring. Having learnt to ring and passed our level five, we were very keen to reopen the tower at Brierley Hill and part of our plan of that was to learn to teach ourselves so we could bring a new generation of ringers on. I didn’t run fast enough, and I ended up being on the ART Committee. And again, it’s been really, really interesting to be able to sit at the meetings and listen to all the various ideas going on.
[Bells ringing rounds]
Cathy Booth: Hello, I’m Cathy Booth and this is the Fun with Bells podcast. We continue our celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Association of Ringing Teachers, ART, with an interview with Tim Sunter, who took up bell ringing seven years ago and is now on the ART Management Committee. Tim, can you tell me a little bit about your background first of all, when did you learn to ring and why did you take it up?
Tim Sunter: I’ve always been very closely involved in the community in the town where I live at Brierley Hill, which is a post-industrial town. But actually, I was in the middle of the field in Wales when the thought occurred to me, I ought to learn to ring and it was all a result of someone tweeting, “I never hear the bells of St Michael’s anymore.” St Michael’s being the local parish church. And I thought, that’s an interesting idea. I wouldn’t mind helping out with that. So, I emailed the local vicar, and he said the problem is that they can’t get any ringers, not even for a wedding. And he sent me a hilarious video. He didn’t know it was hilarious of a group of ringers ringing rounds, and it was hilarious because at the end of them ringing rounds, the commentator said. “And what method is that that you’re ringing?” And the guy just said oh, it’s rounds, but actually was totally unfazed. So, I watched that video and I didn’t really do a lot about it until February the following year, where I Googled ‘learn to ring church bells’ and top of the list came the Birmingham School of Bell Ringing, which had recently been set up at the end of 2013. So, I emailed off to Clare McArdle and said we’d be interested in, my wife and I’d be interested in learning how to ring. And she emailed back a glorious email which could be summarised like “why?”. But actually, it was all part of her trying to work out how they were attracting new bell ringers. So, we explained the situation in Brierley Hill, and we signed up. It was only £5 a lesson, and I think that’s a worthwhile, a good value for money fee, but also not too risky. So, I think we agreed look, we’ll pay for a month’s lessons 20 quid each because if we didn’t like it, it’s 20 quid, not at the end of the world and we went along to our first lesson knowing absolutely nothing about bell ringing at their tower one, which is where the handling skills are taught, at St Paul’s in the jewellery quarter and that started us on this journey.
Cathy Booth: Can you describe your experience of learning to ring?
Tim Sunter: Yes, it was it was far more challenging than I expected. We knew absolutely nothing about ringing church bells. We just thought it was an easy, relaxing activity that we would do in a Sunday. And then we were lucky. We had Tony Daw from Birmingham as our first tutor. And he explained these amazing things about the bells being rung from upside down and ringing to the balance. And that very first lesson he gave us a go. I think we started off on back-strokes and just feeling that balance pointing. I was absolutely thrilled because I managed to set it in my first lesson as well. And then week by week and Saturday mornings, we would go along to the jewellery quarter and keep learning the skills. I think that’s one of the real benefits of the Learning the Ropes scheme. Is this breaking it down into small steps. And it was a benefit we found, not only because, I was in my mid-50s when I started to learn that, I needed a lot of small steps to learn and a lot of practice. But also when we started going to other towers, we could easily describe what it was we were doing. We were working on level one. We’re working and Plain Hunt at level two, and that became a language that communicated to other people where we were at. So, that was our in school lessons. And then as the summer holidays came, as with other educational institutions, the School of Bell Ringing takes a break, and we hadn’t got a local tower that had any ART teachers there that we were aware of.
And so they got together as tutors and suggested that maybe we go and ring at Smethwick where Steve and Janet Horton run the practices and they are tutors at the school. And so, we spent the summer practising and learning across at Smethwick where we still go to ring as well as Brierley Hill. So, we were really, really lucky in the amount of support we got through the school, and it was terrifying as well because we were thinking, “Oh, are we kind of the slow learners in the class. And if we go to other towers, will they just see us as a nuisance?” So, we amazingly managed to avoid arrest by hanging outside towers, listening in the dark thinking, “Oh, are they bad enough for us to join them?” And eventually we did pluck up courage. I think Andy Gray from the Worcester suggested we went for one of the Worcester’s practices in Halesowen, and it was lovely because all the tutors at the school in Birmingham knew we were kind of nervous about going to other practices, and we went along to Halesowen and sat there and then the door opened and Janet Horton walked in. And then Clare McArdle and then Rex. And it was great because a number of them turned up just to give us support because they knew how nervous we are.
So, our experience of learning was exceptional. To be honest, I think we had the Rolls Royce of learning. We had support from people. We had a really well thought out curriculum. We had it broken down into steps and we knew how we were progressing at each stage because we would get our certificates and even a little prize as well. So, we had some little books of prize and so on, which was really nice. So, lots of encouragement and we were very, very much welcomed into the bell ringing community. One of the other advantages of going through the school is you built up your own networks of friends and contemporaries. So, a number of us still ring together as a group of former students. And it was a great thrill at the end of 2019, when we actually managed to do a quarter peal with just graduates run by ourselves at Brierley Hill, where we did a quarter of Plain Bob Doubles and we were really thrilled about that. And I think that’s really super that we’ve still got friends that we are very close to, in terms of ringing that we still meet up. We still ring together. We still have a grumble together. We still take on challenges together. But it’s like taking the learning even further at our own pace and with a freedom to experiment with things. So, that’s another huge step that I think’s been very helpful.
Cathy Booth: So, what would be your tips for anybody else who was trying to do the same thing as you?
Tim Sunter: I think, and you’d expect me to say that, is find an ART teacher. Someone who’s qualified and signed up and believes in the scheme. I’d say if you’re lucky, get someone who’s really patient with you, who’s not going to throw a wobbly every time you go wrong or get annoyed or impatient every time you go wrong. And I’ll come back to that in a moment because I think that is an important point. If you can go to a tower where there’s more than one tutor, that’s really helpful as well and keep practising all the time. It really does help, but don’t get hung up. Don’t get upset if it doesn’t go right each time. I think that actually Birmingham had to lay on extra sessions for us to learn Plain Hunt, which now we look back at and think that’s a bit embarrassing. But we didn’t know that we were doing extra sessions. They were just being really kind. So, it’s that thoughtfulness, but I would definitely recommend using Learning the Ropes scheme and a proper qualified ART teacher as well.
Cathy Booth: Talking about ART, what is ART?
Tim Sunter: That’s the Association of Ringing Teachers, and I understand you’ve been talking to Pip Penny, who is the founder and the inspiration for it. But it’s to try and get a consistency of quality of teaching across the country. So, it’s about curriculum. You can’t just become an ART teacher. You have to do courses and pass some examinations is too hard a word. But do some quizzes to make sure that you know your stuff before you become a teacher and once you become a qualified teacher, you are enabled to teach others to ring. And that was the next step in our journey really, because having learnt to ring and passed our level five, we were very keen to reopen the tower at Brierley Hill. And part of our plan of that was to learn to teach ourselves so we could bring a new generation of ringers on.
Cathy Booth: So, you’ve gone through from level one to level five and then you’ve gone on to learn how to teach those levels.
Tim Sunter: That’s correct, and again, we have had fantastic support from other ringers in helping us do that. So, it was about five years ago we managed to get Brierley Hill Tower practice up and running again. And of course, it’s all right myself and my wife, Jen ringing, but you need more than two on a Sunday to ring. So, we started to recruit. We were astounded, genuinely astounded by the amount of positive comments on social media and in the shops and in the town locally about how great it was to hear ringing again. And that was very encouraging, and we brought a number of new ringers through, new in terms of new to ringing, not new in terms of age, but we are pleased with what we’ve got. So, this Sunday we hope to be having seven ringers, who will all be Brierley Hill ringers ringing for Sunday service. And, I’m quite proud of that and it just gives me a feeling of satisfaction that we’ve gone from no Sunday ringing to now be able to get up to seven.
How did you get them, the new ringers?
Tim Sunter: A number of ways. Some came through Ringing Returns who got in touch with ART, and they were put in touch with us as the local tower that does proper ringing teaching, so to speak. Some came because they heard the bells ringing and they were curious and like we did, thought that would be a nice hobby. Some came through personal contact. a colleague of mine in community groups for example, said she’d been wanting to learn bells for years and didn’t know how to go about it. So, I thought, “Oh, there’s an opportunity!”, “Come to my parlour, We’ll show you how to do this”. So she’s one of our regular ringers. Another was the lady who ran the local services for Brierley Hill, I think her sisters rang and she always had an ambition to better go and ring with them. And so she’s come and joined us. So, we’ve had a number of routes through. But I think our next step is to now go and do another recruitment because you have some who come and leave too, and often for very good reasons. One of our good ringers moved down to Bournemouth-
Cathy Booth: Bit far to go.
Tim Sunter: It’s quite a distance from Bournemouth to Brierley Hill, so we don’t really expect her to come back, but hopefully she’ll continue ringing there. But we need to be constantly refreshing and bringing new people into ringing. It’s been difficult with COVID, but we are now on the verge of starting off a campaign to recruit some more people, which will involve social media, going back to some people expressed even the mildest of interest during Heritage Open Day when we did demonstrations. Seeing if they’re now interested in picking up. And I have plans as well, to use some handbells we found in the tower and got restored, with local schools to see if we can persuade some younger students, even at 10, 11 years old, to come and get involved as well. So, we have plans, and now that we’re told that everything is absolutely fine in the country again with regard to COVID, and you can’t see me on the podcast, but got a little bit of a smile of scepticism on my face. But assuming everything is fine, we should better get on and do some more recruitment. And then we’ve just got to be a little bit careful about our capacity for learners because it’s still only Jen and myself who are doing the teaching, we do get help as well. But there’s so much you can ask people to do voluntarily. So, if we could get two or three learners at a time, I think that’s something we can cope with and embed in our practices.
Cathy Booth: What do you enjoy about ringing?
Tim Sunter: I think there’s a sense of achievement. There’s a lot of frustration when you’re trying to learn methods and there’s a lot of feeling foolish, particularly at my age. And when you’ve been in teaching, you’ve got all your degrees and everything and here you’re finding this something that a 10-year-old picks up in two seconds, you’re really struggling with. But when you do it and you get say a successful quarter peal, then that feels really satisfying. On a Sunday morning we mightn’t be the greatest band of ringers ever. Fortunately, the local population can’t actually recognise good ringing, but there is a satisfaction when we manage to get some decent call changes going. In the last few weeks, we’ve even started Bastow Minimus with two covering because you can have a learner just moving from lead to seconds and lead to seconds and two covering at the back, with three of us actually moving inside. And that was immensely satisfying that we’ve actually got our first method underway. So, that gives me a satisfaction in terms of band development. And then every other Sunday morning, we go across this Smethwick, Jen and I to ring there because Brierley Hill only has services every other week. And that’s just a real pleasure to ring with a band of really good strikers who know their methods as well. And you think, “Wow, this is sounding really good.” Which is of course fatal because then I go wrong. But it is, And that kind of surprised me when it came back after the lockdowns to go back to Smethwick and to be able to ring up in a nice peal was a real luxury and I do enjoy that.
So, it does give a feeling of satisfaction that you can visibly see an improvement and you can hear an improvement in your ringers. And I think that is hugely satisfying and it’s been satisfying as well in, I think it has helped to bring the community together in Brierley Hill. We started a Heritage Open Day in 2019 as a town, but really that was because we wanted to have an event to recruit for the tower and because we couldn’t just have the tower open and we had to have the church open. We had to get the rest of the church to agree to open the church and we help them do their Heritage Open Day. And then someone else said, “Well, if you’re doing it. We’ll open up the market, we’ll do a 1940s day at the market.” And then the Catholic Church said “Oh, well we’d be interested in joining in as well.” So, it started a domino effect of people getting involved, and it was a big, big success. So, that was very satisfying as well. So, much so when we closed for lockdown in 2020, we actually did a digital Heritage Open Day and Simon Linford, Vicky Wilby and Elizabeth Wilby came across to ring our hand bells at six o’clock in the morning on the radio because we thought, “Well, we can’t open up the buildings because of COVID, but we could capture the sounds of local buildings and bell ringing is a key part of that sound.” We decided not to ring the big bells at six o’clock in the morning, cause forever the diplomats, but we had come across this set of one hundred- and fifty-year-old handbells which we’ve had restored and they came across. And part of that experiencing the sound of historic building was very much the bells. And that in itself had a spin off. So, now there’s a local internet radio station focused on Brierley Hill, which came directly out of that event.
So, it had been hugely satisfaction because it’s fitted in well. It’s inspired things to happen in the community. It gives me a sense of satisfaction and for a while I’d gone back into lecturing as well and improved my lecturing of maths to students who’d struggled with it in the past because it gave me a perspective, where what I might think is easy isn’t necessarily seen as easy by these students, and it comes back that feeling what am I being a fool here because everyone else gets this and I don’t, while I was learning. And it made me reflect on my own teaching when I went back and I like to think now as much, much more patient. I thought I’ve always been fairly patient with them, but even more patient with students who just don’t get something that you think is really easy because to their eyes it’s not. And I think that changed me as well. You say you asked someone who used to be a politician a question, three hours later they’ve finished answering it. I hope I’ve answered it. But yeah, then lots of positivity and satisfaction, which goes beyond just the bell ringing as well.
Cathy Booth: Your background is teaching, and there’s something I wanted to ask you on the back of that. One thing that I know we’re very keen in the ringing community to do is to involve more young people. And obviously, you’ve got this experience of educating young people. What can we do to encourage more young people into ringing, do you think?
Tim Sunter: The way that we’ve been doing it is: when we took over the tower, we found scattered around at various points, some old handbells and some were missing clappers, some the leather handles had rotted on and we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we get these restored and with an eye to getting a grant to do it because we didn’t have the money to do this, we thought how could we integrate this with a project which would involve younger people, which then might tick the boxes for getting a grant. And we spoke to a local primary school and said, “Look, if we got these restored, would you be interested in using it to get your youngsters to learn to ring tunes on bells as opposed to change ringing?” And they said yes, and we did get them restored. We had slightly slimmer handles put on them. Just so little hands could fit around them a bit better. We got Chris Mills, who is a wonderful ringer from Birmingham, who’d been a music teacher to come across and train the teachers at the school about how to teach them. And then we said “Look, borrow the bells, go away and see what you can do for your Christmas concert.” And that year, which is 2019, just pre-COVID, the school actually came up for its church, for its Christmas festival, and the finale was ringing Good King Wenceslas and Twinkle Twinkle Little star on the handbells, and it was just a marvellous occasion.
We didn’t get the quarter peal, but we tried to ring the big bells a quarter peal of St Clement’s. As the kids walked up to the school so they could hear the big bells ringing. I think we ended up doing a few touches of Grandsire in the end to be honest, but they didn’t know that. They thought it was great that the big bells were ringing. Then the finale of this Christmas concert was these handbells coming out. And honestly, these kids did so wonderfully well, their concentration to get the harmonies. And they looked after the bells because we’d said, “If you drop one of these, it’s two hundred and fifty quid, so please don’t!” And they looked after these bells absolutely wonderfully, and they got a huge cheer. And even some of the parents who saw their kids perform, they didn’t know what they were going to do, and they were even in tears. They were that pleased with the performance, so that was absolutely marvellous. But then the story got even better because the local radio station, Black Country Radio, asked if they could use a recording of that performance in their Christmas 2020 special. So, on Christmas Day, they were doing something based around nine carols and nine lessons. But with things from Brierley Hill, they chose Brierley Hill as the town they’d like to focus on.
And they used the recording of the children ringing these bells and that got a gold medal in the community radio national reserves because of the quality of the broadcast. So, our plan to get more younger people involved is very much based around those handbells and trying to get them enthused. And the thing about handbells, you can get a tune out of them very quickly. So, it’s our go to Heritage Open Day or any activity performance because we know that we could get six people and get them to do good King Wenceslas pretty fast. It mightn’t be good, but these kids were really good, and it was just wonderful and the school are keen to borrow those again. So, now we’re coming out. It’s like the last two years haven’t existed in a way, but now coming out of that, that’s where our next steps are going to be to get young people involved and use handbells as the route in. We’ve also made some approaches to the scouts and guides in the area who are keen and we’ve all just been waiting. Just when you think we’ve got to the end of COVID, another bout suddenly hits us, but they’re keen to get involved as well. So, we are thinking really carefully about this. My worry is capacity. How many can we teach at the same time? But hey, we’ll deal with it. We’ll come up with a solution.
Cathy Booth: Do you see that from ringing on the handbell’s tunes, moving into the tower and doing change ringing that is a path that people will take?
Tim Sunter: It’s all experimental and we will learn, so if it doesn’t work, we will learn what didn’t work and we will come at something that does. But yes, at the moment that is what our plan would be. The youngsters in the primary school were, I guess 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds, and I think that’s about the right age at which you could actually start to get them ringing in the tower. And I think it is making that next step from, look, you can do really well on bells. Why don’t you have a go at doing this and hopefully capture their enthusiasm to do it, something a bit more than the hand, I would say just the handbells. The handbells themselves are wonderful, as well as the handbells.
Cathy Booth: So, going back to ART, how are you involved with ART now? You’re an ART teacher, but I know that your involvement is more than that. What else do you do?
Tim Sunter: Yes, I sit on the National ART Management Committee, and I think that was because Lesley Belcher, a visionary in her own right wanted someone who knew something about an educational background and who had experienced the scheme itself. So, as the buck flew towards me, I didn’t run fast enough, and I ended up being on the ART committee. And again, it’s been really really interesting to be able to sit at the meetings and listen to all the various ideas going on, and that’s triggered ideas myself and I love the ideas of learning hubs that we’re now thinking as part of our next step as well to establish a ringing school with fellow ringers in Worcester, in the Worcesters, which is where Brierley Hill in the Black Country actually lies. Bizarre, I never understand the geography of all these dioceses and so on, but so it does give us a lot of inspiration and I’ve been involved in setting up Moodle. And giving some advice on Moodle, which is an online learning management system. So, it’s been really interesting. Yeah.
Cathy Booth: And what courses are you setting up on Moodle?
Tim Sunter: There’s a number of courses. I don’t actually write the courses. I just help with what you can do in terms of interactivity. So, the idea is that you interact online with the learning materials that are there rather than just read them. So, it goes hand in hand with other ways that you can learn. But there are courses now available in terms of learning call changes, which Clare McArdle does. There’s one on calling Bob’s for Plain Bob Doubles, which is our colleagues down in Norfolk produced. There’s some refresher courses about to be available for people who’ve done the courses to do their teaching that they can look at. And we hope that shortly the online 50 things to do as a team will be available. And also, the 50 learning things. And it’s something that’s actually building and building as we go on.
Cathy Booth: So, those courses and that information looks really useful. Where would somebody go to to get them?
Tim Sunter: Yeah. If you go to the website, onlinelearning.bellringing.org then you’ll see a complete menu of courses that are available that come up in front of you. It’s available to everybody, but you need to register for the site, which is a very quick process. And then each time you visit, you need to log in. And that just means that we know it’s you and we can point you to the correct position in the course. So, if you’d already done like half the course and you’d gone off and, you know, done something else, a week’s holiday or something. When you come back, you get to the right place in the course without having to repeat it all from the start. And at the end of the course, you get a certificate. So, we need to know who you are to award that certificate. You’ve got the Understanding call changes course. Which would be for newer learners, but I think there’s interesting stuff for experienced learners in there as well, so it’s worth having a look through. You’ve got your first step in calling Bob’s, which is probably just post level five of Learning the Ropes. You’ve got refresher courses for teachers who’ve done the modules before, but it might be a while since they did that. You’ve got steppingstones for learning how to ring Minor methods, 50 virtual ringing things. So, all of these are for a whole range of ringers.
Cathy Booth: What remarkable thing has happened to you that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t taken up bell ringing?
Tim Sunter: I think probably all of that Heritage Open Day and community participation wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken at bell ringing. And I know that’s not directly bell ringing but trust me it’s been really important to us. And on the back of those Heritage Open days for the town, we managed to get a 1.8-million-pound grant to refurbish some of the buildings and to do further activities, part of which is to install a stimulator, not a stimulator, [Both laugh] a simulator. Great it was stimulator my God. I think that is the thing that’s been extraordinary, is the linking out into the wider community and being a driving force to do something that I like to think is rather special for everyone, even if you’re not a bell ringer.
Cathy Booth: Thank you to my guest, Tim Sunter, for telling us all about his fascinating journey with ART. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it. This podcast was put together by a team. Special thanks go to Anne Tansley Thomas and John Gwynne, Lesley Belcher and the Society of the Cambridge Youths for the recording of their ringing.
[Bells ringing rounds]