Transcribed by Emily Watts
DAVID: I was just driving past, as you do, and I noticed the church was covered in scaffolding. Then a few weeks later, I saw the scaffolding coming down. So I thought, Oh, what’s happening there? Because I knew there’s a ring of bells there, clearly. So I wrote to Neil Skelton, who was the churches Conservation Trust’s Bell adviser, asking what’s going on about it? And he said, “Ah, glad someone’s has got in touch. I would like someone to be key holder and point of contact there.
CATHY: Hello, I’m Cathy Booth, and this is the Fun with Bells podcast. The Churches Conservation Trust is the national charity saving historic churches at risk. They empower and support local communities to care for the historic places of worship. Their collection of English churches includes irreplaceable examples of architecture, archaeology and art from a thousand years of history. Some of these churches contain bells, and bell ringers have been supported by the CCT in some rather interesting projects, which I’m going to explore in this and the next episode. Next month, I will be talking to Andy Cope about his work with All Souls, Bolton and Simon Linford about the plans for a national ringing centre in Northampton. But in this episode, I’m talking to Neil Skelton about the Bells of Imber. David Bagley about Strensham, both with fascinating histories and Neal Dodge about another church that is undergoing a multi-million pound restoration. First, I’m speaking to Neil Skelton. Neil, would you briefly introduce yourself?
NEIL S.: Yes. My name is Neil Skelton. I live and ring bells in Wilton, near Salisbury, in Wiltshire.
CATHY: And I understand that you once worked for the Church’s Conservation Trust.
NEIL S.: That’s correct.
CATHY: Can you tell me a little bit about them? What they do?
NEIL S.: Yes. I started with the Trust when it was still the Redundant Churches Fund. That was in 1980. Then it changed its name. The main function of the Church’s Conservation Trust is to take into guardianship, Grade I listed churches which become redundant and fall out of the Church of England parochial system. It then repairs them and encourages occasional use of them and encourages local people to hold keys and to organise events.
CATHY: And I understand this is of interest, particularly to bell ringers, because some of them the bells are still able to be rung.
NEIL S.: That is correct. And in some cases bells have been restored. And in one particular case, which I’m involved with, a timber on Salisbury Plain, we actually put in a ring of bells in 2010 after the original bells had been taken out in 1950.
CATHY: Can you tell me a little bit more about Imber and the church there?
NEIL S.: Imber village was evacuated in 1943 to enable American troops to train for D-Day landings. Some of the villagers claim that the letter they received giving them notice to leave in December 1943, indicated that they would return after the war. However, that was not done. And to this day, what remains of the village remains in army hands. However, the church was protected and the Ministry of Defence maintained it until 2003, by which time I think they could see major repairs coming up. So they then said to the diocese, “We’re no longer prepared to do this. You’ve got to take it back.” Diocese, of course, didn’t want to take it, so they declared it redundant. It was still legally a parish church, so they made it redundant, went through the system and it was a Grade II listed building. So the Church’s Conservation Trust said, “Oh, we don’t take this because we’re only taking Grade I churches.” And somehow overnight it became Grade I. So they had to take it and they spent over 300,000 putting it in order. And it’s in pretty good state of repair today. And I retired in 2014 and offered them to take it on as a volunteer, which I have done ever since. And we encourage visitors to visit it when it’s open for about 18 days a year, notably Easter, summer and Christmas. We have a carol festival just before Christmas. We have a service of remembrance and occasionally we have other concerts and in 2010 we put a ring of six bells in it, very much lighter than what was there before but they are rung as and when the church is available to the public.
CATHY: Now you mentioned in your email that they’d been rung relatively recently.
NEIL S.: That’s correct.
CATHY: So this was in August, wasn’t it?
NEIL S.: Yes, it was. On August 20th, we rang a quarter peal of Cambridge Surprise minor.
CATHY: Excellent. And next it will be open for Remembrance Day in 2022.
NEIL S.: It is going to be open, well for the Saturday nearest Remembrance Sunday.
CATHY: And if people want to ring there, what’s the process?
NEIL S.: If they go to the church website which is Imberchurch.org.uk . They will find all the information they will need about the church, visiting it and the bells and who to contact. In other words, me. And my details are there, my phone number and email address.
CATHY: And why were you particularly drawn to support this church in Imber?
NEIL S.: I’d heard about it many years ago and I’d always wanted to visit it but couldn’t get there because my father hadn’t got a car. So in 1964 it was Whit Monday I decided to cycle the 24 miles from Salisbury to Imber village, and I think I became captivated by the church. I didn’t actually get in it because it wasn’t open, but it was all barricaded off to the general public. And then in the 1970s, when I did have a car, I did go to occasional annual services so I could have a look inside the church and attend the service as well, of course. And then in 2005, when the church vested in the Churches Conservation Trust, I was of course, closely involved with it and so made a number of visits officially on behalf of the Churches Conservation Trust.
CATHY: Was there anything else that you wanted to say?
NEIL S.: Yes, when I was working for the trust. Bells were very much at the bottom of the list, and I was latterly the only ringer on the staff of the trust. So I had quite a battle to raise the profile, as it were. But since I’ve retired, and certainly since we put the bells in in 2010, attitudes have changed. And I think there’s more of a sort of, what can I say, a better sort of understanding and view towards bells and bell ringing, because I think they realise, the trust that is, that bell ringers do actually do a lot of useful things other than just ring bells and they can be very useful at some of the churches and of course does help to raise the profile.
CATHY: Excellent. And just lastly, was there anything else you wanted to say?
NEIL S.: I think I might just say that, in fact somebody reminded me of it the other day. They sent me a copy of the postcard I sent them in 2008, and it was a postcard of Imber Church, which I had taken and I put at the bottom. “This is one church, neither you nor I will ever ring at!” And then it was Matthew Higby who twisted my arm a year later and said, “Ever thought about putting bells in Imber church?” I said “yes often and I’ve dreamt about it. But it’ll never happen because the Churches Conservation Trust will never give us permission.” Because in those days the sort of mantra was, you leave the churches exactly as vested. You don’t add anything and you don’t take anything away. But of course, as I said, attitudes changed. I put in a good submission and it won the day. So we put them in in 2010.
CATHY: That was Neil Skelton talking to me about the church at Imber, and now I’m talking to David Bagley. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, David? Yes.
DAVID: David Bagley I am ringing in Tewkesbury Abbey these days. I learned to ring at Malvern Link in Worcestershire in 1977, and in fact, my first time unaided on the end of a bell rope was Christmas Day in 1977. So that’s my day, dot, if you want to call it that.
CATHY: Very good. And we’re talking to you today about the church at Strensham, because it’s one of the Churches Conservation Trusts. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with the church at Strensham?
DAVID: It all happened as a bit of an accident, really. I was just driving past as you do, and I noticed the church was covered in scaffolding. Then a few weeks later, I saw the scaffolding coming down. So I thought, “Oh, what’s happening there?” Because I knew was a ring of bells there, clearly. So I wrote to Neil Skelton, who was the Churches Conservation Trust’s Bell adviser, asking what’s going on about it? And he said, “Ah, glad, someone’s got in touch. I would like someone to be key holder and point of contact there.” So I said, “Yes, okay, I’m quite happy to do that. If it’s just a matter of opening the tower up for visiting ringers and ringing for the occasional service and things like that. I thought, Yeah, no problem.” Yeah, that’s how it all started. That was back in 1997, so quite a while ago now.
CATHY: And can you tell me a little bit about the church from a bell ringers point of view.
DAVID: It’s a redundant church, there’s no services a year. In fact, there are three services a year. We do our best to ring, at each of those services. The bells themselves go back to a Rudhall ring dating from 1704/1705, which were rehung and augmented in 1911 by Taylors in the original five bell wooden frame. It’s actually a tall medieval frame, so they just extended it to the side. So from 1911 there was a nice ring of six, but they were a bit neglected. In fact, they were very neglected really, because when we arrived in 1997, the place was obviously just been made redundant. They’d had a lot of work done on the church. It was a bit of a tip to say the least. So we spent quite a few weeks, months over the year, over the years just cleaning the place out and making the bells easier and better to ring and more available. And there were a very nice ring of six, sounded very nice, but they’re not so easy to ring because of the neglect over the years, the pulleys and the bearings were really quite badly worn.
CATHY: What is it that bell ringers do there apart from ringing the bells, I understand there’s some training courses?
DAVID: Over the years we’ve been having regular practices and they’ve developed into an unofficial ringing centre, so we’re not actually affiliated to anything. It was more of a case of the fact that people would come along to the practice night and we’d have a really good happy atmosphere, a progressive atmosphere, and we were regularly getting 15 or 20 people at one stage for a six bell practice. So it was quite a popular tower in the area for people to come along and learn things. So ringing was the only thing that goes on in the church. Everything else is completely stopped because it’s redundant. So the only activity there is bell ringing. That is the church effectively, is what we do up there.
CATHY: I understand there’s also some interesting artefacts in the church. If you could describe a little bit about what people see when they’re inside the church.
DAVID: Yes, the church is normally locked, but there’s a key nearby, so anybody who wants to go and have a look inside just needs to follow the instructions on the door. Inside, it’s an amazing collection of monuments, carved monuments, brasses in the floor, the pews, which date from about 1520, I think the pews date from. And they’re still in existence. There’s a carved gallery at the back which is painted, has medieval gallery. So there’s a full of absolute wonderful things. It’s worth having a look in its own right if it’s not just for the bells as well. But it’s a fantastic church. It’s one of the reasons why it was saved. When the church was closed by the parish, it was deemed to be of such architectural and archaeological importance that the Churches Conservation Trust were able to take it on and save it to save the building.
CATHY: So I understand there’s also fundraising that happens.
DAVID: Yes, that’s right. For a number of years now, we’ve been raising money for the Churches Conservation Trust. The Churches Conservation Trust is basically government funded, but the funding isn’t really enough to keep things going along as they’d like. So there’s a lot of fundraising that goes on behind the scenes as well. And what we do, at Strensham, we hold an annual midsummer Tea Party, so we open up the church, put tables down the side of it, and cakes and teas and coffees and there’s plant stalls and raffle. And so we make it into a little church fete and that goes on once a year. And the money we’ve raised over the years is probably about three or four hundred pounds a year, something like that, sometimes more, sometimes less. But it all goes straight to the Churches Conservation Trust, and that helps sweeten them up because when we want work done on the church, they’ve then got us under their radar. So you can see that yes, we help them out and they can come and do some work on the church. Fairly recently we’ve been looking at fundraising for getting some windows repaired in the church, which are leaking water, and there’s a bit of plaster damage as well. So we’re helping CCT with the fundraising for that and I think the work for that should be starting fairly soon.
CATHY: And you have a YouTube video about the church, that I’ve seen that if people want to know more they can do, and it shows the pictures of where it is in a very remote place and also some of the artefacts that we’ve been mentioning and the history, the link with the Russell family.
DAVID: Yeah, that’s right. The Russell family go back many hundreds of years at Strensham and they were the principal landowners for all that time up until about 1705, I think it was, when the last of the male line died off. But there’s very interesting connections between the Russell family and the English Civil War for instance, one of the members of the Russell family are William Russell was governor of Worcester at the time when the parliamentarians came knocking on the door and he sent them packing, saying clear off. And they then walked away down to the towards the south west and went to Powick where they tried to cross the bridge there. And they were routed by the royalist soldiers. And that was the battle of Powick Bridge, which was the very first skirmish of the entire English Civil War. So there are links with the Strensham Russells, which have a big impact on our history as a country.
CATHY: Interesting. Okay, David, was there anything else that you thought we should touch on?
DAVID: I’ll talk about the augmentation we did. Back in about 2003, the Bells at Kettering in Northamptonshire: they were replaced with a brand new Whitechapel ring of 12, and at that time I was half thinking of whether we might get two extra bells at Strensham because of the interest we’d had from the attendances of practice nights and so on. When the Bells came out of Kettering, I managed to acquire the headstocks and wheels from the two trebles at Kettering. The bells themselves went to the Keltec Trust and were offered on to a church in Dorset. And after a decade this project didn’t come off the ground, so Keltec Trust withdrew their offer. I then heard that the bells were back on the market, so to speak, made some inquiries about whether we think we could fit them into the tower. Matthew Higby came along and took some careful measurements and he said, “Yes, we can fit them into the tower.” That was the start of the project. So what we did then is we were able to, with the help of the Keltec Trust, obtain the two bells. They were then tuned, reunited with their headstocks and wheels, which is a massive saving in cost. And then as a DIY project, this took about three or four years. One or two evenings a week we were able to take the existing fittings off the bells, get them down to Matthew Higby as well for refurbishment and cleaning and painting and get the bearings refurbished. And then bit by bit we were able to bring them back into the tower with these two extra bells and the result is amazing actually I’m very pleased with the result.
DAVID: We’ve effectively got a brand new Taylor octave, although the three Rudhall bells from 1704/1705 you would have thought they wouldn’t fit in very well. But Ben Kipling, who works for Matthew, did an absolutely amazing job on tuning them. They are very close to harmonically tuned and you wouldn’t notice it to listen to them. So with the acoustics in the tower also, absolutely excellent. So we’ve got a very nice sounding, very easy-to-ring of eight. And I’m really pleased, really proud of the way it’s turned out. As far as fundraising that’s concerned. Obviously, we couldn’t rely on the church for any money, so we had to do it all ourselves. There were several people who were very generous with their donations, but even so, the cost was very minimal compared to many projects. It was a DIY job and we were able to do this without costing the Churches Conservation Trust a penny because their money is far better kept for major projects in the churches they look after. The bells are Strensham I say they’re very good indeed, and I’m trying to make them readily available for as many visiting bands as possible. So we’re looking at ringing at three, maybe four times a month, which is not bad for a redundant church. It’s probably more than many active churches as it happens. So if anybody wants to have a ring Strensham, just get in touch with me and we’ll see if we can fit them in the diary, which is rapidly filling up I’m afraid. But give it a go and we’d like to accommodate as many people as possible.
CATHY: And how do they get in touch with you?
DAVID: They can get in touch with me at David@bagleybells.co.uk.
CATHY: Would there be anywhere that people could hear what the bells sound like?
DAVID: Like? Oh, yes. There’s three or four recordings are now on YouTube, one from Ryan Trout, who came up with his Devon Call Change band a few months ago and showed us how we should ring them. Absolutely amazing quality of ringing that is. So yeah, just search for Strensham bells on YouTube and you should be able to find some of these clips and they’re well worth listening to.
CATHY: So David, we’ve talked a lot about Strensham but I understand you have other interests in the bell ringing world. Could you tell me a little bit about the background there?
DAVID: Yes, I’m probably better known for producing ringing simulator interfaces to connect your computer to a real set of bells. And if you silence the bells, you can then feed the signals into the computer. The computer makes the noises and it’s an absolutely ideal training aid. And I think many places around the country, around the world now have got simulators. And chances are that the interface hardware was something I made. I leave other people to do the software so my hardware interfaces with programs like Abel and Bell Tower and Virtual Belfry and so on.
CATHY: That was David Bagley. And now I’m going to be talking to Neal Dodge. Neal, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
NEAL D.: Yes, my name is Neal Dodge. I’ve been involved in ringing for just over 12 years now, and I ring in West Suffolk and my home town is Great Barton near Bury St Edmunds, and in Suffolk I’m the public relations officer for the Suffolk Guild of Ringers.
CATHY: And today we’re going to be talking about St Peter’s Sudbury because it comes under the Churches Conservation Trust. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with that?
NEAL D.: It was through my role as public relations officer, the church in Sudbury is undergoing a multi-million-pound restoration which will see modern facilities and a new mezzanine floor installed. And as part of that, they want to involve the bells more as they’re quite an asset to the church. They’ve got ten of them, so they wanted to know how they can involve ringing more in the work they do going forward.
CATHY: And tell me a bit about the bells and what ringing goes on there.
NEAL D.: Sudbury has a very long ringing history. St Peter’s are pre-reformation. We know that there has been bell ringing at Sudbury for 500 years and in terms of full circle change ringing, they’ve had active bands easily since the 1700s, if not previously. There’s a very interesting story that highlights the dispute that went on between ringers and the church during the 17 and 1800s. In 1863, the ringers broke into the church to ring for the marriage of the then Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII against the wishes of the vicar at St Peter’s. So there was only six bells there at the time. So six of their ringers scaled the church battlements early in the morning with ladders, and there’s a door that leads out from the ringing room onto the roof. So they got in through there and were supported by the townspeople who passed up food, and they rang throughout the day to celebrate the marriage, which was much like the modern day royal wedding occasions that we have. There were street parties, so the local people wanted their bells rung and were quite annoyed that the vicar wouldn’t allow them. But the ringers were brought to justice and were banned from ringing from the church from then on. And the death of the final ringer when he died in, I think it was 1912, was reported in the Ringing World. And his connection back to this controversy in the 1860s.
CATHY: Why was the vicar so against them ringing?
NEAL D.: He was, I believe, of a high church tradition because the marriage took place during Lent and he thought that ringing during Lent wasn’t the proper thing to do.
CATHY: The other thing from the article that you sent me, that I picked up is that the town has three sets of bells. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
NEAL D.: Yes. Sudbury is very lucky to have a large number of bells hung for full circle ringing. So at the moment it’s got two eights and ten, the ten being St Peter’s. The other rings are at the Church of All Saints, which have similarly quite old bells there. Some pre-reformation ones, very early pre-reformation ones and then St Gregory’s which has recently been overhauled, they contain a ring of eight dating mostly from the 1800s and we’ve found rules for the ringers from that time. So they had a very well established band and they rang their first peal around that time as well. So there’s been a long tradition of change ringing and during the 1860s and 1870s and into the 1880s, there was a revival of ringing in the town. St Peter’s was augmented to eight along with All Saints and the tenor at All Saints, which is a quite large bell, around 25 hundred weight was found to be cracked. So they had that recast, so they were all put back good order. So for a town that was perhaps only five and a half thousand people at that point, to have three good rings of eight was quite a large number of bells for such a small town. And they had this ringing festival each year where all three towers would have ringing and like any good ringing event, there would be a meal and drinks at the end of it to celebrate their achievements, to bring them back into order. We were very pleased to revive that festival last year as a celebration of the end of COVID restrictions and a restart for the town. With the project at St Peter’s, the bells haven’t been accessible because of the work going on at the church. St Gregory’s, as I said, has been restored, so they were out of the tower at the time. So next year we hope to repeat the festival and have a good occasion to celebrate.
CATHY: And if other bell ringers want to ring at St Peter’s, what’s the process?
NEAL D.: Like any tower within the Suffolk Guild, all the details can be found on our website. As I said, at the moment, the bells aren’t currently accessible because of the work going on at the church, but they hope to be finished sometime towards the end of next year and no doubt we’ll mark the opening with some more ringing. We were asked to ring a quarter peal to mark the closure back in September last year and they were very grateful for that. It was live streamed and on the local Facebook group and they took a camera that’s been used to monitor swift boxes in the tower, put it into the ringing room so that people down below could see ringing. And they had loads of visitors coming throughout the day and no complaints, which is always a bonus. For a town centre location, that’s quite nice. St Peter’s was an early church to be adopted by what was then called the Redundant Churches Fund and it was adopted by them in 1976. The church had ceased to be used for public worship a few years prior and there was a local support group that was established to continue the use of the building called the Friends of St Peter’s.
NEAL D.: It’s still very active in the management of the church today, and one project that they had in hand at the time was the restoration of the bells. They were in quite a bad way. They weren’t ringable and they had been taken out of the tower and had been hung back dead pending future restoration. So as part of the celebration for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the bells were rehung and augmented to ten, which proved to be the first major project that was undertaken by the Friends and in conjunction with what is now the CCT. So the bells are intrinsically linked to the church’s role now as a secular building. So they see them as a great asset and are always keen to have them rung. I can talk more and more about the history of the bells and the ringing that went on there like we know that they rang for when the railway first came to Sudbury and we’ve got loads of clippings.
CATHY: Newspaper clippings?
NEAL D.: Yeah over what went on there and the ringing that was done.
CATHY: Thanks to my guests today Neil Skelton, David Bagley and Neal Dodge. Next month, I’m continuing the theme of bell ringers in redundant churches with interviews with Andy Cope and Simon Linford. 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, Emily Roderick, John Gwynne, Emily Watts, Lesley Belcher and the Society of the Cambridge Youths for the recording of their ringing.