The earliest bells
There were groups of swinging bells in English churches by the 10th century and it is probable that Ashwell bells have rung out over the village since the church tower was built in the late 1300’s. We know that by 1552 there were ‘in the steeple five bells and a little bell’ and parts of the present bell frame date from that time. The frame and bells were in a poor state in Tudor times and the churchwardens’ accounts between 1562 and 1603 are full of references to the cost of repairs; items include w hytelether (whitleather) for new straps for the clappers, new ropes and new bronze bearings. In 1601 a new wheel had to be provided for the Gabriel bell, used to ring the angelus and in the same year, Hugh Hornwold of Melbourn (blacksmith) mended the clapper on the great bell (probably the tenor). At this time the bells would have sounded much quieter than today as when the ropes which operated the headstocks were pulled, the levers only moved the bells from side to side.
How old are the existing bells?
The belfry of St Mary’s is very large with a sizeable timber bell frame. There is much evidence in the masonry to show that a multiplicity of bell systems have been installed over the years. There were certainly more than the six bells which exist today in the very early years. The additional bells may have been accommodated in the recesses of the louvred windows. The bells have all been recast and rehung
at least twice since they were new; the first time that we know about was in 1571 when only one bell was recast but all rehung. Then in 1599 a new bell was made in Ernest, Bedfordshire, nos 1 and 3 bells were recast in 1607 by Richard Holdfield and in 1610, the most famous bell founder of the day, Miles Gray of Colchester, recast no. 2. Finally in 1694, the tenor was recast into two trebles thus making a ring of six bells. One hundred years later, all were again recast and rehung. Finally in 1936 ball bearings were fitted.
The art of ringing bells
Early bell ringing consisted of merely swinging the bells from side to side through a small angle in an uncontrolled way. This is still the practice in many parts of the world. By the 15th century, more orderly ringing was taking place in England. Then, gradually, the mechanisms were developed that allowed the
bells to be swung higher and higher until it was possible to swing the bells through 360 and allow them to rest upside down. This gave more control to the ringer and also increased the volume as the clapper now struck when the bell mouth was horizontal. This led the way for Fabian Stedman to invent the style of ringing bells in different permutations; usually called methods. Stedman was born in Herefordshire in 1640 and he was apprenticed to a London printer in 1658. He then joined the bellringers at St Mary le Bow,
one of the city of London churches. Stedman persuaded his bell band to experiment with ringing the bells
in different mathematical sequences and then in 1668, he published ‘Tintinnalogia’ or the Art of Change Ringing’ . A further book,’ Campanologia’, published in 1677 gave the procedure for two new methods; Grandsire Doubles and Stedman’s Principle.
Bell ringing by method
Bell ringing by method was at first the province of aristocrats and the intellingentsia; later for artisans
and labourers but women were excluded. It was essentially a blend of sport, music and exercise.
The bells are normally sitting in a safe position in their frames with the clappers hanging downwards and
are then said to be ‘down’. Before they are rung, they have to be raised into an upside down position i.e they are ‘up’ and there are two strokes to each movement of the bell. Novice ringers begin by learning
how to ring ’rounds’, i.e. up and down the bells in order, before learning a simple method such as the Plain Hunt. When the bells are not rung in rounds, they are rung in a set sequence or ‘method’. These sequences have names such as ‘ Grandsire’ Cambridge Surprise Minor’ and ‘Kent Treble Bob Major’. The ‘surname is the key to how many bells are changing places in the sequence.
The Bells in Ashwell tower
In 1754 the parish register recorded the bells thus:
Treble Charles Newman 1694
No. 2 Charles Newman 1694
No. 3 Sonora sono meo sono Deo 1607
No. 4 Miles Graye made me 1610
No. 5 Coelorum Christe placeat tibi rex sonus iste 1607
No. 6 Abeo nomen Gabrielis missi di Coelis 1607
A peal consists of the maximum number of changes possible on a given number of bells.
A change means that no sequence of bells is repeated. The six bells of Ashwell tower mean 5,040 changes; about three hours ringing-a real test of stamina! Peals are usually rung to commemorate special events. Shorter versions are the quarter or half peal. If a peal fails it is said to be ‘ too much for the band’ .
Sometimes the sound of the bells is muffled by a piece of leather on the clapper and they may be rung on
a day of national mourning. A single bell is tolled for local funerals. Long ago, a bell was sounded for a death and the number of rings marked the age of the deceased.
Notable peals in Ashwell
The first recorded full peal in Ashwell was on the 14th of November, 1931 with a minor peal of seven methods. It is believed to be the first peal on the rehung bells. Some later peals had intriguing names: ‘Pontefract Delight Minor (1955) and ‘Burnaby Delight Minor’ (1965). A Surprise Minor was rung to mark
the 1st anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1954 by the Hertford County Association.
The Essex Association of Bell Ringers rang a peal on 3rd May 1986 during the Ashwell Music Festival.