The bells are ringing – but for how long?

A Slice of Britain: An essential part of the soundtrack of Britain, church bellringing relies on a dwindling number of skilled ringers who dash from tower to tower
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The Independent Online

The bells are "up"; two and a half tons of bronze, balanced precariously above our heads. Just the smallest tug on the ropes is enough to bring them swinging down, sending their familiar music ringing out across the village of Great Chart, and the frozen fields of the Kent countryside beyond.

In the tiny bell chamber below, a teenage boy in unseasonal combat shorts and trainers is flanked by a silver-haired 65-year-old woman, and an 11-year-old girl, while a middle-aged man begins to utter orders – "five to two", "three to seven", "six to four" – like a softly spoken sports coach. He is the tower captain, whose job is to direct the diverse group that is clutching the ropes in the bell tower in the hope of producing a tuneful sound.

The week between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day is traditionally the busiest time in the ringing calendar, when the bells call the faithful to worship at midnight mass and other services heralding the start of the new year. This year is proving more hectic than ever. A growing shortage of bellringers means that "flying squads" of bellringers are being forced to rush between churches across the country, often ringing at several different churches in a day. For our band of ringers this afternoon's service in Great Chart is the first of five; after this the band dashes on to churches in nearby Kennington and Little Chart, before finishing with a midnight mass in Ashford.

The modest room is dominated by the eight thick ropes hanging through the ceiling. With big loops at the end, they look disturbingly like hangman's nooses, but while a character in Dorothy L Sayers's bellringing thriller The Nine Tailors memorably came to a sticky end in a bell tower, our ringers have suffered only minor injuries for their craft. "The rope whipped around and dislodged one of my teeth," says 10-year-old Aaron Clark, who attends practice after school on Fridays. "It was painful and bleeding, but I didn't get any blood on the rope."

Wooden plaques on the wall of the small carpeted room commemorate peals rung to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977 and Golden Jubilee in 2003, while a Christmas card from a local resident pinned to the noticeboard thanks the bellringers for their efforts at Sunday church services that year.

"I rang at a wedding in the summer, which was nice. When it goes well you feel like you've been able to help them make it a special day," said 17-year-old Hendy Wickham-Pusey. "I really like bellringing, but I'm going to university in September and I don't know if I'll carry it on. My work will have to come first."

The transition between school and university is one of the biggest problems for churches when it comes to retaining bellringers. While many begin through their involvement with Guides, Scouts, or through schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards, few continue when they move away from their home parishes, with many failing to resume their hobby until retirement.

"I like that it is a gentle physical exercise, and a good way to make friends," says 52-year-old Margaret Wilsher, a bookkeeper from neighbouring Sellindge. "Also, there is no cost involved, which is refreshing these days."

While their melodious sound might be enjoyed by non-churchgoers and the devout alike, there is no escaping the fact that church bells are a call to prayer. The vicar's freshly pressed cassock hangs from a hook on one wall of the bell tower; on the other the stained-glass figures of St George and St Patrick bear down on our ringers, vivid reds and blues casting dappled shadows across the floor. "Being a practising Christian is not a prerequisite for bellringing, but most people are," says the tower captain, Graham Coker, 59.

While there are an estimated 40,000 bellringers practising in the country, there is a dearth of ringers in many parishes which makes it hard for those who might be interested in the hobby to get started. "It is difficult for some of the learners. Because they don't have groups of ringers at their own churches, they don't get enough practice," says Mr Coker.

"The more time you spend on a rope, the better you get. I spend so much time teaching that my own ringing isn't improving."

A decade has passed since the bellringing community last enjoyed a real boost to its numbers. The Ring in 2000 campaign by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers aimed to have every church tower in the country equipped with its own local band to ring in the new year. This succeeded in attracting many new recruits, but it provided only a temporary boost.

The Central Council believes there is a steady supply of novices keen to give ringing a go, but that a shortage of skilled and experienced bellringers means that the enthusiasm of the starters wanes and they drop out and do other things. In 2007, it set up the Ringing Foundation, to raise money to improve the quality of teaching for people interested in taking up the pastime.

It is not only the bellringer's art that is under threat; the very bells themselves may be in trouble. In September, one of only two remaining bell foundries in the UK went into administration. The Lincolnshire firm Taylors, Eayre and Smith, which was established in 1839 and made the largest bell in the UK, the Great Paul at St Paul's Cathedral, was eventually saved from closure by a new owner. But the very real prospect of losing the historic foundry highlighted how precarious the once thriving pastime had become.