Four Shires Guild of Bell Ringers

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Do you know anything about Devon Call-change ringing? If so, have you had first-hand contact with it, or is it something about which you've heard only a few snippets? If the latter, or you don't know anything about it, it's a style that is largely confined to Devon and Cornwall. They don't ring methods, but just ring call-changes. They ring 'peals', but these aren't peals in the normal sense. The Devon 'peal' is: ring up in peal, ring call changes for about 10 minutes and then ring down in peal. All with no gaps in between.

Ah! simple you might say. Yee-e-ss, but Devon bands intend doing everything without a bell out of place anywhere (and by 'out of place' I mean no more than the odd millisecond away from perfect placing). The other complication for any non-Devon/Cornwall ringer is that all ringing has closed handstroke leads. (This is no gap at the handstroke leads, ie cartwheeling,) Closed handstroke leads for non-Devon/Cornwall ringers is extremely difficult, because it's a totally different rhythm — although I've noticed some manage closed handstroke leads without any difficulty…..

Lastly, they have 'stick-down-the-railings' starts to the rises. This involves swinging all the bells without them sounding, then at a signal from the person leading up they check the bells and the bells strike for the first time all together down the scale. None of this 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, etc starts And if you think Devon starts are impossible with bells over 15cwt or so, you need to think again. I saw a Devon band rise the 'back 8' at Evesham (36cwt) with a Devon start (actually it's on Youtube). I've rung with Devon call-change bands on two occasions and it's scary. If there's any clipping, it will be you, not them. That's what it's like. Very scary indeed if your striking is even just a little bit wayward….! So, if you think call-change ringing is too easy and beneath your standard, you just want to think again. Call changes sort out the men from the boys, because it's so repetitive. There's time to listen carefully and hear the inaccuracies. Method ringing goes on to the next change.

So, with this background to Devon/Cornwall ringing and how it differs from 'scientific' method ringing, imagine my surprise when Denzil Spear spoke to me last year about having a striking competition between method ringing and Devon ringing.

Denzil's accent marks him down as a Devonian — he grew up in Barnstaple and learnt to ring at the parish church there. He thought it would be interesting for the two styles of ringing, the scientifics and the call-changers, to go head to head. Hmm, thinks I, will you get any of the call-changers up here (it's a long way to come); and how might the two styles compete equally? I thought it might die a natural death.

I've learnt Denzil is a man that perseveres, as earlier this year he told me he'd got at least three call-change bands interested in coming to a contest at Longborough, and he needed to get some scientific bands from here signed up. He invited the Guild to send at least one team. Luckily, the rising and falling parts were already undertaken as part of the Guild Striking Comp, so that wouldn't faze us, except that the scientifics would ring up, ring a method piece and fall without a stop, and for the whole of the performance to take at least 15 minutes. This would allow equal footing between both camps. The scientifics didn't need to do Devon starts for the rises. There would be one judge each from both styles. The other major point was that there would be no practice ringing before the test piece. Just get up there and get on with it!

Scientifics and call-changers mingling at the draw

The Guild, through our Ringing Master Richard Lewis-Skeath, took up the challenge with enthusiasm. Denzil sent invitations to the North Cotswold Branch of the G&B and the wider G&B, and to ringers in Warwick. The Guild team had two practices, one of which (under the rules of the comp) was at Longborough. The band knew what we were up against, and to be honest we did not believe we'd be anywhere near the first three places. But we had to do it, because it would look poor if the call-changers travelled all the way up here and there were no scientifics to take them on. It would look as though we were running scared.

The appointed day arrived, Saturday May 16th. The weather was glorious: lots of sunshine on lots of Cotswold stone. Not only that, there were lots of people about, mostly speaking rather like Denzil. Ah, they must be the opposition. But what a truly lovely bunch of ringers, all with ready smiles. They thought the Cotswold scenery was delightful (of course it is, but better than Devon? Unlikely. It's just different). The judges were installed in an upstairs room in The Coach & Horses. The draw came. We were drawn a few teams down, which was probably a good place to be. A couple of the call-change bands kicked off and they set the standard: not just high, but very high. Phew…

The FSG team L-R: Richard L-S, Lucy Gwynne, Steve Bowley, Roger Hunt, Chris Povey, John Gwynne

The Guild team got its call and we went up to do our bit. Richard had brought along a large clock, so that he could see precisely where we were with the timing. Anything less than 15 minutes ringing would disable us from the competition, whereas all ringing over 15 minutes would still be marked. The ideal was therefore to ring for 15 minutes plus a few seconds. At the practices it was intended that we would not rush the ringing. We got the bells up and we started the method — yes, good old Grandsire Doubles. The

pace was a little faster than we had practised, but it all seemed to flow. We got the bells down and finished in the chime at just over 15 minutes. We'd focussed heavily on the striking at every part of the 'peal'. We'd done the best we could.

A couple of call-change bands followed us, the striking from one of which was simply glorious — absolutely machine-like and metronomic.

Richard L-S accepting the 3rd place certificate

The results were announced in the Village Hall. The scientifics' judge was Alan Hartley (who judged the Guild's striking competition last year) and for the call-changers was Mervyn Way. We assembled to hear the two wise men pronounce. First were the results for the best rise This went to a call-change band. Then the best fall: again a call-change band.

Were we surprised at these placings? Er, no. Then the results were announced for the best striking of the whole 'peal'. First place was awarded to Chagford (15 faults), who took the Ruth How Silver Salver back to Devon with them. Second was Burrington (15½ faults); and third was the Four Shires Guild (17½ faults). There was a second or so before realising that's what the judge had said. We'd made it into the first three places, thereby exceeding our expectations! Incredible. The next placed scientific band (Warwick) was 6th, so we'd won big time. Richard went up to collect the certificate.

It wasn't just 'a good time was had by all'. An excellent time was had by all. The Devon ringers were truly a treat to be with; and we are all looking forward to the repeat contest next year, which is to be held in Devon. Denzil is to be congratulated for bringing his amazing vision to fruition, which must have been a long, arduous and frustrating path to tread (he said he'd be delighted if the contest continued, as long as someone else did the arranging!).

While there was a great sense of achievement, I think the band felt we'd taken on a crack Devon call-change band, one of the best sources of good striking in bell ringing it's possible to hear, and put up a decent show. The competition the call-changers provided made us up our game.