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Checkley (Staffs) Church Bell Extravaganza 22nd July 2017

The 22nd July 2017 has been in my diary for several months. The Alton Hand Bell Ringers, of which I am a member, had been invited to take part in this significant local event.

However, for the people of Checkley this occasion was something they had looked forward to for many years.  The bells of Checkley Church fell silent decades ago after the bell tower was deemed to be structurally unsafe.  As an ex tower bell ringer myself, I can remember ringing in several church towers where you could feel the building move due to the inertia of several tons of bells swinging around.  It is remarkable how many old bell towers have survived as well as they have when you think about the mechanics of tower bell ringing.  The original oak bell frame at Checkley is thought to date back to 1575.  So, silence befell the church tower at Checkley and this was a great loss to the local community.

There had been talk of restoring the bells for many years and it was Clive Smith, the late husband of the current vicar of Checkley, the Reverend Irene Smith, who was the driving force behind this project.   Sadly, Clive passed away in 2016.   The total cost of restoration would be in the order of £100,000.  Undeterred by the scale of the necessary fund raising required, the people of Checkley, together with the support of local businesses, began their fundraising activities and phase 1 of the restoration project was completed in 2005 to strengthen the tower of the Grade 1 listed medieval Church of St Mary and All Saints.  The second phase of the project was to build a new steel frame in the clock tower to rehouse the six original Rudhall bells which were cast in 1762.  The bells had to be removed for the first time in 255 years, and they were restored and retuned by the Whitechapel Foundry in London, which is where our hand bells were made. Upon their return to Checkley, they then had to be installed in their new frame.  This work was completed in 2016.

So, the 22nd July was a celebration of the completion of this work.  There were all sorts of family activities in addition to tower bell ringing and even a mobile Belfry located on the Community Centre car park, enabling anyone to try their hand in the art of bell ringing.  Closed circuit TV cameras have been installed in the bell tower to give people in the church live footage of the bells being rung.  This is a great idea as most people have no idea what this looks like.  For the weekend celebrations, a temporary awning had been erected leading from the church to the pub next door which I thought was a nice touch!

The Alton Hand bell ringers’ performance had been billed as a Hand Bell Ringing ‘demonstration’ and we were not sure quite what this meant.  Would people be passing through as we rang?  Would they be talking?  Would there be much interest?  Well, we had a very attentive audience and our pieces were well received.  In fact I cannot remember another event where we had so much interest after we had finished ringing, with several people wanting to ‘have a go’.  So much so, that we played Aura Lee together with members of the audience which was great fun especially for the children, who found it easier to play the chimes and so played them along with the hand bells.  Any new recruits Wendy?

Dave Jones 

23.07.2017

Photo by Alan Walters

Find out more at http://www.checkleystaffs.co.uk/bellrestoration/index.html

Christchurch Church Hall, Tean, Staffs, 10 July 2017

A Monday afternoon earlier in the year. Door bell rings. (no pun intended) Outside is a smiling Lynne clutching a small notelet. The notelet explains that AHR would like to recruit new members and Lynne wondered if I might be interested. I was and so the following Wednesday I attended my first practice session. 

I was immediately warmly welcomed by the group and made to feel at home. The next weeks were to be a very different learning exercise in producing music. This was certainly very different from my usual music lessons and playing with a band.

The music has no notes, in my case only numbers. There are no staves, no time signature, no key signature, no crochets, quavers, minims and all the other odd sounding notes that one might find on a traditional sheet of music.

The handbell ringers have their own method of indicating the note to be played, how long the ring should last and, as I was to find out in later days, what else one should do with the bell to produce different sounds. 

One of the first lessons involved keeping the bell upright having rung it. I was told by Sue to imagine the bell filled with milk and not to spill any. To be honest I couldn't have cared less if I spilled any milk but as soon as I imagined the bell to be filled with 'Speckled Hen' this concentrated the mind and technique much better.

Concentration levels are at their highest when playing, keeping track where one is on the music and counting the beats for each bar.

Anyway, the weeks have gone by and, after considerable encouragement and help from Wendy and support from Alan and Dave who stand either side of me, I was considered good enough to join in some numbers for a concert.

So here we are at Tean Church hall to entertain Tean and Checkley Senior Citizens. A pleasant summer evening and lots of  friendly faces arriving and taking their seats whilst we set up our tables. Ladies were already in the kitchen preparing for the cup of tea at the end of the show, always a good sign! 

After a very short meeting we were then welcomed and thanked for coming to entertain and so the show began.

'Celebration,' our first number, was received with a good round of applause and, above all, lots of smiling faces from the gathered audience showed that they had really enjoyed the piece.

As I was not playing for every number I was able to watch the audience’s reaction to different tunes.

'Thaxted' produced lots of interest at the start of the piece because of the 'Singing Bells.’  (see I have learned some terminology)

The use of Mallets at the start of  'I've Got the Joy' was much appreciated by a group of ladies who smiled and tapped their feet throughout.

'Polaris and the Northern Lights' was very well received and after the show several commented that they were surprised how quietly the bells could be rung and that they had arrived expecting the bells to always be loud.

At the announcement of 'You Raise Me Up' a murmur of appreciation went round the hall and several were humming along with the tune.

'Blessed Assurance' showed another involvement with the audience as it was particularly noticeable that many were nodding their head in time to the tune which illustrates how music affects those listening.

Audience participation was the call of the day for our final two numbers 'Over the Rainbow' and  'You are my Sunshine' when, with the help of a song sheet, the audience became one of us by being our choir.

We were thanked enthusiastically for our very enjoyable and varied programme and we all took a bow.

During tea and biscuits at the end there was a lot of interest shown and questions asked by many of  the audience about the music and bells and chimes.

Peter Walker 10.7.17

Photo by Alan Walters

 

Checkley, Staffordshire, Bell Extravaganza and Fun Day, Saturday 22 July

Alton Handbell Ringers' 12 bell team will be ringing tunes from 12-12.30pm in the Church.  The Fun Day runs from 11am until 4.30pm.  There will be a demonstration of Tower Bell ringing before and after the Handbell ringing.

The Mobile Bell Frame will be in the Community Centre car park between 11.30am and 4.30pm.  Afternoon tea will be served in the Community Centre from 2pm.

 

Leek Arts Forum Celebration Evening 29.6.17

Tumultuous applause and whistles!  Well, this was the first time ever! 

At the annual celebration evening in Leek, we rang a selection of 12 bell tunes to a very appreciative audience.

Ours was just one of the many performances by talented musicians, actors, humorists and poets who came together from Biddulph, Cheadle, Alton and Leek to share the range of performance arts that are alive and well in the Staffordshire Moorlands. 

The Alton Handbell Ringers (AHR) are very fortunate to be supported by Cheadle Arts Forum which is a branch of Staffordshire Moorlands District Arts Forum.

Art Development Grants are available for members of the arts forums and over the last few years we have benefited by receiving grants to help with the following projects.

1.Travelling expenses for the team to attend the Annual Rally of the Handbell RIngers of Great Britain in York where we rang and attended workshops.

2.Buying new music stands.

3.Setting up our own website.

4.Recording our own CD.

All of us in the AHR team are very appreciative of the support that encourages us to play and share our music in the Staffordshire Moorlands.

Wendy Walters, AHR Musical Director

 

A Different Sort of Sunday

Part One - Before

Where are we off to early tomorrow morning (Sunday) all dressed in our smart black outfits, with blue scarves for the women and bow ties for the men? To church? No. To work? No. To record our first CD? Yes!

By lunchtime 8 tracks should be safely captured. (We’ve been practising 9 to have a spare, in case….) Handbells, not their ringers of course, can be quirky at times, so best to be prepared.

Checklist for the morning: outfit (don’t forget the scarf), no jewellery because the bells zing off it, packed lunch, comfy shoes as we’ll be standing for 4 hours, bottles of water for me and the dog, who has to come, tho’ she doesn’t ring. Oh and don’t forget my special specs that focus exactly on the music. Leave home at 8.15 am, pick up Sarah and set off for the Summerbank Recording Studio in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. 

We have to be there by 9 am, to finish recording by 1pm because then a plumber’s coming to repair a leak in the studio. Doesn’t sound propitious, but we’re used to ringing in tricky venues: crowded pubs, a church where the lights were so dim we couldn’t read our music, cold village halls, sitting on a stone wall in the rain for a well dressing, under canvas on a day so windy that the music flew off the stands.  A real recording studio should be a luxury!

It’s thanks to The Inn Ringers of Stone, Staffordshire, that we’re off on this new venture.  They it was who invited us to take part in this enterprise and share a CD with them. So very kind. Let’s just hope we can do them justice. 

One thing I’ve learnt from taking up handbell ringing: there’s never a dull moment!

 

Part Two - After

Well, this has been a great experience!  The venue, when we arrived, still slightly bleary eyed, didn’t look too inviting. Situated in the centre of Tunstall, one of the Potteries 5 Towns made famous by Arnold Bennett, it seemed unchanged since his day, until we went inside. 

The studio space itself was surprisingly bare, the technical stuff and the recording engineer all in a separate room. We somehow fitted our 5 tables into the space and laid out our equipment: 3 and a half octaves of bells and chimes, singing bell sticks and mallets, all carefully arrayed on blue velvet cushions and positioned around our transparent music stands. Quite a clutter really.

Paul, musical director of the Inn Ringers, kindly came along to see us settled in and helped to relieve the tension with jokes, for which he is well known. The recording engineer, also Paul and the very epitome of patience, critiqued each recording attempt with a skilled and professional ear, suggesting improvements and encouraging us to raise our game for yet another take.

So sensitive was the recording equipment that we were warned to be absolutely quiet before, during and after each piece: no shuffling, sneezing, coughing, clinking bells together, speaking, counting aloud, tapping feet. Breathing was just about the only permissible movement apart from playing the instruments.

Three and a half hours later we emerged into the sunshine, relieved, tired and exhilarated, and invaded the local Asda for a celebratory cup of coffee.

 

Sue Fraser 2.7.17

Photo by Alan Walters

 

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