Covid-19 has taken its toll on countless activities - the art of bellringing included. But bellringers have turned to modern technology to keep the age-old tradition alive. PETER BARRON reports


IT'S a sound that echoes deep in the heart of English culture, and the chances are that you can hear it no matter where you happen to live.

The familiar, reassuring ringing of church bells dates back to the early missionaries using small handbells to summon people to worship, with larger, fixed bells being introduced to Christian churches around 400 AD.

Campanology has survived just about everything history could throw at it, until Covid-19 sent alarm bells ringing in March last year when the first national lockdown was ordered, and churches were shut nationwide.

But an uplifting theme of the pandemic has been the way people have adapted with the help of technological ingenuity. And for those devoted to ringing bells in the tight confines of belfries, the internet has been a Godsend.

“We had to find a way to keep bands of bellringers together, and it’s turned out to be a wonderful learning experience that will continue even when we get back to normal,” says Mike Hodgson, proud Tower Captain of All Saints Church, in Hurworth-on-Tees, near Darlington, for more than 20 years.

Amid fears that precious bellringers – an increasingly endangered species – might be lost during the prolonged hiatus, the virtual ‘Ringing Room’ proved to be invaluable. It is ingenious software, designed in America, to give bellringers a platform to practise from the safety of home, while maintaining team spirit and camaraderie.

In the case of All Saints Church, members of the tower assemble online every Thursday evening to stay in touch, and work on their arrangements, albeit only through their own computers.

“Some towers have decided it wasn’t for them, but a lot are using The Ringing Room,” says Mike. “We wanted to make sure we came out of lockdown with the same number of ringers – we couldn't afford to lose any.”

Mike, who hails from Durham, started bellringing in 1969, learning with a friend at Shincliffe, before joining the Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Association of Church Bellringers a year later. It quickly became a passion and, before long, he was ringing at Shincliffe for half an hour at 9am, then rushing up to Durham Cathedral for morning service, before ringing at the cathedral again in the afternoon.

He even found love through bellringing. He met his wife, Caroline, when she came to study at Durham University and she already had experience of bellringing in her home village of Weston Turville, in Buckinghamshire. Caroline joined in at Shincliffe and Durham Cathedral, and it was wedding bells in 1976.

In 1990, they moved to Girsby, near Darlington, and started ringing at Hurworth, with Mike taking over as Tower Captain in 2000.

“It’s a very addictive, fun thing to do, and you never stop learning because there are lots of different methods to try,” says Mike, who retired last year from his job in IT.

The oldest member of his team is grandma-of-five Annie Johnson, who is still more than pulling her weight at nearly 83.

Originally from Bishop Auckland, Annie has lived in Hurworth since 1961 and was a teacher for 47 years – 30 of them at Hurworth Comprehensive School, where she taught music and biology.

She was taught to ring at St Cuthbert’s Church, in Darlington, and started ringing at Hurworth in 1971. Her late husband, Brian, preceded Mike as Tower Captain and was also church warden.

“He only decided to join in because he was tired of being asked to babysit while I went off ringing,” laughs Annie.

In true Hitchcock style, there are 39 steps to climb up the All Saints tower, and the biggest bell is 17 hundred-weight – just less than a ton – so Annie manages incredibly well given that bellringing is not without its hazards.

There was the time a chap called Gordon Young was ringing a bell weighing a ton and a half at Durham Cathedral. He was standing on a box and the rope got snagged under his foot, turning him upside down and depositing him on his head.

Annie remains unfazed. “It’s very physical but there’s a knack to it,” she says. “It keeps you fit, and you build up a lot of muscle, so it’s great if you want to stay slim.”

Mike has no doubt about Annie’s continued value to his band of a dozen ringers. “She’s a vital member of the team – it wouldn’t be the same without her,” he admits.

Last year, Mike and Annie were presented with awards marking 50 years’ membership of the association, and they’ve rung at towers the length and breadth of the country. They’ve even frequently planned holidays around their hobby.

“Every tower’s different and it’s just interesting to ring at new ones – you learn a lot about English heritage in the process,” says Mike, who also shows new bellringers the ropes across at Shildon.

Services at All Saints were delivered by Zoom for around a year during lockdown, though the bells continued to chime automatically every 15 minutes and on the hour. Since the doors were unlocked, the bellringers have been able to return for their regular Sunday morning duties, although they restrict themselves to only three of the bells, instead of the full set of six, to maintain social distancing rules.

Physical practice sessions on Thursday evenings have yet to resume, so the virtual Ringing Room remains in full use. It’s proved invaluable in keeping the band together, though concerns remain about the need to attract new ringers.

“People retire or move away, so we always need new blood,” says Mike. “It’s a great hobby, not just learning a new skill, but meeting people, and it’s something you can take with you anywhere.”

As for the redoubtable Annie Johnson, she has no intentions of giving up. “As long as I can get up those 39 steps, you’ll find me ringing,” she says.

THANKFULLY, in-person speaking engagements are starting to resume, and I'm looking forward to Darlington Flower Club's annual charity day at Headlam Hall on September 8.

It starts at 10am with a variety of stalls, and beauty advice (not from me). Tickets are £30, including lunch, and are available by calling 01325 469881.

Proceeds will go towards the campaign to improve the Chemotherapy Day Centre at the University Hospital of North Durham.

Meanwhile, regular club meetings are back from September 1 at 2pm at St Cuthbert's Church Hall, with visitors welcome.

I hope to see you on September 8 in aid of a fantastic cause.