For most of us, the sound of English church bells is inseparable from the English landscape in all its rich, yet characteristic, diversity – the village green, the pub, the churchyard and the church belfry. I have been captain of the bell-ringers at St George’s church in Benenden for some years, and often visit other towers in Kent or further afield for enjoyable challenges of change-ringing.
The vast majority of full-circle change-ringing bells are in England. Yet the art followed the flag; and ringing towers are to be found, in small numbers, all over the English-speaking world – USA and Canada, Australia/NZ, Africa (12 towers), Singapore, and the remotest of all from its nearest ringing neighbour, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Honolulu. Relatively few actually date back to Imperial days; a surprising number are comparatively recent.
Foreign holidays with ringing
For many years my wife, Karen, and I have combined occasional foreign holidays with ringing at many of these distant towers, usually as part of, or organising, groups of UK ringers similarly addicted; an ideal way of seeing distant lands with a definite objective. Such visits, of experienced ringers, are invariably welcomed by isolated bands struggling to keep the art alive far from the support of any neighbouring tower, such as Kenya’s only ringing tower, St Thomes, Kilifi, which we visited twice and raised funds from generous fellow-ringers to bring some of the band to UK for desperately needed training and awareness of being connected to the world-wide fellowship of ringers.
Until recently, change ringing was a phenomenon of the English-speaking world only, the sole exception being Francophone Quebec with its two rings of eight bells, who successfully manage the arcane English technical language of change ringing alongside normal French speech.
But in recent years the art has for the first time made its way to our continental neighbours, first due to the enthusiasm of a Dutch family who installed, and trained a band at, TWO separate rings of bells at the Groote Kerke, Dordrecht; then the Memorial Church at Ypres, Belgium, and, in 2019, the first ring of English bells in France, about as far away from England as one can get in that country – Vernet-les-Bains in the French Eastern Pyrenees, in the Anglican church of St George
Anglican church in the Pyrenees
Why on earth has a small Pyrenean town got an Anglican church; let alone one with a ring of bells? It’s all to do with the water. In the years leading up to the first world war, Vernet was a fashionable spa that attracted, with its beautiful mountain scenery and Mediterranean climate, a considerable community of definitely upper-class English, among others the famous writer Rudyard Kipling, all keen to take the cure of the thermal baths.
And what did a significant community of expatriate upper-class English do in those days? Obviously, they built themselves a church as soon as possible. Not one with an aggressively soaring Victorian Gothic spire but, much more in the spirit of the then fashionable Entente Cordiale, a simple building matching its surroundings, with a low-pitched pantiled roof just like all the surrounding buildings – but they obviously thought that any proper English church should at least have a tower, and so it has.
New English residents in Vernet
The First World War severely depleted the English church community at Vernet, but it just staggered on up to the Second, when the last members mostly died off and the church was abandoned, and stood empty and derelict for the next 60-odd years.
But wheels turn full circle, and in the last 20 years English residents, albeit rather less aristocratic than their forebears, have again come to live in Vernet, or have a holiday home there – enough of them for a modest but thriving church community at a refurbished St George’s. Among them was an experienced ringer, Jeff Ladd, whom we knew from many years ago when he joined us on some of our yacht sailing/ ringing trips, visiting some of the remoter towers in these islands.
Jeff retired to Vernet, looked at the tower, and decided they ought to have a ring of bells; raised the money, installed a lovely light ring of ten bells and trained a band of expatriates plus, increasingly, French locals intrigued by this strange English pastime.
The Pyrenees seemed a good holiday destination anyway for us; and Jeff told us of a visiting band from Surrey in mid-September and we’d be welcome to join them. So we abandoned Benenden bells to the capable management of Katie, and set off.
Halfway down France we got the news of the Queen’s passing.
First instinct, to turn straight back for the ringing needed at Benenden. Second thoughts – this is just what we’ve been training the Benenden band for, all these years, to be able to handle such a situation without us – and they did, brilliantly, with a little distant support emailing by us from wifi spots when we could find one. On to Vernet, to ring these lovely little bells for the Queen – a delightful quarter-peal of 1275 Stedman Caters, among much ringing with the local band, and enjoying drinking, eating and socialising with them.
So we did ring for the Queen, and at St George’s, after all……
Editor’s note: Written for Benenden parish magazine.