John Bryce, ‘Oranges and Lemons’, wood engraving on seven endgrain boxwood blocks, Marianne Fisher on Jasper Snowdon, Diagrams

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

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Imagine you are walking in the English countryside and come to a village. As the day is hot and the church is open, you step inside to look around and rest in the predictably cool and dim interior. There are some things that the vast majority of church buildings in the British Isles seem to share: the ‘odour of sanctity’ (a combination of furniture polish, lilies and slightly damp stonework); the kneelers stitched by parishioners; a wall display or prayer tree made by the Sunday-school children; and a series of polite little notices – ‘Please close the door. PIGEONS!!!’

And then there are the books. Each church has its Bible, obviously, stacks of hymn books ready to be handed out on Sundays, and aged copies of the Book of Common Prayer, these perhaps kept in a glassfronted cabinet and used only by the few faithful who venture out for Evensong. All these you would expect to find as you wander around, your eyes gradually growing used to the shadows after the bright sunshine outside.

There is, however, another book. Behind a locked door, in an upper room, there is likely to be a slim quarto volume that you might not expect. You must be intrepid to reach it: you will need a key to unlock the door; you will need to climb a ladder or a spiral stair; there may be narrow passages through the thick walls, or boarded walkways through the roof-space, running over the top of the vaulted ceiling of the church below. Finally you will pass notices: ‘No Entry!’ ‘Danger!’ ‘Don’t Touch the Ropes!’

We have, of course, reached the ringing chamber, and the book we’ve been seeking is Jasper Snowdon’s Diagrams (1881), published originally by the author and since 2011 by the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers. It is now in its fourteenth edition, and there is a copy in just about every tower with bells, not only in England but also in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and anywhere else in the world where change ringing is practised:

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About the contributor

Marianne Fisher lives and works in rural Monmouthshire. When not on the end of a bell-rope, she is generally to be found gardening, making cider or enjoying the countryside with her pack of whippets.

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