‘And the bells were ringing out for Christmas day!’ Greg Hoar meets some of the teams of bellringers, in bell towers and churches across Dorset, who will be providing the peals of bells over the festive period.

It was a real privilege to meet these three enthusiastic groups of bellringers, they represent just a few of the hundreds of campanologists across Dorset. Their dedication and passion for this art ensures that we continue a long history of bellringing across the county. Having been shown the ropes and the bell towers, I’ll certainly listen to the bells at Christmas with greater appreciation.

Great British Life: The Minster Church of St Cuthburga, Wimborne Minster with its two towers. (Photo: Allou/iStock /Getty Images Plus)The Minster Church of St Cuthburga, Wimborne Minster with its two towers. (Photo: Allou/iStock /Getty Images Plus)

The Minster Church of St Cuthburga, Wimborne Minster

The twin towers of The Minster Church of St Cuthburga dominate the town’s landscape, as does the sound of its bells on Sundays and on Tuesday practice evenings. A thorough overhaul in recent times, with three further bells cast and hung in 2012, the Minster has a am impressive ring of 12 bells with an additional tenor. Locally, only Christchurch Priory has a similar configuration. The Wimborne Minster Society of Church Bellringers (WMSCB) currently has about 20 people who regularly ring, including 12 husband and wife members. The team are a mix of ages, with younger members attending the first part of the Tuesday practice evening. When I visit, the tin of chocolate biscuits and other edible goodies laid out on the ringers’ table seem to go down well during the short breaks between rings.

Tower Captain, David Warwick, an experienced organist and former Head of Music at Canford School, tells me that the pursuit of bellringing runs through the Warwick family. ‘Both my grandfather and parents rang, as does my wife Flick and many of the next generation have also taken it up.’

Rob Child, who is the Steeple Keeper, has been closely involved in the maintenance of the bells. He started as a youngster gaining a Scout badge for bell ringing; likewise, Sue Riley who started ringing in Bristol as a Girl Guide. I wonder whether it’s a tricky skill to learn? I seek advice from several of the ringers present who tell me that ringing is just like riding a bike, once you have the knack it’s not forgotten. It’s a question of feeling, looking, listening and remembering.

Great British Life: Some of the Wimborne Minster Society of Church Bellringers at their weekly practice. (Photo: Greg Hoar)Some of the Wimborne Minster Society of Church Bellringers at their weekly practice. (Photo: Greg Hoar)

At the end of the practice Rob invites me to climb two further flights of steps to stand inside the belfry itself. ‘The tower has been able to accommodate the additional bells hung just over 10 years ago,’ he explains. It feels such a privilege to be gazing directly at the bells which have rung out for centuries across Wimborne Minster calling the community to worship.

Over the 18 months, the Minster’s bellringers have been busy. A quarter peal was rung on muffled bells on September 9 last year following the death of her late Majesty the previous day. And to celebrate the King’s Coronation on May 6, a peal - during which the bells were rung continuously in over 5,040 different sequences - was successfully achieved by the team over a period of three and a half hours.

Christmas is always a busy time at The Minster with carol services and festive concerts prior to the big day. The WMSCB ring for the Sunday Sung Eucharist and Evensong every week and will be in the bell tower for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, concluding 2023 by ringing in the New Year.


Great British Life: St Mary's the Virgin at Piddlehinton. (Photo: Greg Hoar)St Mary's the Virgin at Piddlehinton. (Photo: Greg Hoar)

St Mary the Virgin Church, Piddlehinton 

I can barely make out St Mary the Virgin Church, tucked between the Piddlehinton crossroads and the River Piddle, when I visit it on a damp Tuesday evening, for the weekly bellringing practice. I’m met by Julian, a local resident who has been bellringing here since the new Millennium. ‘We share the village church with a colony of bats and a few mice too,’ he says. 'There’s no bell tower to climb here, as ringing is done at ground level at the back of the church.' St Mary’s has its origins in the late 13th century with much Victorian restoration and addition. It has six, approximately half tonne bells, the oldest dating from 1633 and the newest from 1950.

The church’s 12 bellringers are lead in weekly practice by Tower Captain Richard Ellis who started ringing as a youngster in the mid-1960s. They also provide the pulling power for the heavier bells at nearby All Saints, Piddletrenthide. Sunday Eucharist and Evening Prayer services are attended by the bell ringers at both churches in rotation.

Great British Life: Some of the bellringing team at St Mary the Virgin Church in Piddlehinton, the bells are rung from the back of the church. (Photo: Greg Hoar)Some of the bellringing team at St Mary the Virgin Church in Piddlehinton, the bells are rung from the back of the church. (Photo: Greg Hoar)

Ann is one of the newer bellringers having stepped forward last year when the team needed bolstering. ‘I have found it to be a challenging but rewarding experience,' she tells me. 'I have had a lot of support from the other ringers, and it is a great social activity.’

Paul and Sue have been part of the team for nearly three years.‘I was walking the dog one Christmas Day, and I was so moved by the sound of the church bells that I enquired about becoming a bell ringer,’ Paul says. His wife Sue reveals that though pleasantly cool in summer, in winter it’s a different story. ‘We sometimes need several layers of additional clothing, even a hot water bottle maybe necessary to keep warm!’

Ashley, one of the younger ringers, is an enthusiastic campanologist who has clocked up a decade of bellringing experience already. Much of his spare time is spent ringing not only at other local churches, but in bell towers right across the country.

Great British Life: Richard Ellis, Tower Captain at St Mary the Virgin Church, Piddlehinton. (Photo: Greg Hoar)Richard Ellis, Tower Captain at St Mary the Virgin Church, Piddlehinton. (Photo: Greg Hoar)

Peter started with the bells as a young man and then joined the bellringing society at his university, he’s still in touch with former members both socially and for ringing. ‘Posture, core, balance and timing are the key elements to be co-ordinated, I think that bellringing must be the ultimate team game supported by great camaraderie.’

Tower Captain, Richard Ellis has trained all the new bellringers in recent years. Presently he has two beginners in Dorchester. Meanwhile at St Mary’s, the wife of the new benefice vicar is stepping up to the rope under his expert guidance. This year the team undertook to Ring for The King on Coronation Day, and Christmas will bring additional bookings such as Carols by Candlelight as well as Christmas Day services at the two village churches they cover.


Great British Life: The church tower at St Nicholas in Child Okeford. (Photo: Greg Hoar)The church tower at St Nicholas in Child Okeford. (Photo: Greg Hoar)

St Nicholas Church, Child Okeford

As one of the five ringers available for the Monday evening practice, Heidi calls: ‘Look to, the treble’s going, she’s gone...’ as the next round of ringing begins. Heidi, who returned to bellringing after the Covid period, says the group offers mutual support and friendly advice. St Nicholas has weekly practices, and the ringers attend morning service on the second Sunday of each month. With Tower Captain Rose Shaw, the church has a pool of between eight and nine ringers. Among them is Gaynor who previously rang in Hampshire and joined the ringers at St Nicholas with her late husband when they moved to Dorset. She also steps in for bellringing duties at other villages when needed.

St Nicholas Church dates to the 13th century, the tower was added in the early 16th century, and the building was extensively rebuilt in the Victorian era. The six-bell tower has two bells from 1887 and a further four from 1934, all approximately one-half tonne in weight.

Bob Crighton, Master of the Bells, and his wife Lynne have a long history of ringing. ‘I started as a youngster in Yorkshire at the suggestion of his Scoutmaster,’ says Bob. ‘Lynne rang as a youngster too and found it improved her confidence and introduced her to a wide range of people with a shared passion.’ This bell ringing couple have a lot of experience, both rung at Guildford Cathedral for 26 years and have been at Child Okeford for seven and a half years often assisting at other local bell towers. Bob instigated the remodelling of St Nicholas’ then heavy bells soon after his arrival. ‘The former treble bells were refurbished and the remaining four replaced with lighter, more serviceable bells from the 1930s that were originally part of the clock mechanism at The News of the World building in London,’ Bob explains. The result of this, since September 2018, has been a more tuneful and efficient set of bells, which Bob hopes will help with the longevity of ringing activities at St Nicholas.

Great British Life: Some of the bellringing team at St Nicholas Church, Child Okeford . (Photo: Greg Hoar) Some of the bellringing team at St Nicholas Church, Child Okeford . (Photo: Greg Hoar)

Most recently the bells were rung for a 20-minute period on Coronation Day followed by a special Coronation Peal the next day. ‘Bellringing is an addictive pursuit,’ Bob confesses. ‘Ringers are welcomed away from their home tower to other churches across Dorset and beyond.’ Dove’s Guide for Church Bell Ringers (find online at dove.cccbr.org.uk) reveals that there are 155 collections of bells to ring in Dorset alone. ‘Once you’ve rung your way around the county, your next step might be to compose your own peal of bells,’ he adds. The possibilities seem to be manifold for the enthusiast.

Come Christmas time, the St Nicholas team will ring for a Crib and Carol Service as well as the Christmas Day eucharist scheduled to be held at Child Okeford.


Interested in taking up bell ringing? {BOX OUT}

Whether you are wanting to return to bell ringing, or you would like to see if it were something you would enjoy, here are some useful contacts. Dorset County Association of Bellringers website dcacbr.org.uk and Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers (with branches across Dorset) website sdgr.org.uk.