Ringing the bells of Croydon Minster

By - Thursday 10th May, 2018

There’s joy in being part of this wonderful sound as it rolls out over Croydon

Photo author’s own.

On the evening of Tuesday 17th April I was invited to join Croydon Minster‘s bellringers for their regular weekly practice. I was extra-delighted to accept. I still miss the sound of the minster’s bells, for from 1999 to 2011 I lived within earshot. Weary and uncharmed by anything that we’d seen after quite a bit of house hunting, we’d slogged along to view a terrace in Old Town. Just as we stepped into the garden, a joyous peal rang out across the rooftops. It was like a welcome. A few weeks later, the place was ours.

Shirley McGill is the minster’s tower captain, in charge of the ringers. She and I climbed to the very top first to see the minster’s current bells, installed in December 1936 by specialists Gillett and Johnston, then of Union Street, West Croydon. The minster tower survived the devastating fire of 1867 which reduced the rest of the building to rubble (the bells, of course, did not), and there’s graffiti from centuries ago carved in the stone on the staircase.

Photo author’s own.

There are fourteen bells in all, but two are later additions; one the ‘victory bell’ from 1946, commemorating the end of the Second World War, and the other a gift to the minster in 1978 in memory of a parishioner’s parents. They are vast and imposing in the shadowy tower, the heaviest being thirty-seven hundredweight, and they bear witness to the history of the town. Lady Edridge’s name is carved on one, as its donor, and a plaque recording the fundraisers of 1936 also lists I. and A. Riesco. The minster is lucky to have the space, since this number of bells allows greater variety and complexity in the ringing.

Bellringing combinations are set out in a book called simply Diagrams. The team learns and practices these ‘paths’ under the direction of the tower captain, who leads as the ropes are being pulled to keep everyone together and ends each sequence with the order ‘stand’. ‘Grand Sire Triples’ was the deeply satisfying name of the pattern which the team rehearsed that evening.

It all looks so simple – until you try it. Then I began to appreciate the practice that it takes to coordinate the movement and force of each stroke, let alone to listen to others and learn your own part. To memorise the sequences of peals is a real undertaking. But I absolutely see why you would do it, and the pleasure of creating this wonderful sound as it ripples down the tower and rolls out over Croydon.

Commemorating those who rang the Minster’s bells for victory in 1945.
Photo author’s own.

The minster’s bells are showing their age. Since 1936, no work has been done on them beyond replacing ropes and a couple of minor adjustments. Now their metal frames are rusting. If repairs are not carried out, they will grow harder and harder to ring and, in the very long term, become unsafe. The sum of £26,000 is needed for the work. The minster, which recently achieved fundraising success with an energetic drive to restore its remarkable organ, is planning a campaign which will launch on the church’s patronal festival, the feast of St John the Baptist, on 24th June.

Many thanks to Shirley and the team for making me welcome and for a fascinating evening indeed.

The bell tower will be open to visitors at the minster’s second Flower Festival, to be held on Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th June. This will be a great chance to see them for yourself, to make a donation to this worthwhile cause, and to admire one of Croydon’s most beautiful buildings.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    I love the sound of bellringers!