The 2012 Spring meeting of the Guild of Medical Ringers took place in the attractive South West corner of Suffolk.
Huge flint towers dominate the gently undulating countryside, proclaiming the prosperity brought to the area by the wool trade. A maze of narrow lanes connects the picturesque villages of timber framed, thatched cottages painted in Suffolk pink, or alternative colours with varying degrees of subtlety. Better than expected weather allowed us to enjoy our surroundings in all their glory.
The weekend’s proceedings started in Kersey, one of the prettiest of these villages, where a group of twenty four members gathered over lunch. The church with its particularly massive tower stands high above the village, next to the small village school. Unsurprisingly, lessons were disturbed by our ringing, but it was curiosity rather than irritation that was aroused, and the children were brought across to watch what was happening. Ringing from the ground floor in this high tower required careful handling, but we managed a good variety of methods. The only disaster was our first attempt at the special method for the weekend, Five Rings Triples. More homework was needed!
We then wound our way through the narrow lanes to the isolated church at Edwardstone, standing in the grounds of the former hall, entered via a brick archway. In spite of its remoteness, the church was well cared for, and appeared to have an active congregation. Methods from Plain Bob to London Surprise were successfully rung on this pleasant six.
A short drive brought us to the larger village of Boxford and its interesting church. The fourteenth century tower is topped by an unusual small wood and lead spire. The bells range in age from fifteenth to late twentieth century, and we found these the most challenging of the day. However, we did rise to the challenge set by our Ringing Master, Stephen Clarke, of learning and ringing on the spot Jubilee Surprise Major. We also rang some Double Norwich, but these bells seemed better suited to ringing triples.
In the evening, several of us joined the band at Stoke by Nayland for their practice. In fact, this practice would probably not have taken place had we not been there. We were pleased to be of benefit, enabling the local band to ring Cambridge, Yorkshire and Double Norwich as well as more basic methods. Even by Suffolk standards this is a magnificent church, its imposing red brick tower dominating the countryside for miles around.
Our numbers increased slightly for Saturday’s programme, which began with the anti –clockwise ring of eight at Bures. Far from causing confusion, the backwards ring seemed to concentrate our minds and we enjoyed some good ringing, including a successful course of Five Rings.
The road from Bures to Nayland is not a fast one at the best of times. When it is closed, a tortuous meander through country lanes is the only option. Nevertheless, we arrived in good time for our appointment at this 15cwt. six. The ringing chamber is at the base of the tower, but approached up steps from the outside as it sits above a vault. We had been warned that the back bells were difficult, but we found them capable of ringing all we asked of them, from Grandsire Doubles to London and Norwich Surprise Minor. The church itself was another gem, an altar piece by John Constable being of particular note.
Having assembled for a group photo, we walked to the riverside Anchor Inn, where lunch had been arranged. In spite of some confusion beforehand, including a recent change of management and chef, everything turned out well and we were served efficiently and with good humour.
Suitably refreshed, we made our way to Polstead church, a fascinating church in a delightful setting, with a superb light ring of six. Again, a wide variety of methods was successfully rung, but there was some disagreement about the ideal speed for the bells. (This was also reflected in the speeds on the peal boards in the tower) Among Polstead’s claims to fame are the only medieval stone spire in Suffolk and brick arches which are believed to contain the some of the oldest surviving English bricks. Standing outside the church we could hear the bells of Stoke by Nayland ringing for a wedding, the reason we were not able to include those bells in the main tour.
A last-minute change of plan saw us heading off to Stratford St. Mary for our next ring. Here, some people took the opportunity of afternoon tea at the next door farm shop, whilst others fitted in a visit to East Bergholt, where they were delighted to see the bells in the cage actually being rung for the benefit of another visiting band. Intricate flint flushwork adorns many Suffolk churches, but at Stratford there is a particularly fine example, with a text running the length of the church. The bells here were quite a contrast to Polstead, requiring some hard work to hear them at their best.
The final tower of the day was the redundant church of St Peter’s, Sudbury. Here we were urged to visit the art exhibition before being allowed to climb up to the ringing chamber. The bells had not been rung for some time because of a broken gudgeon, but all was in order for our visit. The loudness of the bells, especially the trebles, meant that call changes were quite a challenge. Ringing was of a variable standard, but we were pleased with our touch of Stedman Caters.
Dinner was at the Mill Hotel, in a delightful setting overlooking Sudbury’s Water Meadows. From our rooms we were entertained by a newly hatched cygnet and a family of ducklings on the mill stream, and the mill wheel is preserved as a feature in the hotel restaurant. After dinner Janet Clarke was thanked for organising the weekend, and, as usual, the evening concluded with handbell ringing.
On Sunday morning, members dispersed in various directions. Service ringing had been arranged at Long Melford, for those willing to brave the unusual staircase, and a small group also went to Clare. The eight who stayed to the service at Long Melford were particularly impressed with the warmth of the welcome, which even extended to a mention on the service sheet.
In spite of a higher than average level of frustration with the organisation, this turned out to be a very successful weekend. We visited some fascinating churches with an interesting variety of bells. The weather was kind to us and, everywhere we went, we were made most welcome.