St Swithun’s senior girls’ school and Winchester College are less than two miles apart geographically, and have long had links in many areas, both social and educational.
Winchester College is also one of few schools in the UK to have its own functional ring of bells, rung regularly by staff and pupils and used as a co-curricular training activity. As a parent of two daughters at St Swithun’s and an active member of the Winchester and Portsmouth Guild, it occurred to me in early 2015 that an untapped and rich pool of potential young ringing recruits existed on our doorstep, with the tools to train them already in place.
I approached Hugh Hill, the College master who runs the ringing, who responded enthusiastically to the proposal to join the schools in a co-curricular after school activity; the St Swithun’s clubs coordinator and headmistress were all for it too, and so I turned my mind to the practicalities of getting the initiative off the ground.
Ringing at the College chapel during the Summer term was not going to be possible because of the proximity of the bells to the rooms where the public exams are held; we agreed to kick off at the beginning of the new academic year, and so it was in June that I braved a school hall of a captive audience of six hundred girls and staff at their morning assembly to talk on my favourite subject.
With a time-constraint of fifteen minutes, I chose to focus on debunking myths and preconceptions about ringing which could be deterrents, emphasising the rich social opportunities of which established ringers are well-aware, and the liberal use of video clips of good-looking young male university students engaged in expert ringing. The obligatory Mars Bars Monks were well-received, and some basic maths, physics, history, Greek and Latin, religion and politics got the teaching staff onside.
I invited the girls to a taster session at Winchester Cathedral, and organised plenty of handling teachers, so that they could all have a try. Seven girls and two staff members came on that evening, with others interested but unable to come, it being the last Wednesday of term. We showed them the bells, they all had the opportunity to try some basic handling, and were treated to some of the best ringing the Cathedral band could produce on the occasion.
Moving forward to the Autumn, I turned my mind to the practicalities of training several complete novices on a Tuesday afternoon in a fifty-minute slot. I am not myself a handling teacher, and have a full time job, as do many of the local teachers; I rearranged my work timetable so that I could at least be present, and approached as many of my ringing teaching friends I could think of who are no longer in employment on a weekday afternoon . Because the girls are always accompanied by school staff members, we were able to circumvent any cumbersome disclosure checks. Charles, Edmund, Bruce and Colin rose to the occasion, and have been stalwart, patient and faithful teachers throughout the club’s first term.
The girls signed up for their after-school clubs at the start of the Autumn term, and we ended up with six girls – one already a competent rounds and call-changes ringer – and three staff members, one of whom is an experienced ringer. Everything appeared to be in place for an early September kick-off, when a spanner was thrown in the works; the clock mechanism at the College chapel packed up, and we were unable to ring until Smiths were able to come to fix it. Keen not to lose momentum, I requested permission to ring at
Cheriton, my local church, and both the girls and the College boys were duly transported to the countryside for the first four weeks.
With such a high ratio of teachers to pupils, we have been able to give the girls plenty of rope time, despite the time constraints, although ever conscious of the racket that must be apparent from the outside! After one term, they are all handling independently (with watchful supervision) and the College boys have been able to make significant progress with the increase in the number of experienced ringers at their practice. The novices are all now probationary Guild members, affiliated to the College, and have been given the incentive that with enough improvement, we can perhaps get a band together to ring for the school end-of-year service at Winchester Cathedral, and for their Carol service next Christmas.
Moving forward to next term, all the girls seem keen to return; feedback from my daughters is that ringing is perceived as a quirky and fun activity, different in so many ways from the plethora of after-school clubs on offer, and that there are quite a few girls thinking of trying it out. We will, however, give priority to existing pupils, and will be constrained by the number of girls that can be accommodated in the school minibus, the number that can be safely squeezed into the tower, and how many we can reasonably train at any one time, and so we have pointed several girls in the direction of their own local tower.
For now, the future of the club looks healthy. And next Summer term, we will return to Cheriton, with the kind permission of the church wardens, so that no exam candidate is distracted by our no-doubt much-improved ringing.