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UK bell enthusiasts clamour to ‘ring for the king’

At the top of 52 steep, narrow steps at All Saints Church near London, expert bell ringers are showing the ropes to two new recruits ahead of King Charles III’s coronation. Senior doctor Charlotte Mafi and office administrator Anne Porter have each answered a call for volunteers to help “ring for the king” on May 6. The day before the historic event, both women are hoping to be in the belfry tower of the 12th-century church in Kingston upon Thames, on the western edge of London, to ring a celebratory peal.

Kate Flavell, secretary of the bell-ringing society, first sets out some vital safety basics. “Don’t walk around near the ropes and keep your feet firmly on the ground when sitting near them,” she tells Mafi. According to Flavell, it usually takes around 10 hours to teach someone to handle a bell competently. Eight kings “You’ve got a heavy piece of metal that’s swinging around on a wheel from the mouth-up position of the bell back round to the mouth-up position again, and then back the other way. “And you’re controlling it with a rope. It’s not easy and it does take some learning,” she said.

The novices are two of more than 1,000 people who responded to an appeal for new recruits by the UK’s Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. “It’s something I always wanted to do and then I saw this and thought ‘why not now?’,” said Mafi, adding that she finds the rhythm of the bells “very soothing”. All Saints is a fitting place to celebrate a coronation. The ceremonial crowning of up to eight Saxon kings of England in the 10th century is said to have taken place in an early church that stood on the site.

Porter has now completed three hours’ instruction and is beginning to get the hang of it. “I have always loved the sound of bells,” she said. “I am not confident enough to handle a bell on my own but soon I will be able to join in with the other ringers.” Royal opportunity Royal occasions are a prime opportunity for Kate Flavell and her husband Paul, who has been the “tower captain” overseeing the All Saints bells for the past 35 years. “Last year, when there was the queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we rang a thing called a quarter peal for that, which is about 45 minutes of non-stop ringing,” Kate Flavell said.

“Then, of course, not that long after that the queen died and so we rang with muffles on,” she added regarding the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September. All Saints is unusual in having 12 bells, something more common in cathedrals, and its coronation peals will ring out clear and unmuffled. But while the church has a full team of about 20 ringers, Britain’s wider bell-ringing community is in sore need of more recruits. There are around 6,000 sets of bells across the UK totalling nearly 38,000 bells, but only 30,000 people trained to ring them, according to the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

Ringing in history “In the cities it’s quite strong but we really need to recruit elsewhere… we don’t want it to die out on our watch,” Flavell said. For now, however, she is just looking forward to the celebratory peals marking the coronation. Mafi and Porter, too, are excited to be playing their part next month, and say they are in it for the long haul beyond the festivities. “I just think throughout history they have rung bells for celebrations, and so to be part of that historic moment will be wonderful,” Porter said. — AFP

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