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Bells in Europe

In September I went to a presentation in Camberley about the installation of a ring of English style bells in St George’s Memorial Church at Ypres, Belgium. The meeting was of a local retirement association but the audience was swelled by bellringers from Surrey, Hampshire & Berkshire who heard about it ‘on the grapevine’.

The timing and place of the new installation are no accident. The church was built in the 1920s as a memorial to British and Commonwealth troops who lost their lives in the 1914-18 War, and it serves the needs of a local congregation as well as thousands of pilgrims who visit the battlefields. It was always intended to have a ring of change-ringing bells but the money ran out and the tower remained empty. In 1997 a chime of eight small static bells was installed but it was not until the centenary of the war that a project to fulfil the original vision by hanging a ring of eight change ringing bells took shape – a project that had the full support of the church community and Flanders Heritage Department, as well as ringers in UK.

The bells were installed in 2017, and are only the second in mainland Europe – the first being the ring of 8 at Dordrecht, Holland in 2008. The English art of change ringing developed over 400 years ago and spread around the world – to America in the 18th century, Australia in the 19th, and other commonwealth countries later – but oddly it never spread to our nearest European trading neighbours, despite many other cultural exchanges in the field of both music and sport.

Now in the 21st century there are English-style bells in Holland and Belgium, with a ring of 10 to be installed at Vernet-les-Bains, France in 2019, and plans for another in Belgium before June 2019, the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the war.

It is ironic that we are finally sharing the art of bellringing with our European partners at a time when England is distancing itself from them. And it is doubly ironic that the bells in Ypres commemorate a European war of a kind that closer ties between Europeans was intended to prevent.

Let’s hope ringing in Europe isn’t tainted by Brexit, as it was by the War of Independence in America. Can cultural sharing help overcome division?

John Harrison (October 2018) 

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