Back to the past with Ed Grimsdale: A wild snake dance in Great Horwood

St James Church, in Great Horwood
St James Church, in Great Horwood

Here are extracts from a long piece that appeared in the Christmas number of the Detroit Free Press in 1881. The observant writer was clearly a bell-ringing virgin but his innocence displays great charm.

Great Horwood is a village set on a very mild hill. Everything about Great Horwood is exceedingly mild and gentle.

Its slopes and valleys are gentle, and its people and its ale are mild. The only object of pride in Great Horwood is the church, with its square grey tower and handsome windows.

As I stood by the door of the old inn, looking at the picturesque tower mellowed by the clear moonlight, the landlord said: “The chime ringers have gone over there.”

“Do they ring chimes every night?” I asked.

“Well, at this time of year they do – getting ready for Christmas, you see.”

“Would they have any objection to a stranger going up to see how it is done?”

“Oh bless you, no. They wouldn’t mind. Go in by the south gate there, and you’ll find the big door in the tower open.”

I entered the church, which looked vast in the gloom, its interior dimly lighted by the moon shining through coloured windows. A narrow, arched door, which was open, showed stone steps leading upwards.

Round and round in complete darkness went the steps. After a panting climb I came to a little door. I stepped into the open air on the leaden roof of the tower. In the bright moonlight the lovely landscape appeared to better advantage than in the daytime.

Passing back through the low doorway, I felt my way carefully down until another door was reached, and that showed a glint of light from within.

I drew it open and stood among the chime ringers. A square, wooden cupboard-like place to one side contained the clock that for years had given the villagers the correct time, and its slowly measured tick-tock showed that if tempus did fugit it was in no hurry about it.

Six stalwart Buckinghamshire men were spitting on their hands preparing to ring. The whole scene, in the dim insufficient light, became strange and unreal. As the ringers bent their backs, the rope would lay in fantastic coils ast their feet. Then it would rapidly uncoil, and the coloured part would pop up suddenly out of sight through the hole in the ceiling, while the ringer would stretch up on tiptoe so as not to lose the end of the rope.

No two ropes would uncoil at the same time, and as one would pop up out of sight, and then another, and another, it seemed to me like a wild snake dance – the rainbow-coloured reptiles springing up to the music of the bells.

All at once the din ceased, and the men relinquished the ropes, and sat down wiping their heated brows.

“Shall we ring the bells down next time?” asked one.

“No,” was the answer. “We’ll ring twice more.”

“What do you mean by ringing them down?” I asked.

“Why,” said the leader, rising, the bells are all mouth upwards now, don’t you know.”

“Would you like to go and see them?” said the oldest of the ringers. He took a candle from its socket, and I followed him up a narrow stairway. Stooping I entered the home of the bells.

“It wouldn’t be very pleasant to stay here during the ringing,” I remarked. “If a fellow made a miss-step and fell amongst the bells, he might break them, you know.”

The old gentleman looked at me, and answered very seriously: ”Might break him, more like.”

Just then the bells gave a shake, and the big one next to us made a sweep downwards that instantly put out the light, and left us in darkness. All the bells followed, and the tremendous din was something appalling. I stood this pandemonium as long as I was able. The whirling bells looked dangerous as they flashed through that thin sheet of moonlight, and disappeared into blankness at each side. I groped along the wall until I came to the closed door, and hurriedly opening it, crept thankfully down the dark stairway.

On coming in among the industrious ringers again, I sat on the old oaken bench and when the ringing ended, I said: “Ringing is rather dry work. Suppose we adjourn to the inn and have some ale, after you ring down the bells.”

One of the ringers who had said nothing all evening, suddenly looked up on hearing the word “ale”. Spitting on his gigantic hands he cried: “Coom, coom ma lads, let’s get at aringin’ on ‘em down.”

There was a general smile at his sudden animation and one of his comrades whispered to me: ”You can easily see what ales him.”