Village celebration will ring out around world

John Tristram, tower captain at St Mary’s, Offwell

John Tristram, tower captain at St Mary’s, Offwell - Credit: Carol Hayes

John Tristram, tower captain at St Mary’s Church in Offwell, near Honiton, will take part in ‘Chime Around The World’ on Saturday, June 26, to celebrate the bicentenary of the Ellacombe Chimes.

The sound of bells ringing is deeply rooted in British culture and almost everyone in Britain lives within hearing range of church bells. By the 17th century bell ringing became extremely fashionable with the aristocracy as it provided physical exercise and intellectual stimulation. In rural churches, however, bands of ordinary ringers strived to outdo one another in ringing competitions.

By the 1800s change ringing became synonymous with ‘swearing, smoking and a barrel of beer’ and some belfries became notorious as the meeting place of the village riff-raff who indulged in ‘heavy drinking and riotous behaviour’.

In 1822 the Rector at St. Mary’s, Offwell, John Gaius Copleston, was having problems with his own ringers and around the same time Rev. Ellacombe at St. Mary’s in Bitton, South Gloucestershire, came up with a solution; a device that enabled one trusted person only to ring all the bells of a church. Developed by Bitton’s village blacksmith in 1821 each of the bells is struck while the bell is static, instead of the bells being rotated.

“The bells” John explains “remain down so it’s not as rich a sound as full circle ringing, with fewer harmonics which are produced by movement of bells and clapper. It’s rather like plucking the strings of a harp and it’s hard work, so the chimes can only be played for a relatively short amount of time.” 

On 26th June 2021 there will be a worldwide celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the ‘Ellacombe Chimes’. Churches around the world will join ‘Chime Around the World’, beginning at Timaru in New Zealand at noon on 25th June. Over the next 17 hours, working their way across the world, bells will be chiming at noon local time in each of the major time zones, arriving at their birthplace at Bitton at noon (BST) on Saturday 26th June.

During the 20th century the apparatus fell out of fashion and few remained in useable condition. Consequently Ellacombe devices were removed from a number of church towers in the UK but in Offwell the Ellacombe Chimes have been restored, in-between lockdowns, by Tower Captain, John Tristram, and Cllr. Clive Whithear. With only one ringer allowed in the bell tower during 2020 John was able to chime the bells to welcome parishioners to the Christmas morning service, and they will chime again to celebrate the anniversary on 26th June.

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Offwell’s famous rector and patron Edward Copleston, was also Bishop of Llandaff. He would be proud to know that the Ellacombe Chimes will be rung at both Llandaff Cathedral and St. Mary’s to celebrate the 200 year anniversary.

An exhibition about the History of Bell Ringing, the Ellacombe Chimes and Offwell’s own bell ringers, past and present, can be viewed in St. Mary’s Church during June and July 2021. The church is open to visitors on Wednesday between 2.00pm and 4.00pm and Sunday between 10.00am and 2.00pm.   

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