Every new venture has a steep learning curve and Ypres was no exception. St George’s Memorial Church was designed by Reginald Blomfield and built after the first world war. The new bells, which were on show at the Blandford Steam Fayre in September, have been transported to and hung in the tower as the first ring of change ringing bells in Belgium. A mixture of ART teachers at different levels of experience, 16 pupils who ranged in age from 20 to 70, some who spoke a little English and many of whom spoke none, and a very light ring of bells proved a challenge to all. Teaching comprised of 3 periods of 2 hours each per day for 5 days with up to 6 pupils at each session. Given the ringing chamber is only 11 feet square it was all a little challenging!

The first session on Thursday started quite chaotically with everyone a little unsure of how things would work, but soon settled into productive teaching ably assisted by Paul and Harm Jan de Kok from Dordrecht, two Dutch speaking very experienced ringers, who acted as English/Flemish interpreters, aiding the understanding of instructions. By the second session things settled well until a local newspaper reporter and photographer arrived giving both teachers and learners the additional trauma of being interviewed whilst trying to comprehend information and practise movements, as well as trying to ignore the fact that they were being photographed. Fortunately, no such interruption was experienced during the third session of the day.

In between these sessions the first quarter peal on the bells – Plain Bob Major – was scored.

At the end of the day the consensus was that the day had gone well with every learner making progress. Indeed in some cases in view of the short time spent some had reached an impressive standard.

Friday started according to plan with group 1 again building on their newly learnt skills and enjoying the experience of their onward journey to ringing. The next group arrived full of determination to ‘get it right’ but today the distraction came in the form of a television crew bent on filming and interviewing for Belgian national news. Despite an enormous camera, floating about an already overcrowded compact ringing chamber, operated by a cameraman determined to take shots of everything from ropes and sallies disappearing through holes in the ceiling to feet rocking in rhythm to the bells, amazing headway was made. Trying to focus on catching a sally with a big microphone in front of you and questions being thrust at you certainly added to the challenge for learners and teachers. Onwards to group 3 in the evening and another two hours of satisfaction for teachers and pupils alike. To everyone’s amusement the TV report was shown that day during the sport section of the news.

Friday held its own challenge as Paul and Harm Jan had had to leave.It was surprising how much can be communicated with hand signals and demonstration when a common language is missing. Disturbance-free intensive teaching and learning was the order of the day at each session.Bells ringing, ropes rising and falling, instruction and feedback continuously being given or shown, all contributed to the cacophony but did not prevent progression towards our aim.

On Saturday we now had assistance with language from Gregory Woods who works for the European Union as an interpreter. Although, in most cases, demonstration gives valid assistance with the teaching, sometimes language was needed to impart the finer points in the correction of faulty technique. At lunchtime Alan Regin, a trustee of the ‘Bells of St. George Ypres’ charity, gave an informative talk on the history behind the art of change ringing which was ably interpreted by Gregory for the local learners and visitors alike. This was followed by a Lent lunch in the church hall which was originally funded and built by Eton School as a school for English pupils. A quarter peal of Cambridge Minor and two more teaching sessions completed another very productive day with great strides being made towards our goal although by then teachers were feeling more than a little tired!

Sunday, a day of rest for both pupils and teachers, so just ringing for 2 services for the teachers with a quarter peal of Bob Triples in the morning. Sightseeing could now be on the agenda visiting 4 cemeteries; Railway Dugout (Transport Farm), Zillebeke (the aristocrat’s churchyard), Tyne Cot and Langemark (the German cemetery). We were extremely fortunate to have Alan Regin with his extensive knowledge of both the cemeteries and the fallen bell ringers buried and remembered there. At Tyne Cot Memorial Alan showed us on the name of Private George Alfred Busby a ringer at Penn, whose brothers Frederick, also a ringer, and William Albert also fell in the war.Plain hunt was rung on the Ypres hand bells, by their memorial and in remembrance of all those ringers who fell.What an honour to be part of that!

In the evening teachers and pupils gathered in ‘the house’ to chat about the ringing and take the rare opportunity to socialise there being no time to do so during teaching. The enthusiasm of these budding bell ringers was a joy to behold and a testament to the hard work being worth every minute.

Monday the skills continued to grow.With full muffles now fitted to the bells teaching was immeasurably improved and the second group finished by each ringing assisted rounds with 5 other bells.Both teachers and learners were thrilled at this achievement.

Tuesday, the fifth and last day, and time to progress as far as possible before the next sessions start in March. Groups 1 and 2 reached standards never thought possible on day 1 and many congratulations were given. At 5pm another television crew arrived to do a feature for a children’s programme. After explaining what was going on the teachers gave a demonstration on ringing during which Liz Milward ( acting Tower Captain and returned ringer) and Rev Gillian Trinder (new ringer and chaplain of the church) rang rounds on 8. Amazing! Graham Nabb the teaching co-ordinator and Fredrick Vandenbroucke the Secretary of the newly formed Ypres Bell Ringers Guild were then interviewed by a young girl for the programme and most of the learners were filmed having a lesson.

An additional morning on the following day run by Richard & Margaret Lee focused on raising and lowering.

With 8 teachers and 16 pupils throughout 5 days of concentrated striving the new band of bell ringers now have the foundations to progress through the planned subsequent sessions of teaching over the next few months and ring these beautiful bells at Ypres for many years to come.