Never in my lifetime did I expect to bear witness to the church bells of Sussex falling silent, even more so during my tenure as Master of the Sussex County Association.
Indeed, the only time they have previously fallen silent was on June 13th, 1940 during World War II, following a Government order that bells should only be rung in case of invasion.
Fast forward nearly eighty years and the bells of Sussex fell silent once more. This time due to a battle with an invisible but ever-present enemy; Coronavirus.
Coronavirus first started to make the news in January, by February it was spreading across the globe and in March started to cause real issues here in the UK. The speed at which events here unfolded was quite surreal.
By the second week in March it was obvious that ringing would be impacted in one way or another, indeed our band in Brighton had already started to take precautions with personal hygiene; a number of us were using alcohol gel to sanitise. Some of our ringers had taken the decision to self-isolate to safeguard their health. Discussions were ongoing within the Association as to what impact Coronavirus would likely have on planned events and how we could introduce measures protect ringers.
In a matter of days the UK Government advised that non-essential travel and contact with others should be avoided, this was the curtain call for ringing.
I didn’t make our local practice on March 16th as I was working late, but did make the pub by the skin of my teeth and I’m glad I did; it was to be the last time we met. It’s hard to describe the emotion as we all sat round a table and reflected on a pandemic that was growing before our eyes. As we left it was almost like a scene out of a movie; friends going into the dark of the night not knowing when they would see each other again. The journey home was long and thought provoking.
On March the 17th I made the hard call to suspend all ringing activities in Sussex, a decision which was inevitable and could no longer be avoided.
Since that fateful day, the way in which we have all come together to reach out to one another, and connect in ways we had not done before, has been so uplifting to see. Modern technology has been thrust to the forefront of our lives and has enabled old friendships to be sustained and new ones to be forged.
Three months ago, I would never have thought that I would be ringing with friends from multiple corners of Sussex (and sometimes further afield) while sat in the comfort of my own home. Ringing Room, developed by Leland Kusmer and Bryn Reinstadler from Boston (USA), has been a lifeline in enabling ringing to continue during lockdown. Whilst it’s not ringing in a format we are used to, and with its own challenges, it has enabled bands to maintain contact and cohesion which is so important.
Our Annual General Meeting was held using an alternative format and for the first time featured electronic voting, and for those without access to the internet postal voting. This proved to be extremely popular and saw the biggest turnout ever recorded, 269 votes being cast in total. It has given the General Committee food for thought as to how we allow a wider section of ringers to participate in future AGMs.
Nearly three months since Lockdown was imposed we are now starting to see an easing in the restrictions. Shops have now reopened, and some sports are taking place behind closed doors.
Social distancing remains in place though, with no obvious end in sight, and with that no realistic prospect of ringing returning for now. It is hard to predict when we might return to our towers, but we will, and when we do I hope it is with a surge of enthusiasm that will propel our Association forwards out of this dark moment in our history.
Please continue to stay in touch with each other and do reach out to those members of your band who may be finding things hard.
Ringing will return!
Rob Lane (Master)