Friday 28th October
The Church of St Martin is at the heart of Martinstown and it has the only set of ringable bells in the South Winterbourne Valley.
Love it or hate it, the sound of church bells drifting on the breeze through the countryside seems quintessentially English. And we had heard that there was a poignant story behind this particular set of bells. We had arranged to meet Martinstown Tower Captain, Howard Bowering, to find out more and visit the bells of Martinstown church.
First of all we had to negotiate an extremely low stone arch and a perilous spiral staircase before gaining admittance to the ringing chamber. I don’t want to go too far on “Lord of the Rings” puns but a hobbit would definitely have found it easier to get there than we did!
Howard was able to tell us all we wanted to know about the art of bellringing, having learnt to ring on these very bells as a youngster and now being one of only two bellringers left in the village. There are 6 bells in the tower, so ringers have to be brought in from outside when the bells are to be rung. In the past many young people would have learnt how to ring and taken part in this activity regularly. Life was more focussed on the village in those days. Times have changed and Howard is worried that soon there will be no-one left to ring the bells.
He told us the story of how the current bells came to be there. Five young men from Martinstown lost their lives during the 1939 – 1945 conflict. It was decided that the village’s war memorial would be to install 5 new bells in memory of these men, whose names are on a plaque in the church. The sixth (tenor) bell was made from melting down the one remaining original bell. German prisoners from the Prisoner of War Camp situated in Martinstown helped clear the bell tower and install the new bells. In November 1947 a peal was rung to mark the installation of the bells, and as part of the Remembrance Day service. In 2012 a half muffled quarter peal was rung for Remembrance Sunday and this has now become an annual tradition. The bell strikers are partly covered in leather mufflers to create a more sombre tone.
As well as being incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about bellringing, Howard is also part of a family who have lived in Martinstown for many generations. His father, Harry Bowering, was the source of many engaging stories in Margaret Hearing’s “Book of Martinstown”. Howard himself went to school in the village and has personal memories of the Great Flood of 1955 when he was only 7 years old. He also remembers the Sheep Wash Pool in regular use with hundreds of sheep being brought to the village for their annual washing.
Finally he spoke with great affection of the South Dorset Ridgeway and how it used to be a regular Sunday afternoon outing to take a walk up from the village to the “Sea Wall” as it was known and enjoy panoramic views and a breath of sea air.