Founded in 1955, the Birmingham University Society of Change Ringers (BUSCR) has been a long-standing society which integrates students from all the universities in Birmingham. The society holds weekly and well-attended practices on a Wednesday night at Edgbaston Old Chutch, as well as ringing for the service each Sunday morning. We are grateful for the close relationship we have with the church, whose members appreciate and encourage our ringing, with younger members of the congregation on occasion even dancing to our service touches! Alongside ringing for services, we are asked at every opportunity to ring for weddings and special services. BUSCR is well integrated into the ringing community of Birmingham, with members of BUSCR joining weekly practices at Harborne, St Pauls and St Martin’s in the Bullring, where they are made very welcome by the local bands. Although BUSCR has been a small society in recent years, its objectives remain clear: to provide the best place for younger ringers in Birmingham to ring with people of a similar age in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
We welcome ringers of all standards into the society, accommodating a range from complete beginners to experienced surprise major ringers. BUSCR has been a prominent university society since its inception; members of BUSCR, both past and present, can be found throughout 12-bell squads and highly esteemed ringing throughout the country, but the nomination this year has been prompted by the large influx of ringers to the university this year, and the innovative ways in which we have dealt with this large increase in personnel.
As with many university ringing societies, BUSCR has struggled for numbers in recent years, both in recruitment and retention. We can usually expect a few students who already ring to join us at the start of each academic year, but the numbers of new non-ringers have been variable. Last year we were unable to retain any of our learners until the end of the first term, however this year we have introduced six beginners to the art of change ringing, as well as welcoming two experienced ringers to the society. Knowing that recruitment for this year was paramount to keep the society thriving for future students, we began our recruitment efforts with the Fresher’s Fair at the University of Birmingham this September. With an early start, we arrived on an empty campus to set up the Lichfield mobile belfry, with the kind assistance of Phil Gay. This provided an excellent visual and hands-on way to attract and explain the ways of ringing to students, as well as helping to attract the newcomers. By using the mobile belfry, we doubled our numbers.
The challenge this presented was manifold. Whilst it was heartening to discover that our recruitment drive resulted in much interest, past experiences told us that retaining interest of the new beginners was key. In addition to this, Jack Page was the only member of BUSCR who was both willing and capable to teach handling, but we were able to develop solutions to this issue. To facilitate the progress of our new learners, we introduced a handling session prior to the general practice meaning we could then integrate them into the normal practice in which they can benefit from ringing alongside others. Daniel Calvert, an undergraduate at Aston University, has started his training to become an ART Teacher with the Birmingham School of Bell Ringing (BSoBR). The hints and tips he has picked up mean we can now have two beginners being taught at the same time by students within the society themselves. In addition to this we have many loyal members of the local ringing community who come and help teach, most notably Jane Boyle, Alistair Cherry (who himself graduated from Birmingham in 2016) and Tim Martin. All teachers have been using techniques and methods from the Learning the Ropes scheme for our beginners which has proven both helpful and successful. Our relationship with the BSoBR is positive, and we encourage our learners to attend sessions, as this aids their confidence and handling skills greatly. The BSoBR in turn invite their student ringers to join BUSCR so that they can ring with fellow students and become integrated into the ringing community. By enlisting help from the pre-existing teaching structures in Birmingham, we have managed to increase our capacity for teaching handling.
In turn our learners have given BUSCR the opportunities to develop new skill sets such as teaching, unforeseen stay replacement workshops, rope adjustments and a revolutionary more direct route to the pub! Moreover, we recognised that even if we had two or three handling lessons going on at once, those beginners would then be sitting out for much of the practice. It is easy to become bored and lose interest when only 10-15 minutes of a two-hour practice is spent on the end of the rope. However, having observed the success that the simultaneous learning of tower bells and handbells has had on Alderney for the recruitment and teaching of ringing, we have incorporated a similar approach. This not only keeps the bell-hungry learners keen, but has also proven to be very effective for introducing ringing theory to beginners, building a firm grounding in the basics of method ringing before moving on to tower bells. As a result, we have managed to retain 6 handlers (more than the last 3 years combined) of which most are now moving on to rounds.
It can be observed that BUSCR has drastically changed over the last three months to accommodate the significant change in its membership, but that is only half of the story. What about students that have come to university already knowing how to ring? BUSCR caters for these both by promoting other practices in the St. Martin's Guild, and by trying to keep things fresh at practice nights. Firstly, BUSCR is and has been greatly and generously supported by the St Martin’s Guild of Birmingham in numerous ways. Guild members attending our practices brings in experience and guidance. The support from these ringers mean the quality of striking in many of the touches is very high, which keeps students interested. Edgbaston is an 8-bell tower, and we regularly meet with 10 ringers who can ring methods, but we rarely ring on more than 6. Methods of increasing complexity can maintain interest in the short-term, but it can be argued that nearly all members of BUSCR take more joy out of ringing something simple well than inferior striking in something overly complex.
That is not to say that BUSCR practices consist entirely of touch after touch of Plain Bob Doubles. The support from guild members mean we have, over the past term, been able to introduce a new surprise minor method to our repertoire each week, and have big plans for a peal of 7 Surprise Minor methods with a student band by the end of the academic year. The balance between striking and method ringing does far more for good teamwork and a sense of social cohesion than any big steps.
We also do try to ring something bizarre each Wednesday. ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ rung on tower bells has been attempted, and metamorphosed into carols on the last practice night of term, as well as firing, rounds and backwards rounds, and a range of other bell-control based challenges. Even handlers can participate in these activities, and it is a fun way to end the practice on a high. In addition to the ethos of practices, we also have healthy pub sessions post-bells. This levels the field, and is another (though not innovative) way of keeping people interested. A notable new member to the society was presented by last year’s master Jack Page. The society demonstrated its democratic abilities at the AGM, and following a formal vote, Sheila the tortoise was officially named and elected as the esteemed mascot of BUSCR. Since then she has faithfully attended every practice and watched from her place on the rope spider over our attempts and successes with her dour gaze.
Outside of steps that BUSCR can take to ensure the retention of student ringers, the SMG provides many members of BUSCR with new ringing opportunities through invitations to their practice nights, quarter peals, peals and social events. Healthy crowds of students attend both Bullring practices and St. Paul's practices. This provides both an opportunity to ring with more experienced ringers on higher numbers, as well as giving students an insight into the social side of ringing in Birmingham, and students are always welcomed with open arms. First-year students are enlisted into ringing events very quickly, and second and third-year students make sure to encourage new arrivals to go anywhere they can. Most notably, Mark Eccleston, ringing master at St. Martin's, kindly allows us to have a special BUSCR practice at St. Martin's within the first few weeks of the first term, supported by members of the St. Martin's practice-night band. This gives new students of all standards the unique opportunity to ring on 16 within a month of arriving in Birmingham; a truly brilliant way of retaining them! We are formally invited to the annual Henry Johnson Dinner, a great occasion to dress smart, meet members of the wider ringing community and hear some outstanding handbell ringing. It is at occasions like this when one looks around and acknowledges the wonderfully unique art we are involved in, if at times a little odd, and the eclectic mix of people. Finally, BUSCR goes on an annual summer outing which is sometimes the first opportunity for our learners to experience ringing at towers outside Birmingham. We normally have a good turnout and an enjoyable day of ringing and socialising. We attend the NUA en-masse, a great opportunity to meet, compete, and socialise with other student ringing societies. The other notable event of the year is the annual BUSCR dinner to which we invite both past and present members, guest speakers and members of the community with which we have an affiliation. The dinner includes a handbell performance by members of BUSCR and the BUSCR Master’s Award to acknowledge the outstanding achievements within the society. The award is usually given to a student who has made notable progress and is a great way to encourage our learners with a bit of friendly competition! Currently we do not actively use social media as a way of publicising BUSCR, however it is something our new web master wishes to explore. We are developing plans to have an accessible up to date website and a mailing list to engage both current ringers and new non-ringers.We do however have our own Facebook group used to keep in touch with past and present members.
BUSCR was actively involved with the 2017 RWNYC that was held in Birmingham this year. The St Martin’s Guild did an excellent job of organising this fantastic day. We appreciated being asked to man the Charmborough Ring situated in front of St Martin’s in the Bull Ring. Situated in such a prime location on a busy Saturday in the city centre meant we were able to engage with the local community, explain what we were doing and give them a go on the mini-ring. Our main purpose was to give the many young ringers in Birmingham for the day the experience of a mini-ring, it was great to see and interact with the many young ringers.
With a handful of quarters throughout the year, we finished the end of the first term with an undergraduate peal of 11 Doubles methods, the first BUSCR peal rung by current undergraduates since June 2016 and most notably: the only undergraduate peal rung by any university society in 2017. It was an enjoyable peal, watched over by Sheila, and something to be proud of! One of the band had only learnt to ring since coming to university, and all of us coped very well when given 8 methods to learn at a week's notice. It really was a fantastic achievement. The joy at the end of the peal was palpable. A very high standard of ringing was maintained throughout. Peal ringing is the best opportunity to improve and consolidate one's ringing ability, provided the enthusiasm for attempting a peal is there. We believe that there were six undergraduates willing to attempt not only a peal, but a peal that really stretched a lot of us, is an indication that we are doing a very successful job at promoting ringing with, and then retaining younger ringers. In hindsight however, we will not ring a peal just before the final practice of term as it meant we had a somewhat weary contingency of the band, it did however provide our learners who snuck in early to listen to a length of ringing and see the post peal joy. Something to aspire to.
BUSCR are firm believers that the best way to recruit and retain ringers is to share all the things that make ringing such an enjoyable pastime and integrate them into the activities that we as long-term ringers gain so much excitement and joy from. Passion and enthusiasm are the best way to intrigue and interest new ringers, so in BUSCR we attempt to allow this joy to shine through at each practice. We have worked hard this year to make BUSCR a friendly group that integrates all its members with socials outside the ringing chamber alongside the weekly banter filled sessions in the pub!
Our aims for the coming years are to maintain the healthy membership we currently have, become more ambitious with our ringing of quarters and peals and to continue developing our teaching skills. We also wish to strengthen and maintain our strong relationship with the ringers of Birmingham and explore new ways in engaging with the ringing community.