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The Bellringing

[ Roud 1515 ; VWML SBG/3/1/408 ; DT BELLRING ; Mudcat 30065 ; trad.]

This song about a bell ringing contest in Devon comes from the collection Songs of the West by Sabine Baring-Gould; the author is unknown.

Tony Rose recorded The Bellringing in 1970 for his first album Young Hunting. A live recording from Cheltenham in 1971 was included in 2008 on his posthumous CD Exe, where it has the title Devon Bell-Ringing Song. Tony Rose commented in the original recording’s sleeve notes:

The Bellringing, with its attractive tune based on the sound of the bells, is a song from the Baring-Gould collection Songs of the West. Broadwoodwidger, Ashwater and Northlew are all small villages near Broadbury Down, west of Dartmoor. I learned the song from Vic Legg of Bodmin.

Cyril Tawney sang The Bell-Ringing in 1970 on his album A Mayflower Garland. He commented in his sleeve notes:

An old Dartmoor farmer, William George Kerswell of Postbridge, gave the Rev. S. Baring-Gould this song in January 1890. “When sung by the old farmer over a great fire in the kitchens, his clear, robust voice imitating the bells produced an indescribable charm” says the collector. It is unfortunate that Mr. Kerswell was the sole source of this song as there seems to be a lack of agreement between Baring-Gould and his two musical collaborators Dr. Bussell and the Rev. Fleetwood Sheppard regarding the precise form of the tune. Furthermore, I have discovered that I myself, in the course of over ten years singing the song, have introduced my own variations.

The villages of Northlew, Ashwater and Broadwoodwidger are all in Devon, but close to the Cornish border. Thus the return contest is held near Launceston. How Callington gets into the act we are not sure. Baring-Gould suggests there were actually two return contests in the original song.

Canterbury Fair sang The Bell Ringing on their eponymous 1977 album Canterbury Fair. They noted:

This lovely old art is now virtually gone; yet it was a source of pleasure for hundreds of years in England, and was remarked on by many travellers to the country. The ringers had great pride in their skills, and competitions between the different ‘peals’ were common. What a glorious experience to be wandering over the downs and hear the bells ‘ringing the changes’ coming to you on the breeze.

Mick Ryan and Paul Downes sang The Bell-Ringing in 2008 on their WildGoose CD Grand Conversation. They noted:

A beautiful song from Paul’s home county of Devon. The church at Northlew has the words proudly displayed on the wall.

Andy Clarke and Steve Tyler sang Bell Ringing in 2013 on their WildGoose CD Wreck off Scilly. Andy Clarke noted:

The Reverend Baring-Gould noted this well known song from George Kerswell at the Two Bridges Inn on Dartmoor in 1890 [VWML SBG/3/1/408] . Here I returned to the manuscript to restore the original tune which had been slightly altered over the years.

Jim Causley sang The Bell Ringing on his 2021 album Devonshire Roses. He noted:

Traditional. Baring-Gould Collection. The most famous of Devon’s bell-ringing songs. Sabine Baring-Gould collected this beautiful song from William George Kerswell of Two Bridges, Dartmoor. Also have a listen to the Torrington Ringers recorded by Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll.


Tony Rose sings The Bellringing

One day in October, neither drunken nor sober,
O’er Broadbury Down I was mending my way,
When I heard of some ringing, some dancing and singing.
I’ll always remember that Jubilee Day.

’Twas in Ashwater town, the bells they did sound,
They rang for a belt and a hat laced with gold.
And the men of Northlew rang so steady and true
That there never were better in Devon I hold.

’Twas misunderstood, for the men of Broadwood
Rang a peel on the tenor should never have been.
But the men of Northlew rang so steady and true,
A difficult matter to beat them I ween.


Those of Broadwood being naughty, then said to our party,
We’ll ring you a challenge again in a round.
We’ll give you the chance in St. Stephen’s by Launceston;
The prize to the winner a note of five pound.

’Twas in Callington town, the bells they did sound, etc.

So the match it went on, at good Callington,
And the bells they rang out o’er the valley below.
And the old and young people, the hale and the feeble,
They came out to hear the sweet bell music flow.

’Twas in Callington town, the bells they did sound, etc.

Those of Broadwood once more were obliged to give o’er,
They were beaten completely again in a round.
But the men of Northlew rang so steady and true;
No better than they in the West can be found.

’Twas in Ashwater town then in Callington Town, etc.


The lyrics are from the Digital Tradition via Garry Gillard. The variations in Tony Rose’s actual singing were transcribed by Reinhard Zierke.