The following article about Brancepeth and DUSCR appeared in the ‘Ringing World’ of 14 March 2003.
On visiting Durham for the first time one cannot fail to be astounded by its sheer beauty and magnificence. The Norman cathedral, Britain’s finest, and the ancient castle, both built in the late eleventh century, crown the peninsula that rises from the meandering Wear. The tenth century monks of Lindisfarne could not have been drawn to a more dramatic place to rest the bones of Saint Cuthbert, around whose shrine they built a chapel made of boughs on the present site of the cathedral. It was their nineteenth century successors, Bishop William Van Mildert and the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, who founded what is England’s third oldest university. The Castle was given as the first college for the new students and soon more colleges were built. Today the University of Durham is widely recognised as one of Britain’s premier academic institutions.
St Brandon’s, Brancepeth
Four miles to the west of Durham lie a less well-known church and castle, thought to pre-date those at Durham. A church was on this site probably as early as the ninth century although the Norman tower, built in the late twelfth century, was until recently recognised as the oldest part of the present building; however, restoration works have revealed Saxon stonework at the base of the tower. The church was dedicated to Saint Brandon, an Irish abbot born in the fifth century. Little is known about Brandon (more commonly referred to as Brendan) except that he was a great traveller. As well as travelling all over Ireland it is suggested that he founded a monastery in Scotland and became abbot of Llancarven in Wales, and possibly went as far as Brittany with Saint Malo. Brancepeth literally means ‘Brandon’s path’ and this would suggest that the village was perhaps near a well associated with Brandon and, if these nomadic legends of the saint are true, it is quite probable that he would have passed through County Durham on his travels.
St Brandon’s has not been without its colourful clergy; three were chaplains to the kings, and one a cabinet minister. The most notable of these figures was John Cosin was appointed Rector in 1622. He was a Laudian and sought to restore some of the ceremony and ritual of the pre-reformation church. As chaplain to Charles I he was largely responsible for the ceremonial at the King’s coronation and, accused of popery, fled to France during the Commonwealth. Cosin came out of exile at the Restoration and was appointed to the bishopric of Durham and was a key figure in the publication of the Prayer Book of 1662. It is Cosin who was responsible for the exceptional woodwork for which St Brandon’s was highly renowned; he bejewelled the church with beautiful oak carvings, an oak altar and reredos, chancel screen and stalls, and a magnificent roof.
The current ring of eight bells were cast in 1888 by Taylors of Loughborough with a tenor weighing 13 cwt 2 qts and 16 lbs in F#. These bells, given to the church by the Eighth Viscount Boyne, replaced six bells recorded in a series of guides to churches in County Durham by Conyers Surtees. Surtees states that these six bells were a complete peal, the second, third and fourth of which were cast in 1632, being recast in that year to replace an older set of bells, which according to a case in the Durham Consistory Court on 22nd November 1595 were ‘broken’. The other three bells were cast in 1859 by John Warner and Sons and were presented to the church by Emma, Viscountess Boyne. Boyle, in ‘The County of Durham’, reveals that the three Warner bells ‘replaced three others which are said to have been sold to provide refreshment for the gentlemen of the four and twenty, as the magnates of the parish of a former day were designated’. This story is also recorded by the nineteenth century antiquarian Canon Fowler who, in ‘A Visit to Brancepeth Church in 1863’, tells us that the Warner three replaced bells that had ‘mysteriously disappeared’. The mystery is somewhat solved when Fowler goes on to say that the ‘four and twenty helped to ‘open drink’ three out of the six bells’.
Durham University Society of Change Ringers
DUSCR was formed in 1959 and in 1960 the Society started to practise regularly at Brancepeth. The Society progressed rapidly through the 1960s and 70s; by the late 70s peals of eight-spliced and Yorkshire Surprise Maximus had been achieved. Since its foundation the Society has witnessed the re-hanging and augmentation of the Cathedral bells, the previous rings at Shincliffe and St Oswald replaced with new rings of six and eight respectively and the resumption of ringing at St Nicholas in the last two years. The Society supports the bands at all these towers while these bands support the Society by allowing it to use their bells for practice nights, quarter peals and peals. The relationship between the local ringers and those of DUSCR could not be more amiable and there cannot be many other places the size of Durham in which bells are rung for seven services in four churches on a Sunday, a tradition in which the Society plays an enormous part.
Today the Society is as active as it ever was. As well as helping out at the local towers on Sunday, DUSCR members are present at most practices in the city and some members also attend the practice at Newcastle Cathedral on Tuesday evenings. This is all in addition to their own practice on Wednesday evenings at which Surprise methods are sometimes rung. This academic year has seen a dramatic increase in the number of quarter peals scored and one member rang his first peal last term. Members also attend the practice at Newcastle Cathedral on Tuesday evenings. DUSCR is active socially too. Every December life members join resident members for the Annual Dinner, an occasion of unprecedented revelry! Termly outings are arranged throughout the year and culminate in the Master’s Summer Tour which takes place over several days at the end of the Easter Term. Serious business is done at the Termly General Meeting as well as the termly bar crawl. However, since 1998 when tragedy struck Brancepeth, the Society has been without a home tower.
In the early morning of Wednesday 16th September 1998 a police patrol car spotted a red glow in the distance. By the time fire-fighters reached the scene the flames, fanned by strong winds, had reached temperatures of 1200°C. Lead melted, stone turned to dust, marble shattered and the exquisite Cosin woodwork was reduced to ashes. The bell frame buckled under the heat and the bells, red hot, came away from their fittings; the lower framework caught most of the bells although the tenor plunged to the ground. Arguably the most exquisite parish church in County Durham had been reduced to a smouldering shell. As the sun rose and the flames were extinguished parishioners gathered at the ruin, numbed and shocked, to mourn the loss of their parish church.
Restoring the bells
Services will hopefully resume at St Brandon’s towards the end of 2003 and it is hoped that the bells will be rung for this special occasion. This is a mammoth project. Three of the bells were damaged by the fire to such an extent that they are beyond repair; these bells will have to be recast. Discussions continue over the remaining five bells as, although still in one piece, their tone has been dulled as a result of the fire. Sufficient donations received in the early stages of the appeal may allow the Church to recast all eight bells. In addition to this the ringing chamber needs to be furnished. Universities are perhaps the premier breeding grounds for the Exercise and if university bands are to be successful a ring of bells that they can call their own is essential; the stability of having a weekly practice in the same tower is a privilege that most bands take for granted. Once a term DUSCR members attend a service at Brancepeth Church Hall to maintain the link with the church under whose name DUSCR members still appear in the Durham and Newcastle Annual Report, although none of the present membership have ever rung there. The total cost of refurbishing the bells will exceed £50,000, an enormous amount to be raised by a group of students and a church which has been fundraising for five years.
Brancepeth Church and DUSCR have joined forces to raise the necessary funds to restore the bells of Brancepeth. Brochures are soon to be published detailing exactly what needs to be bought and exactly how much everything will cost. Fundraising events are planned starting with a local media launch on March 13th at which the Lord Lieutenant will ring a dumb bell setting off a train of ringing in the locality. Appeal mugs with a picture of St Brandon’s by a local artist are soon to be produced and it is hoped that a watercolour will be raffled and etchings sold. DUSCR also plans to hold a weekend of sponsored ringing along with a variety of local fundraising events. We are also inviting individuals to sponsor perhaps a pulley or a headstock, a rope or a clapper, or even a whole bell. We are not only looking for donations from individuals, but also from towers who can afford to send us a donation from their tower funds. This is not a normal appeal from a normal tower; a donation made to Brancepeth is an investment in the Exercise, and together Brancepeth and DUSCR will be constantly recruiting and teaching young ringers as it has been doing for the last 45 years.
St. Chad’s College, Durham