All aboard for the SRCY Dinner!
In recent years the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths have held a formal Dinner on a triennial basis. To reflect the fact that, although our headquarters is at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, we are very much a national society, recent dinners have been held in Cambridge and York, as well as London. All have been memorable events in very special venues and the 2009 dinner on Saturday 12th September, held on the SS Great Britain in Bristol, one of the most iconic and significant historic ships in the world, certainly continued this trend! Such was the anticipation that the tickets for the event sold out almost immediately.
The SS Great Britain was a world first when she was launched in Bristol in 1843. This ship design brought together new technologies in a way which transformed world travel. IKB (Isambard Kingdom Brunel of course), the great Victorian engineer, conceived the groundbreaking combination of a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a massive 1000-horsepower steam engine. The ship was immediately successful. On her maiden voyage across the Atlantic she easily broke the previous speed record, not something that the current Master of the Cumberlands has ever emulated. She continued sailing until 1886, and travelled thirty-two times around the world, rather like Alan Regin has subsequently done on peal tours. The SS Great Britain was finally abandoned in the Falkland Islands in 1937, after more than 40 years use as a floating warehouse. In 1970 an ambitious salvage effort brought her home to Bristol as a rusting hulk. How different she is today, where she is conserved in the dry dock where she was originally built.
Festivities began early, with peals being rung on the Friday of Dinner Weekend at Chilcompton and in Bristol, at St. Stephens and the Cathedral. Members and friends congregated throughout the evening at the Knights Templar to renew old acquaintances and to make new ones. Very little orange juice was in evidence!
Several alternative forms of entertainment were on offer during the day on Saturday. More peals were rung at Backwell, Chipping Sodbury and St Ambrose, Bristol. Unfortunately there was a lock out at Weston-super-Mare. Rumours that Derek and Jane therefore spent the morning on the beach, building a sand-castle resembling Shoreditch church, are possibly exaggerated. Some took advantage of the free entry to the SS Great Britain museum for attendees at the Dinner, or joined the hoards visiting the many places of interest open during "Bristol Open Doors" day. Others followed a circuit of open ringing at some of the rarer towers in central Bristol, with a nice long lunch at the Watershed in between. Over 40 members and friends enjoyed ringing at St. John-in-the-Wall, Christchurch and All Saints. We also went to St. Thomas's.The challenge of ringing at St. Thomas's paled into insignificance, however, given the task facing Kathy Carter, whose mission it was to take the Secretary shopping for a new dress. This was not an issue for the Secretary-elect, who came equipped with a choice of several outfits, nor for Clare McArdle who not only wore a glam skirt, but also had a choice of several pairs of shoes, unlike the Master's wife whose footwear eventually arrived safely in Bristol by somewhat devious means.
The day's tourists departed, from 6.00pm onwards we had sole use of the SS Great Britain. Members and friends began to arrive, all suitably attired in our finery, with not an SRCY polo shirt in sight. Everyone ascended the gang-plank to be greeted by Captain Ian Hill who, having managed to work out what day of the week it was on this occasion, directed us to the upper deck. What a stunning venue for pre-dinner drinks, especially on this warm and sunny evening! Champagne and Bucks Fizz (just in case anyone was feeling deprived of orange juice) flowed as we mingled and explored.
Dinner was served in the sumptuous surroundings of the First Class Dining Saloon, restored to its wonderful original Victorian splendour and filled to capacity by the 148 members and friends of the Society present. Once seated, the Master, John Loveless, welcomed everyone and introduced Bob Evans, Steward of the SS Great Britain, who gave us a fascinating introduction to the ship, before a poetic Grace was said by the Reverend James Croft. The quality of the meal itself certainly matched the quality of the surroundings, and was certainly not lacking in quantity either. Even the Master's wife didn't quite manage to clear her plate. Whilst queuing during the comfort break before the speeches, many of us took the opportunity to watch the impressive working re-creation of the engine room. After proposing the Loyal Toast, John Loveless introduced the first speaker, Richard Offen from Perth, Western Australia, which was of course an opportune moment to remind certain Stewards of both Society's and the other Aussies present, of the result of the recent Ashes series. As tower-captain of perhaps the best known secular tower in the world, Richard from was not perhaps an obvious choice to propose the toast to the church, though he is currently also an active member of the church and local band in Claremont, WA, and in the past at Canterbury Cathedral. Richard had first heard about this Dinner whilst celebrating Christmas with the Master and his wife on the beach in Perth ... not that this comment was intended to make anyone envious! The term "beached whale" was used ... selective amnesia prevents me from mentioning to whom this referred but fortunately for Richard it wasn't me! Speaking in his own inimitable and enthusiastic style, Richard gave some amusing historical examples to illustrate that the relationship between ringers and the church has quite often been stormy. For the Church's part, in a time when it is struggling to find an identity and real purpose in modern society, certain sections of the Church would do well not to be too dogmatic in its membership requirements for ringers, and to be inclusive. For our part, if we are to survive and carry on using church bells, which the church has supplied, generally free of charge for pretty much the last four hundred years, we have to engage better and work with the church, not waiting for them to make the first move.
The Master then introduced the Reverend James Croft who, with brothers John, Bill and Eddie Futcher, rang in the extent of Major in hand 30 years ago, still, in today's 'clever boy' era, a remarkable achievement. In his response, James demonstrated his ability to move from reverence to complete irreverence with effortless ease. James first met the Master in the late 70's during a handbell weekend at the then noted venue of Cornwall House, behind Baker St tube station. Jake was a rare species back then, a Cumberland from Birmingham, and also at the forefront of technology, being the proud owner of an answerphone. James recounted an amusing story of a message that he left on it. He also recalled his time at London University, and in particular a UL pantomime in which the Master's wife starred as Linderella and he played a vicar wearing a dog-collar made from a washing up liquid bottle. It wasn't clear whether he still does so. James also entertained us with several tales of handbell peals with his brothers, including trying to ring a handbell peal in each room of their home, including some rooms which didn't really lend themselves to such activity! He finally reverted to reverend mode once more and thanked ringers for all that they do for the church.
The Master of the ASCY, Peter Valuks, was then invited to propose a toast to the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths. Peter said lots of nice things about the Society. His fee is in the post. He had looked at the Society's website and pointed out the many similarities between the College Youths and the Cumberlands. He also highlighted some of the differences. The College Youths don't have a sausage named after them, nor has a College Youths ladies' band rung at peal at Exeter Cathedral. The College Youths do have a tie but no official polo shirt, though the idea of a CY hoody has been discussed. David House wearing a hoody ... there's an interesting thought! Unfortunately, Peter was not really able to mention another alleged difference between the two Societies, oft quoted by College Youths, having just berated a recent Past-Master of the ASCY for blatantly walking around the ship with a pint of orange juice in hand.
In his response, John Loveless firstly passed greetings to everyone present from Dennis Beresford, Master of the Society for 14 years between 1960-1976. Dennis and Mary Beresford had celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary the previous Saturday, a splendid occasion with many Society members present. Dennis had spoken to John about the difficult early days of his Mastership. In 1960, just 2 practices were held, and 7 members turned up to a Country Meeting in Brentwood. A request to go to Cripplegate for a practice had to be put to a CY's meeting for approval. St Giles in the Fields was the regular practice tower. There was no Shoreditch, no Spitalfields and no St. Martin-in-the-Fields. How we have moved on since then! John paid tribute to Dennis. Without the foundations that he and others laid at that time the Society would not have made the advances of the last 20-25 years. John then gave a special welcome to Michael Fairey, celebrating today the 50th anniversary of his election to the Society. At this point he also thanked by name all who had worked so hard to make the evening such a success, in particular Kathy Carter and George Unsworth, who were presented with bouquets. Finally John welcomed and proposed a toast to all the visitors present, including the College Youths who were all congratulated on the fact that they had been elected to that Society.
The formal proceedings over, the Immediate Past Master and Senior Steward staggered to the bar, claiming that they didn't yet have their sea legs, in an attempt to drink the remaining beer. There was more general socialising before taxis, carriages and Shanks' Ponies arrived at midnight. A wonderful evening over, everyone was reluctant to depart, but eventually depart we did, with no-one falling overboard.
The weekend and hangovers not quite over, there was plenty of Sunday Service ringing to be done at Redcliffe, the Cathedral, St Stephens, The Lord Mayor's Chapel, All Saints and Christchurch. After congregating for coffee, a second breakfast or early lunch at the Watershed final goodbyes were said, and everyone finally departed. General consensus was that it had been a fabulous weekend. We all look forward to the next Dinner ... where next?!