24th December 1958 – 12th July 2012

from front-page article by Linda Garton in issue #5290



“Not just a few have reflected on how someone so small has left such a big hole in our lives.”

These were the words used by the Revd Canon Dr Alvyn Patterson, a Canon of Worcester Cathedral and a family friend, in his address at Alison’s funeral service on 31st July. As family and friends, including ringers from across the county, gathered to say goodbye to Alison, filling the cathedral to capacity, the bells were rung by members of the Worcester Cathedral Guild of Bellringers. During the service, Grandsire Caters was rung on handbells by Roger Bailey, Bernard Taylor, David Brown, John Loveless and Mark Regan. After the service, four courses of Stedman Cinques were rung by a band all of whom had participated in many significant peals with Alison over the years.

With Alison’s untimely death at the age of 53, Catherine, William and Nicola have lost a loving mother, many of us have lost a dear friend, and the world of ringing has lost a giant ... albeit, to quote just one peal footnote, “a pocket giant”. The numerous tributes rung in Alison’s memory are an indication of the high esteem in which she is held.

Alison was brought up in Winchester, with her brother and sister, Richard and Helena, their mother, Marion and father, John, a Master at Winchester College. Ringing was a big part of Alison’s childhood, as well as her adult life. She started at the age of eleven, persuaded by her cousin, Christine, to try it. And, as we all know, she never looked back! However, Richard and Helena have many other happy memories of other aspects of Alison’s life as they grew up together.

As a child, Alison was always keen on cars. Her ‘treat’ after visits to the dentist was always a new toy car and for many years she wanted to be long distance lorry driver. She never lost her love of driving. Terrified passengers given a lift home after a peal at Pontefract tell the story of her driving down the A1 late one night as though it were a Grand Prix track. On another occasion, unfortunately no-one was present to witness Alison’s reaction to a policeman who caught her speeding and called her a “naughty bunny”! Many of us will remember Alison turning up to peals in her crash helmet and motorbike leathers, partly a convenient way to travel around the country before she had the children and a graduation from riding her bicycle around London, but also, of course, part of the rebel that she’s always been.

Alison always had a love of music. After being inspired on a school visit at the age of about eight or nine, she wanted desperately to play the harp. However, her parents managed to persuade her to try the cello instead. It was just that bit more portable! She went on to play the cello for many years and always enjoyed playing in the Winchester College Orchestra. Winchester is, of course, an all-boys school, though whether this had any bearing on her enjoyment is not clear. In more recent years, Alison took up the saxophone for a while, but apparently every time she played it, the children started to cry. Alison also went choral singing with her mother, and later sang with the Imperial College and University of London Choirs. She was considered good enough to sing solos too. Whilst in London, Alison often went to concerts, some of which could perhaps be described as esoteric, like the jazz player Eberhard Weber and ensembles playing works by Philip Glass. Others, such as a performance by the Balinese Royal Gamelan Orchestra verge possibly on the obscure! Eager to nurture musical talents in her children and to share her love of music, Alison drove them to the Burton Bradstock Festival of Music and Art, at the invitation of her mother, and recently proved herself to be the ‘best mum’ (not that proof were needed) by not embarrassing Catherine at a Lady Gaga concert.

Alison also enjoyed acting, an interest inherited from her father who, we are told, regularly dressed as a pantomime dame. For both of them no outfit was complete without a statement pair of dangly earrings! In a University Ringing Society pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she was the natural choice to play the part of Snow White (of course!) and was the only person to learn her lines properly. Very Alison! She once played the part of Hermia in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was especially fond of quoting the bit where Lysander turns against her and says:

“Get you gone, you dwarf; You minimus, of hind’ring knot-grass made; You bead, you acorn.”

Alison learnt to ring at Winchester Cathedral, taught initially by Bill Young. She was soon taken under the wing of Charlie Kippin, who, in his own gruff way, gave her a great deal of encouragement in her early ringing career. She always spoke with great fondness and respect for Charles and Jessie, feelings that were certainly reciprocated. Alison was one of a number of very competent young female ringers to learn at Winchester at the time. In the tower scrapbook there is one particularly well-thumbed page, containing a photograph of a quarter peal band, six mini-skirted members of Winchester County High School for Girls, ringing for the school carol concert at the Cathedral in 1972.

Ringing for carol service at Winchester Cathedral December 1972 (l-r): Rebecca Grant, Caroline Trueman, Christine Evans, Jennifer Grant, Alison Surry and Wendy Waterfield

Progress was very rapid and Alison rang her first peal just before her 15th birthday, a young persons’ peal of Grandsire Doubles on the six bells at Eling, which was the first peal for five of the band. This was followed four days later by a peal of Stedman Cinques on the heavy 12 bells at the Cathedral. Alison’s peal ringing career soon took off, ringing many of her early peals on both tower and handbells, with Hampshire ringers such as John Colliss, Roy LeMarechal, and John Dodd. She went on to ring a total of 1,866 peals.

After A-levels and further studies at Eastleigh College, Alison started work as a legal executive, before deciding to leave her job to go to university in London in 1980 to study linguistics.

This is when I first met Alison. I remember the excitement as the UL, the University of London ringing society, heard that THE (then) Alison Surry was coming to study at SOAS and before term had even started, she had plenty of peal attempts booked in her diary.

Alison was a huge asset to the UL both socially and as a ringer. She was a key part of the band who, over the next three years, achieved a number of ground-breaking peals for university societies, including all the work Spliced Surprise Royal in 14 methods, Spliced Surprise Maximus (36 methods), 15,120 Surprise Minor in 21 methods at Huntington, York, the then record length of Surprise Minor, and silent and non conducted Stedman Triples, not to mention taking part in the first peal of Richard Harris’s Cat Little S Major and other methods of similar nomenclature! She was also a part of the UL band which reached the final of the National 12 Bell Competition at Evesham in 1983, which will be forever remembered not for the ringing and who won, but for Alison’s attire ... not just her trademark spikey pink hair and dangly earrings on this occasion, but a white boiler suit, and, most memorably, a string vest.

Alison and I soon became close friends. I guess that we must have done some studying at some point during our years at University, but my main memory of this time is spending hours and hours drinking coffee and gossiping, cycling around London to do loads and loads of ringing, and most of all doing lots and lots giggling, often not really knowing why!

One particular occasion that springs to mind was on the UL summer camping trip to Durham. It was at the time of the Charles and Di Royal Wedding in 1981. Alison and I were keen to celebrate, but the boys on the tour were being far too Republican for our liking. So, the night before the wedding, we decided to decorate their tents with red, white and blue balloons whilst they were asleep. The idea was that this would be a big surprise when they woke up in the morning. We valiantly attempted to blow up balloons in out tiny tent without giggling and then stumbled round in pitch darkness to tie them to the boys’ tents without them knowing. It wasn’t long before the whole campsite was awake!

On Wednesday afternoons there were no lectures so that we could all go off and do sports. Alison and I found far better things to do ... ringing handbells at Cornwall House, a regular handbell venue at the time and wandering along Oxford Street en route, popping into Top Shop to try on the most outrageous clothes that we could find. Alison was already an accomplished handbell ringer when she arrived in London and a valuable addition to the band. Nearly 500 of Alison’s peals were rung in hand, including Spliced S Minor (53 methods), Spliced Surprise Major (23 all-the-work and in 25 methods) and Bristol Surprise Maximus, but perhaps more significantly, she also rang lots of peals of more straightforward methods too. Alison always patiently helped and encouraged less experienced handbell ringers, not just our Wednesday afternoon group. On Tuesday evenings she would always be at Bow-in-the-Road practice, teaching Plain Hunt and Bob Minor to learners both on tower and handbells. She later rang with the lunchtime band at SOAS with Swaz Apter and Gwen Rogers, and more recently in Worcester.

As the last of several generations of ringers moved out, Cornwall House was replaced by Imperial College as a regular handbell venue and this still remains Alison’s leading “tower” for peals. She also ventured to several more exotic locations too, ringing handbell peals in Singapore, Namibia and not forgetting the grand handbell tour of Europe in 1981, during which peals were rung in Belgium, France and the first ever peal in Germany, in the grounds of a café in the Eifel Mountains, to the bemusement of the lederhosen-clad hikers out for their afternoon stroll.

My most memorable handbell peal with Alison was at Greenham Common, then the women’s anti-nuclear peace camp. The peal later became rather contentious, and Alison’s undoubted ability to argue for something that she believed in was put to the test. However, despite her protestations, the peal no longer appears in the record books of an eminent London-based society. Alison never shied away from controversy. She also took part in a number of “performances” on buckets and flower pots which were not recognised by the Central Council and was a member of the Liss Campanile Youths band which reached the National 12 Bell Final three times before the rules were changed, creating quite a stir when they came second in the 1986 contest at Leicester Cathedral, only one fault behind the winners.

Alison was elected as a member of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths in January 1981, and was a regular attender at Wednesday night practices and Sunday service ringer at St Martin-in-the-Fields whilst in London. She always valued her membership and anyone who attempted to lure her across to the “Other Society” was put firmly in their place. But would the College Youths have been so keen to have Alison as a member if they had realised the subterfuge in which she had once been involved? In the days when women were not allowed to attend the College Youths’ dinner, a friend managed to get a ticket for Alison by giving a false name for his guest. I remember lots of giggling in the pub as Alison practised her deep voice and planned what she would wear; a suit, tie and and a false moustache. Unfortunately the plot was discovered and so we never did find out if her pink hair would be a giveaway.

group in ringing roomAlison rang a total of 95 peals for the Cumberlands and was a key member of the band which, over the years, rang some notable all-ladies peals, not only in terms of complexity, such as peals of Bristol Maximus silent and non-conducted and Orion, but also on some of the heaviest and most challenging bells in the country. Two that particularly spring to mind were top class peals of Stedman Cinques at York Minster and Exeter Cathedral. On both occasions, Alison rang the tenor, with her goddaughter, Julia. In the ladies peal of Stedman Caters at the Institute in London, a notoriously difficult ring of 10, whilst some did battle with the front bells, Alison rang the 9th seemingly with effortless ease, though she did have the grace to be lifted off her feet just the once. More recently, on a girlie weekend away to Dublin in 2010, Alison was on excellent form, not only ringing the 11th at St Patrick’s, but downing the pints of Guinness afterwards. It was a fun occasion and one that she very much enjoyed, but sadly the last all-ladies peal that she rang.

There are so many other outstanding performances on heavy bells that could be mentioned, such as a peal of Cambridge Surprise Minor at St Buryan in 1996, when Alison became the only lady ever to have rung on the 37cwt tenor. Needless to say, she rang faultlessly and with great style to the only all-ladies peal on the bells, a peal of which she was particularly proud. Alison circled the tower at Worcester Cathedral and five times at St Mary-le-Bow in London, turning in the 41cwt tenor twice to Bristol Surprise Maximus and once to Cambridge S Royal. As many ringers will appreciate, some of these bells pose a huge physical challenge and are beyond the capabilities of most ringers, regardless of gender, let alone a five-foot-nothing, eight-stone-nothing girlie!

For me and for so many other ringers, Alison has always been on a pedestal ... a large tenor box shaped pedestal. Just watching her technique ringing big bells was a pleasure to behold and she was the perfect role model for so many aspiring tenor ringers. But although noted for her heavy bell ringing, Alison was a highly accomplished performer on smaller bells too. In fact, wherever she rang in the circle, however odd-struck or awkward the bell and however complex the method, whether a quarter of Plain Bob for a learner or over 10,000 changes of silent and non-conducted Rigel Surprise Maximus, Alison’s ringing would always be immaculate, her striking precise and method ringing flawless. Roger Bailey is quoted as once saying:

It’s so embarrassing ringing with Alison. She just never goes wrong.

On the very, very rare occasion that she did, the rest of the band would inevitably start laughing, Alison would go very red and get very cross with them.

Alison was also an able conductor. She called 144 peals, including a number of peals of Grandsire Triples. The first of these was rung almost exactly 30 years ago to mark the 70th anniversary of the first ever ladies peal. I remember cycling down to Cubitt Town with Alison, past all the derelict warehouses which made up the landscape of London’s docklands at the time. She called the peal using the same composition and from the same bell as Edith Parker 70 years before. We giggled at the very serious photograph of the original 1912 peal band, in long dark skirts, high necked blouses, and a corset underneath and were thankful that we were attired differently on such a hot evening. It was fitting that many of the peals rung recently for the 100th anniversary were also rung in memory of Alison. She also called Grandsire Triples at Hanbury for William’s first peal last year, and was a very proud Mum!

In spite of her depth of experience and massive accomplishments as a ringer, Alison was always so modest and unassuming. One Worcester ringer commented that she was always thrilled about ringing alongside her friends, many of whom were mere beginners, encouraging and sharing her love of ringing with them. Alison was always a loyal supporter of her local band and Sunday Service ringer, ringing for many years at Willesden whilst she was in London, and when she and Mark moved to Worcester, she became a member of the Cathedral band and, more recently, tower captain at All Saints. Alison was elected as Master of the Worcester and Districts Change Ringing Association at the AGM in 2011. Her quiet non-confrontational style gave the Association a nice feel and the committee meetings were well chaired and happy occasions. One of her main focuses was the promotion and encouragement of ringing on higher numbers and she instigated the monthly 10/12 bell practices. 2011 also saw the centenary of the branches and she was involved in nine quarter peals for this – including something of a first for her “multi Doubles”. She was quite nervous about it! Alison was re-elected, unopposed, at the 2012 AGM and the Association was looking forward to another good year with her in charge. Sadly that is not to be.

Alison was completely selfless in her ringing, as in her life generally, which in Worcester revolved very much around the local community and her children. In his tribute at the funeral service, Spencer Morris, Headteacher of the children’s Primary School said that Alison

wasn’t just part of the local community; she was its core.”

Through the lives of Catherine, William and Nicola, she thrived in local education. It was her love of learning, especially language, which led to her working and volunteering in all ages of education, at London Road Playgroup, through Red Hill Primary School as a parent, Friend and Governor, to exam invigilator at Nunnery Wood High School. In all of her roles, Alison always gave of her best. Everyone in the area connected with these groups knew her, and knew that she would always put others first. In her tribute, Caroline Hallam, one of Alison’s close circle of “Worcester Mum’s” and with whom Alison ran a Guides and Rainbow group, also spoke of how Alison was always there, always available, never too busy. From popping in to check on a sick child to modelling for an art class (fully clothed it should be added) she always gave to others.

Alison did share a few obsessions with her children ... Harry Potter, Dr Who, Twilight and Pirates of the Caribbean; though she was not prepared to share Johnny Depp with anyone! A few years ago she discovered Appledore in Devon, along with Helena and the cousins, they experienced the Milky Way and The Big Sheep, and a new obsession was born. Alison encouraged family traditions; each year was punctuated by visits to favourite destinations and events such as the Upton Folk Festival, Tewkesbury Shield and the Worcester Beer Festival, and on the subject of punctuation, no misplaced apostrophe ever escaped her notice!

Professionally, Alison was a sub-editor for technical and specialist journals including the China Quarterly and publications of the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Revd Canon Dr Alvyn Patterson referred to her editorial skills in his address. Whilst she may have been acknowledged as an intimidatingly good bellringer, Alison was as nothing in that field when compared with what she was in the realm of proof reading. The first few drafts of the order of service for her funeral originally included the line:

“At the conclusion of this service the Ladies’ Heavy Bell Peal Band will ring ...”

In the final version, this line is missing. No-one was quite certain whether there should be an apostrophe or not! But, as Alvyn concluded:

whatever else their significance for Alison, apostrophes bear no significance for how Alison lived her life. She was no apostrophe. She omitted nothing. She left nothing out, but lived life to the full.”

Alison was, in my view, the greatest lady ringer and one of the most accomplished and inspirational ringers of our generation, and I’m sure that very few who had the pleasure of ringing with Alison would argue with that. But she was also so much more than a wonderful ringer. She was a loving mother to Catherine, William and Nicola and a much loved daughter and sister. She was a dear colleague and friend. She was special to all who knew her and had time for us all. We will miss her dearly.

(with apologies to Alison for any errors in punctuation)

See peal reports on p.974 and quarter peal reports on p.981 & p.1295

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