Obituaries

Christopher James Higgins

21st September 1947 - 5th April 2014

Chris Higgins, was one of life’s greats ...

a great character, a great raconteur, a great teacher and, most of all, a great friend.

Born on 21st September 1947 in Godmanchester, the sixth generation of his family to live in the same house, Chris was a true local and valued traditions. Aged 12, taught by Albert Davey, he learnt to ring. Four years later, he joined the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, becoming a Drum Corporal Bugler, attached to the Household Cavalry.It was in the army that he discovered a passion for horses that lasted lifelong. He served on active duty in many countries around the world including Cyprus and Northern Ireland, whilst his state duties included guarding Buckingham Palace, bearing Churchill’s coffin up the steps of St Paul’s and ringing the bells of St George’s, Windsor.

As a master steeplejack (which became his trade after the army), he worked at significant heights and on many spires, including that of Salisbury Cathedral. Making a natural progression from there to become a bell-hanger, working for Whitechapel for 13 years. His long roll call of jobs included maintaining the bells of both cathedrals in Liverpool, where in one, the tenor was so big there was a ladder up the outside, another down into the bell to be able to work on it (in the up position) and a ‘strapper’ needed on the tail end when the time came to test ring it.

Chris never boasted about his abilities, he didn’t have to … pride in doing a job well was what mattered to him, and he always said respecting the bells keeps you safe. A favourite story involved playing a practical joke on a fellow bell-hanger who was being rather cocky about getting a bell up. Unbeknownst to him, up on the wheel was an ‘assistant’ giving a well-timed push on the wheel to keep the bell in motion just below the balance until the guy below was exhausted and his cockiness gone.

Chris hated to see good things being thrown away and salvaged a lot of useful bits and pieces from Whitechapel’s skip which were put to good use in many belfries of Huntingdonshire, especially after forming, with Ruth, John Haas and Andy Woodger, the Huntingdonshire Church Bell Restoration Society (which celebrated it’s silver anniversary in 2004).

Chris travelled widely with work, including a spell in a Nunnery!, but on leaving Whitechapel, settled back in Godmanchester and, with Ruth, started in business as an undertaker. As well as caring for the bereaved families, he took immense care to find out the background of the deceased and ensure that all due respect was accorded in the funeral with the appropriate flags and insignia. His passion for horses and ability to handle them, also found him working on memorable horse-drawn funerals far and wide.

Chris didn’t give up bell work though, as leader of HCBRS, Chris spent countless hours examining bells, assembling volunteers, patiently passing on his bell-hanger’s knowledge and experience, restoring, recruiting and teaching a new band. He was also continually updating the details in his copy of Revd Owen’s 1899 book The Church Bells of Huntingdonshire. So for every inspection report, not only did Chris write about the engineering aspects of the bells and frame, but also about their history and traditions, imbuing churches with an appreciation of their uniqueness and an opportunity to foster community. Thanks to his efforts, well over 100 towers in Huntingdonshire now have ringable bells, including the 2nd heaviest ring of four in the world, at Elsworth, and all those along the entire length of ‘Spire Valley’ from Brampton to Thrapston, as well as many in the rest of the county. Indeed many towers in Northamptonshire were also worked on by Chris and the group and, never wanting to let anyone in need down, towers in Derbyshire, Norfolk and Hertfordshire were also helped along the way.

Chris had the ability to make everyone able to achieve more than they initially thought possible, whether it be tying the knots, climbing a ladder, ringing a bell on the wheel, learning to call or – with an eye to the future – learning to teach bell handling.

He was forever putting others forward to take the trophy of a first ring on newly restored bells, preferring instead to hear them ring out as he walked across the fields, especially accompanied by Jake, his beloved German Shepherd. He did though, ring two peals that were the first ever on those particular bells – one at Elsworth and the other at St Ed’s and he would have rung in the first peal at Conington All Saints if he hadn’t been in hospital.

In a rare move, he did accept an honour – the title of Master of the Bells of St Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge, which was awarded in thanksgiving for all his restoration work there.

Even as his health deteriorated, Chris continued to guide the bell restoration and with reduced mobility, added another project to his workload by joining the Godmanchester Community Tree Nursery. This involved gathering seed from the local ancient woods that he knew so well, nurturing the seedlings, enjoying the camaraderie of helping others. Last Autumn, planting rare black poplar along the bank of his riverside meadow and, just a few weeks ago, planting saplings in the new settlement of Alconbury Weald.

When asked why he’d got involved in the tree nursery, he said he liked watching things grow. Chris was a keen observer of life – of plants and of people. His own was a very rich and varied tapestry of experiences, including acting roles in Silent Witness. We’ve all been entertained by his recounting of them and enriched by knowing him. He packed a huge amount into his life, but left us too soon … Much obliged, Chris; be seeing you!

ALISON FINN

Footnote:

There’s a lot of support for the idea of holding a memorial service in September. There’s also a lot of support for the idea of memorial ringing (muffled and whole pull ringing, to keep the tradition Chris taught us alive) on All Souls’ Day in all the towers he had a hand in restoring – this year to remember Chris, and in future years to commemorate the departed known to the ringers and those in each of the parishes where the bells are rung. Anyone who would like to be involved in that, please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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