A personal tribute by George Pipe

My favourite photograph of Clifford – taken with Henry Fearn in Paris, 1968

One of the prized books in my collection is A. E. Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ – a beautifully illustrated edition in watercolour, conté & pastel, crayon & pencil by Robin Bell Coxfield. It is inscribed:

‘To George, from Cliff Barron, a Shropshire Lad – Spring 1992’.

When I heard the sad news from Janet of Cliff’s passing I read the book again from cover to cover. It took me back to that late February in ’92 and the second poem.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Clifford was indeed a Shropshire Lad and very proud of it – its blue-remembered hills, its hedgerow heaped with may. And as for Shrewsbury, ‘no better town in England’.

For me he was not only a ringer of the highest class but so much more than that. Others will no doubt tabulate his peals and fine performances; they will make good reading but what about Cliff as a man? He was a splendid travelling companion, conversationalist once you had eased away the shyness, letter writer and raconteur. His range of knowledge and interests was very wide indeed – it was always tempting, like the old BBC Radio Home Service panel game ‘Drop of a Hat’ to throw a subject into the ring to get his comments on it. Politics, sport, the Church, Salopian history and topography, Stedman Triples, Law, Birmingham ringing, books and poetry, the Armed Forces, trains. You name it …

But, of course, for us it will be his ringing for which he will be remembered and ‘refreshment’ afterwards. My first peal with him was Stedman Cinques on St Philip’s fine 12 in 1953 conducted by Albert Walker. My second, Stedman Cinques at St Philip’s (fine 12!) in the same year, again conducted by Albert.

Since then, up and down the land, we shared rooms and sometimes travelled together; Exeter to Liverpool, to Carlisle, York to Canterbury, Ipswich to Ireland, Dorset to Newcastle. The last full weekend in his company arranged by another dear friend and great performer Ken Hesketh was in Cumbria; good bells, good ringing, good ale and cider.

The amusing thing to recall is that in all my 56 years ringing with him, I never saw him EAT anything. Even during a weekend in Dublin – “I only require Guinness” he said!

Perhaps his best performance that I witnessed was his ringing York Minster 11th to a peal (Stedman Cinques – ‘what else?’) on Boxing Day 1969, conducted by Wilfred Williams. Cliff was spot-on for four hours and that was when one rang those mighty bells from the lower floor.

How proud he was, too, to be be invited in a peal at St Paul’s Cathedral and thus emulate his mentor George E. Fearn.

So many happy memories, peals with Ken, Peter (Border) and others, laughter, anecdote and the realisation how lucky we were. His 1,000th peal too, rung on his beloved 12 at St Chad’s, Shrewsbury.

Our sympathy goes out to Janet, Elizabeth, Richard, to Molly and the wider family and to his many friends.

Rest In Peace Cliff and may you hear Stedman Cinques in the heavenly belfry.

And you, till trump of Doomsday
On lands of morn may lie
And make the heards of comrades
Be heavy where you die.
(From The Recruit, A.E.H. c.1895)

A few more personal reminiscences

My first encounter with the “Barron” was in the summer of 1963. Our bell ringers’ outing from Bawtry, Yorkshire finished at the now lost peal of 10 at Derby, St Andrew’s. We weren’t making a very good job of the ringing when two guys walked in and stood watching. I guessed they were probably locals. Later, on the coach home, one of our band said they were also visitors waiting for a train back to Birmingham when they heard the bells ringing. They thought we were the locals!

I arrived in Birmingham the following month to start my university course. My first practice night was on the Monday at Harborne. One of the ringers, a short, dark, jovial guy seemed familiar; he turned out to be Jack Lindon. The following Sunday evening another familiar face appeared. The two together registered as the two ringers from Derby: Jack and Cliff. And that was the beginning of a lifetime friendship.

Because ringing finished at 6:30 on Sunday evenings, and the pubs only opened at 7:00, we often drove out into the Black Country in Cliff’s car in search of somewhere new, before finishing up in the front bar at the White Swan in Chad Valley. This was my initiation to the Birmingham ringing scene.

Cliff and Jack will always be remembered for their phenomenal capacity for beer, particularly Jack who was a truck driver for BR during the week, but it was Cliff who chauffeured us around to various new venues. Tales of their drinking exploits are almost too numerous to recall in an article of this length, but draught Bass in the “Blood Tub” Shrewsbury; Sunday lunch in the Greyhound Holloway Head; Sunday evenings in the middle pub in Claverley; Harborne Cricket Club; etc., will bring back memories for many. On one occasion, Barron, Wilcox and Lindon were first at the counter as the pub opened. They each ordered three pints. By the time I got served next, it was gone and they were back for more.

But the most memorable event must be the annual pilgrimage to Crich Tramway Museum in Derbyshire. The format was fairly predictable with a few minor variations. An early train from New Street meant we could enjoy a few cans en route before arriving at Derby for a 10:00 opening at the station bar. After taking on “fuel” prior to catching the train to Matlock Bath, more refuelling and a bus journey to Crich meant time for sandwiches and a couple more pints in the local pub just as the landlord was calling “time”. Usually they were persuaded to stay open for us. Ringing at the local tower and walking from Whatstandwell railway station proved to be disastrous and were not repeated. We always had a tram ride at the museum before starting the journey home which took a similar path back to Birmingham and the inevitable curry.

In 1967 Cliff agreed to be my best man when Joyce and I were married at St Peter’s, Harborne. It must be one of the few occasions when he made a speech! Typically, we were in “The Bell” before the service winning the jackpot on the one-armed bandit, when the verger appeared to say the bride had arrived. We filled my mother’s handbag with sixpence pieces and raced into church.

Cliff will be remembered particularly for his uncompromising tenor ringing. He showed no mercy to badly going bells and was of the opinion that speed was often the only solution. A typical example was the old, unringable 19 cwt eight at Darlaston which he rang in 2:50. Other fast peals I can recall being in included Bournemouth, St Peter (2:41), Birmingham, St Martin (3:11), Nottingham, St Peter (2:56) and St Lawrence Jewry (2:53). Needless to say he was heavily criticised by his contemporaries and superiors of the time, though the quality of his ringing was never in any doubt. Other notable achievements included the long lengths of Cambridge Surprise Maximus (1965), Stedman Cinques (1966) and Glasgow Surprise Major (1967); all record lengths at the time. He also conducted the last peal at Inveraray in 1970 before the refurbishment when we rang in appallingly wet conditions and partly rotting floors.

Joyce and I immigrated to South Africa in 1976 and Cliff joined us for a holiday in 1979. One of his objectives was to get a Rhodesian stamp in his passport: it was during the UDI years of Ian Smith. Jeff Lawrence, Cliff and I drove to Beit Bridge from Pietersburg (Polokwane) complete with six handbells. We paused at the Tropic of Capricorn and rang bob minor. On arrival at the border post, the very colonial looking immigration officer was intrigued by the purpose of our short visit, and very surprised that Cliff actually wanted a Rhodesian stamp in his passport. (It was normal in those days to have the entry and exit stamps on a loose piece of paper to save any embarrassing questions on return to the UK). Anyway, he found the next clean page and stamped it bang in the centre. We left the car at the border post to save paperwork problems, and walked to the local hostelry for lunch. We were soon joined by the immigration chap who had a beer with us so he could get the full story about our trip.

On the way home we were stopped at Messina on the South African side of the border and questioned about the handbells.
“Is they made from gold?” we were asked by the Afrikaner customs officer.
“No, bronze”, we replied, “We ring them”.
“OK”, he said, “Ring them”.
He then proceeded to close all the desks in the immigration hall and gathered together all the officers. We rang a plain course of bob minor while the people waiting in the queues watched in utter amazement, finally bursting into applause and tribal dancing as we finished. Our passports were stamped and we set off for home again, stopping briefly at various hostelries on the way to ring more bob minor (and rehydrate).

Cliff and I stayed in touch during the 20 years we were in SA and we met up in London and Birmingham whenever convenient on my irregular business trips. Our final peal together was Stedman Cinques at Southwark Cathedral after my return to the UK in 1996. Sadly, our attempts to ring Cliff’s 70th birthday peal in 2001 came to grief after some good ringing, and Cliff never really regained his old enthusiasm for ringing thereafter.

Cliff did not believe in league tables and often turned down peals to avoid being in the 50+ annual RW tables. In all, we think he rang 1341 peals with the last in 2002 at Stourbridge. I had the good fortune to ring in 97 of them, but that was nothing compared with the endless hours in his amusing, entertaining and educational company. Together with numerous other famous Birmingham names, Cliff above all influenced my ringing giving me good advice and plenty of encouragement when things weren’t going so well. Although a very private person, I knew I could always turn to him for confidential advice, particularly after my father’s death, and his support was always invaluable.

After my retirement in 2002 and a move to Ledbury the following year, Cliff and I would meet two or three times a year for lunch and a couple of beers. Latterly, he hadn’t enjoyed the best of health but he was always in good humour for our get-togethers. We were due to meet before Christmas and I was waiting for his call. Sadly it was a call yesterday from his wife Janet instead.

Cliff will be remembered by ringers from all over the UK as well as Birmingham. He was a true all-rounder; top-drawer, light and heavy bell ringer, and conductor. He never tried to sort out bad ringing, but would rather stop quickly and go to the pub, avoiding recriminations and post mortems, something less common today. He was a modest, reluctant leader. He didn’t like crowds, and when a particular pub scene became too busy, we’d find somewhere new and quieter. Inevitably the other ringers would follow progressively and we’d have to move on again. At least my knowledge of the geography of Birmingham and the Black Country benefited!


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