Within one mile of our home we have not one but two magnificent medieval churches. Recently I was lucky to be given a conducted tour of the larger of these by, the tower captain.
The church itself dates from the 14th century, but the tower was built a hundred years’ earlier. The oldest bell was made some time between 1400 and 1410. By Thomas Potter of Norwich.
We know that because the maker’s mark is cast into the rim of the bell itself, and Potter was working between those years.
So this is one of the bells that rang out to celebrate Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415. The next oldest bell was made in London by William Chamberlain in 1440. The third of the the 15th century bells was made in 1470 in London and is the heaviest, weighing in at just short of a ton. They were all given names when they were cast so are still known respectively as Katherine, Nicholas and Gabriel.
A fourth bell was added during the 17th century, followed by 4 more in the 18th century, and a replacement second bell in 1996. The bells were in constant use up to the first world war in 1914, but then fell silent because of concerns about safety and the strength of the wooden frame within which the bells were hung and the structure of the tower itself. Bells do not have a counterbalance weight, so exert a lateral force of twice their own weight and four times their weight vertically when ringing. So the 1718 tenor bell, the largest and heaviest applies over 4 tonnes of pressure to the tower fabric each time it rings. Bells are hung in opposition so the forces cancel out as far as possible.
In 1996 sufficient funds were raised to refurbish the tower and the bells. The original timber frame had served its purpose, but after 600 years it was deemed prudent to replace it with a new steel frame, which was set into a reinforced ring lower down, just above the clock room. The old wooden frame is still there, but now assigned to lighter duties. It houses one single bell, Nicholas, which is now used to chime the hour for the tower clock below. Will it still do so after another 600 years? No reason why not, but the clock mechanism may need some TLC before then.
Entry to the tower is through a small door set discreetly in one corner of the ground floor. This leads by a narrow winding circular stone staircase up into the ringing chamber. This is where the bell ringers themselves control the bells. Eight long ropes are fed down from the ceiling led through wooden rings. The bell ropes were looped up to a multiple hook called a spider, which was in turn pulled up by a padlocked rope so that the bell ropes were out of harm’s way or beyond the reach of mischief makers. A large sign on the floor warned that some of the bells were “up”. Around the walls of the chamber a number of boards record notable peals, all lasting over 3 hours. The names of the ringers and details of the peal itself are all carefully detailed, just like the honours board at Lords cricket ground.
A further flight of stone steps took us up to the clock room, comparatively empty with just the clock mechanism along one wall and the bell ropes themselves hanging down in the middle.
The next room above was the bell chamber itself, accessed by a wooden ladder. Here the bells hang from their new metal frame. As you come up through the floor Katherine, the oldest bell, hangs right in front of your eyes to greet you. The rim appears to be chipped, but this is where metal was removed deliberately to tune the bell when it was made. Beyond are the other 7 bells. Space is limited, so they are packed in tightly. Each bell hangs from its own frame, and is attached to a large wheel. The bell rope itself sits within the rim of the bell wheel, and is used to swing the bell through 360 degrees, a complete circle. The bell rings each time the rope is pulled, just before the point of balance is reached with the mouth pointing upwards. With a little more pressure on the rope the bell is “up”, held by a wooden stay, poised for action. At this point the bell is extremely dangerous. One injudicious step and a ton of bell could swing down out of control. For this reason bells are usually left hanging “down”. It has to be said that the bells have a “presence” all of their own. An awareness of their latent energy imparts a sense that they are only sleeping, ready to be woken to summon the faithful.
Above the new bell chamber it is possible to reach the original bell chamber where the bells were hung before the 1996 refurbishment. Here the original wood frames have been kept, with Nicholas still hanging in one corner, ready to chime the hour.
Finally, a short but rather ancient ladder leads through a trapdoor onto the roof. From here you can see that the village lies in the centre of a bowl. On the edge of the bowl in the distance the tower of Stoke church can be seen clearly, with a clear line of sight from there to the coast some 20 miles away.
In all a memorable experience. Ours is one of more than 4,000 active bell towers in the UK. Bells and bell towers are an important part of our national heritage, the mechanisms hardly changed since they first rang out many years ago. Full circle bell ringing itself a unique part of our social history, maintained by a flourishing group of volunteer enthusiasts, passing down their experience to the next generation of ringers to come.