Crisis at the Tower, Darren Woodyer reports
North Curry bells – past, present and future
Our Church has been a dominant structure from the top of the hill for hundreds of years: overlooking the levels and being a symbol to people in many different ways. Placed gracefully on top of the building is our beautiful octagonal tower, supporting eight mighty bells which when rung can be heard for many miles.
Records show that there have been bells at this church as far back as 1586, calling people to church on a Sunday. Likewise letting people rejoice in couples getting married and saying farewell to loved ones as they depart this earth. History shows that bells have also been used as warning systems for thousands of years: in World War II bells were used to warn people of bombing raids and also rung out when the war ended.
In 1811 our 6 largest bells came to our tower, then in 1894 they were joined by the 2 lightest bells we have today. Originally rung from the ground floor – in the space occupied by the nave altar today – in 1833 the bells were moved higher up in the tower, allowing what was then the bellchamber to become today’s ringing chamber. Hence instead of a team of eight ringers getting in the way of the congregation, they are now hidden away up the spiral staircase accessed from the door at the foot of the tower.
So North Curry’s bells are a very traditional part of the village. Whilst only certain of us are regular attenders at church services, the bells are heard by all, and are an essential part not only of the traditional Sunday, but in particular too of major celebrations such as Christmas and Easter when the church is at its fullest. Not just that, but the bells are also used for the church clock chimes, sounding every quarter day and night. We know indeed that they are part of people’s lives – when following a problem some months ago the chimes were stopped for a while, there was general unrest around the village ! Whilst in this day and age we all have instant ways of knowing what the time is, the distant chimes of the church clock are a reassuring sound echoing in our subconscious and somehow giving a sense of permanence: something to be treasured in this fast moving world.
Regularly used over the years, they have stood the test of time well – a tribute to our forbears who installed, maintained and rang the bells: particularly considering the lack of modern equipment, power tools and so on, which we take for granted today. Like everything though, if used enough, things start to wear out …
We have been very fortunate over the years, and with good maintenance and a handy team of steeple keepers, our bells have sounded out over the village and surrounding areas for all of those years. But we have now come to a time where local skills are not enough to keep the bells ringing.
Over the past 6 months articles have been written for the church magazine to highlight to the local community some of the problems which have started to arise with the bell frame, likewise with the bells themselves, and the various fixtures which connect the bells with the frame: wheels, headstocks, bearings and so on. The bell ringers felt that it was only right to let the village know that these problems were increasingly.
The actual frame – the all-important structure which supports the bells – is in itself a piece of pre-Victorian engineering which has performed its task brilliantly over more than 200 years. A solid oak structure, it has nonetheless been weakened over time as new bells have been installed and other modifications made. Cracks in the wood are evident, and the metal struts which hold parts of it together are increasingly worn and bent. Furthermore, attached to it is a smaller metal frame which supports three bells: this was installed about a hundred years ago when new bells were introduced, and is in itself in need of renewal. Between them, there is growing anxiety about their ability to support the four tons of metal up there which the bells represent.
What is more, the frame is not embedded in the tower walls as would be the case with a modern frame: it simply rests on supporting beams above the ringing chamber. This is showing increasing movement, evidenced by the difficulty in ringing certain lighter bells when the heavy bells are ringing at the same time. All in all, whilst there have of course always been maintenance issues to resolve, the frequency of such issues has intensified in recent months to the extent that firstly the demands are getting beyond the ability of the local team to respond to them, and secondly increasing health and safety concerns.
To confirm our fears, we engaged a visit from Taylors of Loughborough, bellfounders and bellhangers. They supply and install bells throughout the world and recently completed the bell restoration at St Mary’s in Taunton. They undertook a thorough inspection of our bells now and recommended that a new bell frame be fitted, submitting a quotation for various options, including casting new bells.
Following this, there has now been a detailed survey by structural engineers which has concluded that action must be taken. This has given us an independent opinion following the inspection by Taylors, confirming in particular the movement of the frame during ringing as well as pointing to further deterioration in the frame itself.
Both inspections have outlined the possibilities of repairing and strengthening the frame, but leave us in no doubt that this will be a challenging task, and an expensive item itself. Added to which there are significant numbers of other items which need attention: namely all the fitments which connect the bells to the frame and enable the ringing to happen – headstocks, bearings, wheels and so on. Not forgetting the clappers which are an essential part of the noise we make – very heavy items which need careful handling, one of which indeed comes loose on a regular basis at the moment …
The challenge is thus to decide whether to attempt a repair – or whether to replace …
The bellhangers have outlined three possible options:
(1) Rehang and retune the bells, provide new bell fittings and strengthen the bellframe.
This will involve creating an opening in the ringing chamber ceiling, dismantling and lowering the bells, and sending to the bellhanger’s works for cleaning and tuning. New tie bars, brackets, strengthening steels to be fitted to the bell frame.
(2) As above, but additionally providing a new bellframe.
The new frame to be cast iron, with steel girders.
(3) As (2), but additionally recasting the bells.
The bells to be cast in the bellhanger’s own foundry.
The costs involved are estimated to range from around £90,000 for the first option, £115,000 for the second, and £170,000 for the third. There will be VAT to be paid additionally, which should be reclaimed subsequently but will need to be funded.
It can be argued that the first option, whilst the lowest in cost, is the most expensive in terms of the end result. This is because of the very significant nature of the work involved to restore an ancient wooden frame. It is worth noting that a long guarantee on such work might be difficult to obtain.
The second option profits from the advantages of using new materials to install a modern metal frame, without incurring the labour and materials needed to repair the old frame. A new metal frame would be securely anchored in the walls of the tower, unlike the current setup which rests on the belfry floor.
The third option is the ideal package, profiting from the opportunity to update the bells and “future-proof” the tower for the next 200 years. It will allow the bells to be reconfigured as a lighter peal of 10 bells as opposed to the current eight. This will make them easier to ring, particularly for younger ringers at the learning stage, and benefit from modern fitments with latest technology.
What are we going to do?
Following the surveyor’s report it has been agreed that the bells can keep being rung, but this will involve additional maintenance and increased close inspections in order to ensure that everything is safe. In effect this means a belfry inspection prior to each ringing session. The serious movement in the frame which has been confirmed, and the cracks in the wood which have been established, mean we can do nothing less.
So we have had to start cutting back on the ringing, and also how many bells we can ring at any one time. The tenor bell – that’s the heaviest at just under a ton – is unfortunately out of action following an accident with its wheel: which on examination was found to be suffering from woodworm. Repairing that cannot be justified at the moment and will await the time we come to replace all the wheels. The emphasis in the short term will be just to ring the lighter bells, without incurring the stresses on the frame incurred by the heavier bells.
In essence, the bells and frame have deteriorated far more than was initially realised. As time goes on things will only get worse until we cannot ring any more.
The photos of some of the bells and the frame illustrate some of the issues which have arisen. It is all looking very tired, with past repairs on the frame now slowly failing.
A new sound for North Curry
In 2020 we will be starting a campaign to raise money to replace what we have in the tower. A major project for the village and the church, it’s an ideal opportunity to take the bells out and replace with a new frame, mechanics and bells. Fund raising events will be announced over the coming year, and initiatives pursued at local, regional and national level. Charitable status will be sought for the project and approaches made to appropriate grant giving bodies. Many towers throughout the country have had success in renewing their bells – North Curry can do it too …
What can you do ?
We will be keeping the village informed about the initiatives being pursued, and all those who can support them will help immensely. Large or small, every contribution will count, whether for example –
You may be able to sponsor a bell. We will be giving the community an opportunity to purchase a part of the project.
it won’t matter if it is a nut and bolt or a new bell, your name will be placed in a special book detailing your donation, what part this went towards and any message you would like to record. This will then be kept in the church archives when the project is finished so that generations to come can see how you helped.
We have had commissioned two drawings of the church by a young bell ringer who has allowed us to make 100 prints of each. Available for purchase framed or unframed.
SO – please join us in this campaign to restore the bells to their former glory. If we don’t take action, try to imagine never hearing them again. Not having the opportunity to celebrate a family member on their wedding day; or saying goodbye to the person you love. Not hearing the clock strike its hourly tune. A silent village.
It’s a huge undertaking, so support in whatever form will be gratefully received – we need your help to make it happen and so keep alive a village tradition that has run for hundreds of years. They are the people’s bells. Let’s leave a legacy that the village can be proud of so that future generations can hear what we hear today.
NC Bellringers website: Click here for the bells!
Practice every Monday evening 7.30pm to 9.00pm - all welcome, beginners, experts, old and young! Contact Darren, Tower Captain 07718 05907
If you would like to make a donation towards this project, please bacs to our account North Curry Bellringers
Account: 38229860 - Sort Code: 30-91-91 - Or give a cheque in person to Paul or Darren.
Together, we can succeed with this ambitious yet necessary project.
Thanks in advance for your support.
A couple of photos showing the problems we are encountering in the tower.