Refurbishment of the bells of St Mary’s

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After nearly 60 years of ringing since the last major refit, some of the bell fittings are wearing out. The ball-bearings which enable a bell to rotate easily are close to falling apart; they make nasty rumbling noises which indicate their condition and are stiffer to ring than they used to be. Similarly the pulleys which direct the ropes into the right position are becoming worn. They are made of wood and over the years they become grooved by the passage of ropes over them, they’re not as circular as they started out, and their ball-bearings too are aging and stiff. The wooden sliders which move from side to side to allow the bell to be “set” upright have nearly worn out the cages in which they slide. All of these factors add to the friction which makes it harder to ring the bells well. One of the wooden wheels round which the ropes run has a nasty section of its rim missing (don’t know how or when it happened).  All in all it’s time for a refit, so with grants from local and county bell restoration funds and money saved by the ringers, a refurbishment program is happening. The PCC will meet the initial bill, and all of it will be repaid straight away from grants, gifts and savings.

A long time ago (probably only a year but it seems like a long time) we commissioned reports on the bells’ condition and chose Whites of Appleton, a major bellhanging company, to make the necessary repairs to keep the bells in a ringable condition for the next 50+ years. We had to get approval from the PCC, apply for grants, do lots of sums, and then apply for a faculty from the Diocese before we could commission the work, which eventually started on 15th June 2009.

Under the direction of Graham Clifton, one of the directors of Whites of Appleton, four good men and true - Brian Doran and David Clarke from the congregation, Peter Ellis and David Gambling from the ringers – started the dismantling process. It’s cramped, dirty, and care is needed when walking along the narrow girders of the frame and climbing into the pits to get at the fittings. Twinkletoes Doran wasn’t too keen at first about walking on a 4-inch beam ten feet above the floor, but soon got used to it!

We removed the ropes from the bells then took out all eight clappers. These are made from steel and weigh from 20 pounds to about 50 pounds. As the photo shows, the largest is the same height as Brian. Getting them out from inside the bells and lowering them to the floor without damage to the fittings, the floor, or the workforce was hard work. Then they had to be lowered through a trapdoor into the clock chamber, carried downstairs into the ringing chamber, and eventually carried down the spiral staircase to the outside.

Next came the pulley blocks and slider boxes. They are bolted onto the massive steel bell frame and in theory only a spanner was needed to remove them, but some enthusiastic painting 20 years ago made gripping and removing the nuts more of a challenge. Also the original fitters weren’t very consistent in their choice of nuts – some square, some hexagonal, and a variety of sizes. Eventually they were all undone except one which we persuaded with a hacksaw. Then the pulley blocks and slider boxes, all quite heavy too, were transported outside in the same way as the clappers.

Meanwhile, Graham was trying to find out the dimensions of the existing bearings in order to acquire the replacements. He removed the bearing housings (easy) and looked for the markings which would precisely identify the size required, but some of them weren’t visible and some had no markings. This meant that he had to remove the bearing (tricky) and take it back to the workshop for identification and measurement. As there is a ton of bell is sitting on the bearings it isn’t that easy to remove them, but with slings and chains and not a little skill he achieved his object.

While the less-skilled three (David C, David G & Brian) were removing the remaining fittings, Graham and Peter dismantled the wheel from the 4th bell to take back to Whites for repair. The wheel eventually succumbed to their administrations (lots of hammering!), removed from the bell and split into two semicircles (as designed) for carrying downstairs.
Surprisingly by now it was only lunchtime, so we repaired to the Old Bell (where else?) for refreshment.

After lunch we had one more task - with no ringing for ten days there was no need for seating in the ringing chamber, so we carried the four ringing-chamber benches down to the church for removal to the paint stripping people to have their multiple coats of worn and flaky paint taken off. Bare wood is the fashionable finish.

That was the easy bit. We had about a week to recover from all the aching joints and muscles.

Ten days later .......................
The refitting took place on the Wednesday and Thursday of the following week. This time Graham had brought along James from the bellhangers, we’d lost Peter but gained Simon Crawley so still had muscle available. We carried the bits up to the ringing chamber and set to work refitting all the parts. The bearings could only be refitted by the experts, so Graham and James set to work on the skilled stuff while we refitted the rest. As expected, problems occurred – some old bolts weren’t suitable for the new fittings, one pulley didn’t quite fit the space available, we refitted one of the pulleys back-to-front (yes, it can be done), and the clappers were very tricky - imagine a 50lb 3” diameter rod of steel with a pivot 2/3 of the way along it, and you have to crouch underneath a one-ton bell in the dark and poke it through a small hole four feet above you, and maybe you’ll see what the problems were. Add to that the fact that the hole was D-shaped so that it only fitted one way, and that helps to explain why it took us quite a time. It was only later that the bellhangers showed us the easier way of doing it!

The professionals finished the bearings on Wednesday, and on Thursday refitted the chiming hammer. This had to be replaced because 1) it was bent (accident, several years ago), 2) it hit the bell too near the edge and could easily break a piece from the rim, and 3) by pulling on the rope from the church it was possible to hold the hammer on the bell and swing it so that the hammer wouldn’t work any more. A new mechanism was designed, supplied, modified again, fitted and tested. Then they tightened all the nuts and bolts holding the bells to their headstocks (4 on each bell, x 8 = 32), some of which had loosened over the years but we hadn’t been able to tighten during our regular maintenance inspections.

Once the clappers were all in place, the ropes were re-attached (more than just tying a rope on, they have to be precisely measured to be the right height) and we were ready for the set-up exercise to make the bells strike evenly. A magic measuring box (high-tech meets low-tech) was produced which timed the interval between the bell passing a sensor and striking the note. The bell was rung several times to get reliable measurements, and the clockwise striking interval time compared to the anti-clockwise time.  If they were the same the bell was “evenly struck” and no adjustment necessary. If not, we had to loosen the clapper nuts and either move the clapper slightly in the hole or twist a tapered washer to angle it differently. The adjustments are not very scientific – “move it a bit that way and try again”, so several tries were needed when a bell needed adjusting. Each try required the bell to be rung “up” for timing, “down” for adjustment, and up again for the next test. We achieved it by about 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, and all the striking was set so that there was a maximum of 25 milliseconds difference between the strokes. Any irregularity in ringing can now be blamed solely on the ringers.

Thursday night practice took place a few hours later, the first time the refitted bells had been rung together, and it was noticeable how much easier it was to ring the bells, and how much easier to get the timing right. The benches still hadn’t been returned, so those waiting to ring had to stand or sit on the floor. Friday saw their return but they still needed sanding (splinters wouldn’t be comfortable) and treating with furniture oil. (Two down, two still to go).

Huge thanks are due to the unpaid labour – Peter Ellis, David Clarke, Simon Crawley, and Brian Doran, who laboured manfully and voluntarily, and were paid only in beer. Their labour saved several hundred pounds on the bill. We now hope that this 2009 investment of money, time, and effort will last St Mary’s for another 60 years.

David Gambling
Tower Captain
June 2009