Bell Maintenance - 23 Sep 2017

I was scouting round the ART website and found a Bell Maintenance course for Saturday 23rd September in Northampton and decided it would be an interesting and useful day to attend.Half way from where I live in Sussex to my family in Lincolnshire so logistically feasible too. I suspect like many ringers I am not totally aware of how things work in the belfry, and leave it all to our very capable steeplekeeper. In the village where I grew up there is no longer an active bellringing band, and though the bells are rung monthly at least by a neighbouring band, I suspect they are not enjoying the regular maintenance they need to remain viable, and I wanted to pass on what needs to be done and assist organising what I could with the local community. Though they might hear bells less nowadays the implications of this are not understood or appreciated sufficiently by the locals I suspect, many of whom are newcomers to the area.

The cost of the course was incredibly reasonable, a total of £18 - £10 payable by BACS before the event and £8 cash on the day for lunch and refreshments.I emailed my local band before I attended to let them know I was attending a Bell Maintenance course, run by ART, the Association of Ringing Teachers and might be able to grab publications found at the following link so had a small order ready to supplement my own wish list.

Our joining instructions from Jennie Higson included a programme for the day, including a start time of 9.30am with tea and coffee. We were given the names of the closest multi storey car parks that Northampton thankfully has the foresight to offer free of charge on a Saturday, and directions to All Saints’ church in the centre of Northampton where the workshop was held in the room above the cafe. We sent our sandwich and refreshment choices ahead of the day as requested from a list provided to us and took along old clothes to change into if we didn’t have boiler suits. Torches and sturdy footwear were stipulated, and I would add a head torch is ideal as it leaves both hands free.

I joined a group of 9 or 10, a few more arrived shortly. We signed in, paid our cash for lunch and confirmed any outstanding sandwich and drink choices, grabbed a quick cuppa whilst greeting and sizing up our course fellows. Jennie began with welcome and introductions when we were settled.A 4th generation bellringer, she has been bellringing for 30 years, her father is a tower captain, she has children learning to ring (‘I have no choice, it’s in my blood’) and she worked at Loughborough Bell Foundry for 10 years so was more than qualified to pass on what basics of bell maintenance she could to us in one day. Her helper Charlotte was a relatively new ringer at All Saints Northampton benefitting from the installation of computer simulator software to aid teaching and a hub of four local towers and ringers supporting each other. Jennie asked us each to introduce ourselves and explain our reasons for attendance which revealed that as in any tower, we were a mixed bunch from different backgrounds, with varied experience and interest. Some were taking on/succeeding to the role of steeplekeeper and others were interested in knowing more about the bells above our heads we are ringing, what we should be doing to look after them, particularly now there are fewer active bellringers, and ominously, many with years of hands-on knowledge are getting older and more bells are perhaps not being cared for as diligently as they used to be. Once we had the entry code for the loos downstairs in the church café Jennie asked someone to write up the course which I neatly tumbled into having already started writing a few notes!

Health and Safety is common sense

Jennie used a projector screen from a laptop presentation so we could all see what she was referring to. She set the scene by launching sensibly into the common sense of Health and Safety, showing us the ‘Golden Rules’ - never work in the tower alone, always ensure someone knows where you are and what time you are expected to finish, never work on bells that are up, remove clock hammers to prevent surprises, put out warning signs saying people are working upstairs, log maintenance session in a tower log book. She explained how corrosive pigeon droppings are (one of the reasons we need to try and keep them out of the belfry by bird-proofing our tower) and that we need to use personal protective equipment (PPE) especially if there are droppings in the tower (further information, and finally, if you are in any doubt at all about any H & S aspect of Bell Maintenance to consult professional bellhangers. She referred to the Health and Safety Policy by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) Tower Stewardship Committee for the guidance of Society/Association/Guilds of Change Ringers as this covers bell maintenance and inspection:Health and Safety Policy. In addition, the following documents were referenced and detailed: Vertical ladders guidance - working at height, Fire Risk Assessment form.She showed us the risk assessment tool the CCCBR has on their website, which I found under - Risk Assessment Guidance Notes, Forms, examples.Using this you can grade the likelihood and severity of a risk to produce a risk rating for working in a belfry or anywhere else for that matter.We worked in groups to discuss how we would approach a risk assessment in our own towers as none of them are the same and all have different aspects to consider.

Jennie asked how many of us knew if our tower had risk assessment documentation, for visiting ringers to see, and if there is an accident. She said it’s our responsibility to ensure we are aware of safety and risk. We discussed the importance of having our church postcode on display for example, in case there is an accident and someone needs to contact the emergency services, all agreeing during the useful discussion that Health and Safety is not tricky, it’s just common sense really.

Bell components

Next Jennie showed us diagrams of bells pointing out each part as she identified it, and explained what we needed to check, how often and why. The Belfry Maintenance Schedule List she showed (and kindly sent out to us after the course as part of the pack of handouts) contains useful monthly, quarterly, half yearly and annual check grids. It was really interesting to listen to her expertly explaining how to check items such as clapper movement to see if bushes were wearing, and the effectiveness of different materials used. She talked about cannons on older bells, which make them harder to ring, circular headstocks, metal and wooden frames. There are practical aspects to take into account of moving around the different H and A frames when you are in a belfry, and she stressed again the importance of detaching clock and Ellacombe hammers. Weatherproofing sheeting for louvres takes on a new dimension when you consider that even though your top ends might be less prone to wear and tear they could have the inclement British weather to deal with! Clappers are made of Spheroidal Graphite Iron nowadays which I looked up and is also known as Ductile Cast Iron. We were advised to ‘keep a close eye on the seal of your gudgeon’ but again she stressed, our job is check regular maintenance and if you are in doubt about anything, call the professional bellhangers!

Practical instruction #1

We donned overalls if we’d brought them, grabbed our torches and made out way to the spiral stone staircase at the entrance of the church portico. The spiral went back on itself near the top having been rebuilt after a fire so we unwound into the ringing chamber. Jennie prompted us to think about what we should be looking at - wear and tear on the ropes as they are moving up and down all the time, are the sallies frayed, how are the ceiling bosses looking.Safety first – we need a notice to advise of people working up in the belfry, so she wrote one out on a white board to place on the stairs. There are 10 bells at All Saints’ Northampton which were installed only 11 years ago in 2006 on a metal frame and before that they had a set of 8. Jennie looked very at home moving deftly around the frame, her students not quite so perhaps, but she made sure everyone was safe and comfortable where they were gathered around on the frame and could see what she was demonstrating. She pointed out what to look for and how to find the parts she had previously identified to us and ensured everyone was comfortable whilst answering questions throughout.

What are we looking at in the belfry

We looked for wheel fillets holding the pieces of wood together, followed ropes through pulleys and garter holes. There is no specific way to tie ropes to wheels but it must be neat and tucked out of the way, and it needs to stay on, pretty important really! Bearing housings have blocks to hold them in place.She pointed out the reflectors on some of the wheels and some little lights because there is a simulator on the middle six bells. Check if the stays are loose or cracked, check every bell you can see.Inside the bell look up at the top to the crown staple, look at the stay slider and check it is running smoothly, feel if there is any play in the clapper, look at the bolts on top of crown that hold the clapper, is the split pin in there, check bearings and gudgeons. Look at stay bolts, a thorough check of the wheel shrouding and filets, making sure that the fillets haven’t come out. She added that when we go to St Peter’s it will be much clearer to see them as they’ve mostly blown …

Make sure the bobbins are secure, check the crown staple, and headstock, keep a stock of split pins. Bearings need to be lubricated but not puthering out. I had to look that one up – it’s a local colloquialism (East Midlands English) and means to pour out uncontrollably!

Muffles for learning with simulators

Some of the All Saints’ clappers have twist-around tyre muffles as these are the bells they use on the simulator for teaching. They are made using ordinary old motorbike tyres with the big advantage that they allow the clappers to swing freely, giving a normal feel to the bells, and can be turned easily to muffle the sound. You can still hear it outside but it’s not creating a cacophony of sound! Thanks to Peter Dale for the instruction sheet and another useful hand out.

Belfry walls and floors

Check belfry weather proofing but be aware if the wall boards are asbestos these are fine in situ but you can’t take them out or cut them without calling in specialists. Carpets against the louvres Jennie showed us, is their effort towards sound proofing. Another handout she referred to being SOUND CONTROL IN BELL TOWERS - GUIDANCE NOTES. Be wary of flooring in belfries you don’t know. She asked us to wander around the frame and bells and familiarise ourselves with what we were looking at and what we should be checking, any questions please ask.If the belfry is cleaned annually it will be a nicer place to be in, get other ringers involved, and they might even want to go on a bell maintenance course!

My bell had an inscription on to do with fire and misdemeanour, Jennie said all the bells have names and inscriptions. She said she liked the Inscription on the old treble ‘I need to make it understood that though I’m little yet I’m good’.

On the way back down the spiral staircase we looked at the clock room and the mechanism. We asked a local sat enjoying a coffee outside the church café to take a photo of the group and debated if bellringing had been invented today would it be allowed, and how so many people think the ringing they hear is from a machine when the bellringers emerge from the tower on a Sunday before service!


We had ordered lunch beforehand so all sat round a long table and exchanged tales of our interest in bells and ringing, we shared a list of email addresses and the hour went very quickly. One of our group had to rush home for an emergency we missed his company, hope all is well with him and that he will be able to attend Bell Maintenance Workshop #3 to complete his learning!

Recap and practical inspection #2

After lunch we recapped on the belfry inspection and prepared for the second installation at St Peter’s church a short walk away. It is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust who describe it as ‘the most outstanding Norman church in the country’ and it certainly is a rare treat to visit. The 8 bells were installed into a wooden frame in 1734 which is still there, though the fittings were replaced 1928. Considering the age of the installation it was amazing to appreciate the longevity and permanence of these bells and to be in a unique privileged place hidden away from the world.What would we do in this belfry? I’d clean up the metal and paint the fittings, treat the wood as its open to the weather, and do some rubbings of those bell inscriptions to show everyone what wonderful treasures they have hidden away above their heads!I started thinking about potential youth/public awareness opportunities…

Questions, recap, tea and onwards

Back at base we discussed what we had learned, Jennie answered questions and we all set off inspired with the knowledge we had gained during the day. Ian Wilson who rings at Warwick is my go-to splicer from the course, he said ‘remember if you ever want to learn how to splice a rope drop me a line - no pun intended’. David Waterhouse rings at Landbeach in the Ely Diocese. Annie Cunningham learned at Marsworth, rings there on practice nights and joins them on monthly outings but also rings for practice nights at her home tower St Marys in Hemel Hemstead where she rings for Sunday service. On the course she said she was going to fit a new stay at Marsworth (and no she didn’t break it). I asked how it went and she said it went really well, the hands on aspect was enhanced with improved understanding from the Bell Maintenance Workshop. At Mentmore she assisted with a bell maintenance check and said it was ‘good to have the reminder of the things learned on the course and have a spanner in my hand for tightening nuts and bolts’ and even though only one actually needed tightening she felt that it was an achievement. She is working on her rope splicing with lessons at ringing practice.

The workshop was well run and most appreciated so thank you Jennie, Charlotte, All Saints’, St Peter’s and ART.

Alison Everett

Course Tutor: Jennie Higson

» What is a Bell Maintenance Workshop?