DIARIES OF AN AMATEUR BELLHANGER 1993

Or 20 amateur bellhangers, to be more precise.

(2013 AGM Steeplekeepers report)

  The bells are still in one piece (or the appropriate number) and even more important, so are we all. And even the Seventh is a bit less odd struck than it was before. Success indeed. 

  It is important to remember that this is a more hazardous activity than the normal course of ringing activity, and although we have suffered the odd scrape, bruise, tired muscle and the like, I am relieved that there are no major incidents to report. We can reflect on our close shaves as suitable entertainment, and resolve not to let them happen again.

  Of the three potentially uncomfortable moments, the first was reported last year: the clapper in the ninth attacked Alan Heath's hard hat and sent it through the trap door to the floor below: message was that we are dealing with heavy lumps of metal and it is hard to describe how awkward it can be to take the weight and what happens if the bell manages to gain control over the bellhanger rather than the other way round.

  Our second problem was much the same. I was moving the chain of the hoist and gravity took the upper hand: a minor irritation except for two factors. Both the floor of the belfry and of the middle room were up, and the rest of the band were tidying the ringing chamber, removing overalls and hanging up their hard hats. Luckily no-one was within a couple of feet of the descending chain.

  The third problem was over in a moment: the sling holding the third to the hoist was not as tight as it should have been and the bell descended half an inch or so: fortunately there were no fingers or other vital parts of the anatomy between it and the frame at the time. As with all tools, we know it will not slip off, but what would be chopped off if it did?

  To complete the catalogue of problems, there were three bell health threatening difficulties (as opposed to bellhanger health). The first was reported in 1992; the clearances on the ninth are very tight, and at one stage the bell was colliding with the frame.

  Secondly, in replacing the second, the whole bell contrived to get into a difficult position requiring a significant BFI input (Brute Force and Ignorance). When we stopped pushing, gravity took over and the bell gave the frame a severe clout. It was probably less than the clout it receives from the clapper at every stroke, but then hitting it in the wrong place could be very nasty.

  Thirdly, there was a legacy from the first three bells to put right: a packing piece that ought to have separated the tenor from its headstock had persuaded us to put it between the ninth and its headstock (actually between the ninth's own packing piece and its headstock). This may have contributed to the clearance problem above. In the end this took only three bellhanger-hours to sort out. I would not have believed a year ago, when I first noticed the problem, that we could have propped up the ninth, removed the clapper, disconnected the headstock, removed the packing piece, reconnected the bell, and slotted the packing piece into place on the tenor, all within a couple of hours. Experience must count for something after all. 

  So much for the problems: they were all insignificant on the wider canvas of completing the job. We were all flattered that Colin Banton from the bellfoundry thought that our work compared favourably with similar jobs done by professional bellhangers.

  For the eighth ninth and tenor, as reported in 1992, we propped up the bells in their normal resting position with a suitable supply of fence posts and other wood, then disconnected the headstocks from both bell and frame. The new fittings resulted in small reductions in the height of the headstock above the frame, causing the bells to rest on their wooden supports even when reconnected tightly to the headstocks. Much banging and sawing was necessary to release the bells.

  A different approach was used with the other bells. As they are progressively smaller, but hung from the same height in the frame, so the height of the bottom of the bell above the bottom of the frame, and hence the depth of packing required, increases. Therefore the bell and headstock were collectively disconnected from the frame, then lifted as a whole and lowered on to a single layer of fence posts on the frame. The headstock was then disconnected from the bell. We did check that we had access through the packing, to the inside of the bell, in order to reconnect the bell bolts.

  This approach worked well; it was comforting to be able to rely on the lifting equipment holding our valuable bells securely. We also avoided accidentally quarter-turning (or more likely half-turning) the bells with some chalked hieroglyphics.

  It was also necessary to ensure that the supports did not foul the remainder of the bells, particularly when front four were away and we were ringing the back six. A final check after the headstocks were removed, and before Sunday ringing, revealed that while all the bell and clapper paths were free, the support for the second extended into that air space needed by the tenor rope on its way from the pulley to wheel at backstroke. Attacking the fencepost with a saw soon obliterated that problem without detriment to the support for the second. The post did put up more resistance to being cut in two than your average fencepost, although this might have been the difficulty in doing anything while sitting on a beam with your head inside the tenor.

  The belfry floor (discussed at much length last year) has a trap door of two five foot by two foot pieces which can by lifted and slid to make the access hole. The two doors rest on floor joists round the edge and a removable joist which slots into the surrounding joists to provide extra support where the doors meet. This removable joist has much the same dimensions as a fencepost although it is fatter and made of harder wood. It would thus put up spirited resistance to, say, attack with a blunt saw: the juxtaposition of this paragraph and the previous one is no accident, and I am pleased to report that the belfry floor is still adequately supported even without its central joist.

  On the subject of floors, the removal of the ringing chamber floor for ingress and egress of both sets of headstocks, went smoothly. We made good use of Iain's old thin mattress which was an excellent target on which to deposit the headstocks. It also protected the steps while lifting and dragging headstocks to their transport. Before each lifting operation, we had a number of casual conversations with passing churchwardens about the state of the porch floor and how much dirt had recently arrived on the feet of the congregation: this avoided any later need for chemical analysis of black spots to distinguish between grease and earth. 

  Our timetable predicted in 1992 was achieved, and the Bellfoundry contribution was excellent: besides speeding the five six and seven through all their works in a fortnight, the front four were available a fortnight in advance of their planned six weeks away.

  I have to admit a lack of confidence in the timetable in respect of the fortnight for five six and seven: I therefore waited until confirmation of their date of return before recruiting a reassembly team, with the inevitable result of understaffing.

  So when David Williams was driven from his allotment by a quick shower at 1000 on Saturday morning, and came to enquire on progress, we did not let him out until all three bells were ringing again at 1830. On reflection this was the day of least hitches and unpredictably speedy progress, when we completely rehung three bells with a combined effort of two and a bit people for a day. There was an extra bonus, as I had failed to realise that I had planned the work for the weekend of Remembrance Sunday. We were therefore able to ring all ten half muffled the following morning. Had I noticed 11 November lurking around the calendar at the planning stage, I might have tried to ensure a full set of bells that weekend, and that would have made fitting that stage before Christmas much more difficult. We all deserve some luck.

  Not so lucky were Malcolm Turner and John Gilbert who were waiting that Saturday evening outside the back door of St Maries (for a Branch ringing event), while Simon Reading and someone else were waiting outside the front door. But for work on our bells, someone would have been there to let one (or even both) parties in.

  While that day was most productive, the Wednesday evening of removing five six and seven was the most satisfying for the aspiring Bellhangers' Manager. We had two people on each bell, and one underneath on the pulley blocks: such was the rate of progress that we finished the work in just over two sessions rather than four.

Working hours summary:
  hours
c/f from 1992 report 250
completion 8, 9, 10 10
removing 5, 6, 7 49
reassembling 5, 6, 7 37
removing 1, 2, 3, 4 56
reassembling 1, 2, 3, 4 60
TOTAL 462
So we could claim we were worth about 12.50 per hour, compared with the Bellfoundry doing the whole job.

There are still some outstanding jobs to be done:
  • Reconstruct ringing chamber ceiling
  • Replace fluorescent light covers
  • Survey all bolts 
    • frame bolts
    • bell bolts
    • wheel bolts
    • pulley block bolts
  • Replace worn and too-short bolts
  • Replace lost washers
  • Wheel fixings
  • Replace eighth and ninth sliders
  • Remove remains of pigeon legacy
  • Finish removal of dust from frame level
  • Construct more walkways above bells with spare wood
  • Clapper split pins
  • Rope track shields
  The new ceiling should be removable without a crowbar, and allow a ladder to be rested on the lip of the opening for access to the lights. It will also allow the ceremonial replacement of the spider and help those who instinctively head towards the centre of the circle after ringing down. The outline design from the 1992 report said: "We need a thin baton around the hole on which the new ceiling can rest. This would reduce the size of the hole slightly, and if the tenor bell itself has to come down, then the baton might have to be removed first. The ceiling piece ought to have a handle or two on each part so that it can be lifted from above."

  The work on bolts is necessary because not all fittings are the same size as those they replaced, and a few nuts have insufficient thread to grip as tightly as they did before. Some bolts have not been replaced in the same holes, and have nuts gripping worn thread, and one of the long wheel nuts on the fifth was bent beyond further usefulness. There is a selection of new bolts obtained for the job.

  The wheel surrounds of back three are held together at the main wheel joints with acrylic window material rather than the rusting metal plates which were splitting the wheels. This has been successful. The same job needs doing on the remaining bells (and the twenty eight pieces of window that I carefully cut from too thick a sheet need throwing away), and then the remaining metal plates (about six per bell) also need attacking. We will have to decide for each one whether less damage will be caused by removal or leaving them quietly to rust. 

  Colin Banton recommends the reinsertion of split pins into the castellated nuts on the clappers. This will require the drilling of suitable holes through the threads in the clappers, when the bolts have been tightened for about six months. This will not be an easy job.

  The rope track shield on the sixth through the middle room needs to be nailed back in place.

  The benefits of the work include the removal of all the grease nipples, so attention to them will not be necessary. However all the bell bolts will now need checking for tightness every few months.

  The bell bolts on treble third and fourth (not the second) have flat heads inside the bells. All the others are angled to the profile of the bells. The flat ones are more difficult to tighten, and need a spanner of socket to be held inside to achieve any tightening.

  The remnants of the clapper-felt springs on the front four have not been replaced, but the odd lumps of metal that remained attached to the clappers were painted in a tasteful shade of black at the foundry and are now in the cupboard with the other historic oddments. The foundry are entirely dismissive of the Gillett and Johnson notion that tower bells are just like handbells, but larger. 

Another benefit of the work is some improvement in the odd-struckness of the seventh, although we have not quantified this in a scientific fashion.

  The regrinding of the clappers has changed the sound of the bells. While the back three sounded more mellow on their return, it was while waiting for the front four to be done that the bells did not entirely sound a complete ring (even to my non-musical ear). On the back eight, one-two were noticeably tinkly, and on the front six, five-six sounded different from the others. The ten now sound consistent again, and this is an added benefit of completing the whole of the work in a little over a year.

PJS 18 April 1993

 

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