St Mary the Virgin, Silchester, in north Hampshire has five bells, originally cast in 1744 (tenor 6 ½ cwt) that were re-hung on a metal frame over 100 years ago. Over the years their plain metal bearings had become well-worn, required frequent oiling, and the bells were becoming increasing difficult to ring.
Surveys concluded that the work required included replacement of the old headstocks and bearings, new clappers, stays, sliders and pulleys and guides. The wheels needed re-building, retaining their original spokes, but with new outer rims. The 2nd bell that had previously been re-cast, now needed re-tuning. All the bells also needed 1/8th turning to even out the wear.
The Silchester bell ringers volunteered to provide on-site labour to assist the bell-hangers, and repaint the bell frame whist the bells were removed, so reducing the overall bill.
Following the usual competitive quote process and Faculty approval, Whites of Appleton were selected to carry out the overhaul but It took nearly five years to raise the £30,000 needed with the team finally removing the bells on 19th November 2019.
Now it was time for the bell ringers to start to degrease, clean, sand down and repaint the metal frame. Several of the bellringers met one cold Saturday morning to start the work but soon realized the job was going to take much longer than expected. The frame had previously been painted with bitumastic paint and this was very difficult to get off and return to bare metal. Another three visits to the tower were needed before the preparation work was complete.
We were now into the cold and damp winter weather, but the red oxide and the bitumastic paint need a minimum temperature of 10 degrees before they could be applied. By the time the weather had warmed up we were into Covid lockdown. Eventually when new Covid guidance allowed, Virginia was able to go into the tower to paint on her own with Martin as her health and safety bodyguard at the bottom of the ladder. Eventually after many mornings, and four coats of paint, the work was complete.
On 7th July 2020, Graham, James and John from Whites came to start their preparatory work on the bell frame, putting on new bearing plates and measuring up for other fittings.
Monday 13th July was the big day, the bells came back. Our churchwardens were there together with some of the bell ringers to see them off the lorry and lined up on the church path.
The bells were then moved into the church on their pallets with plywood sheets on the floor to protect the tiles. The trap door into the belfry was re-opened and the clappers and wheels were hoisted up into the belfry via the trap door. Unlike when the bells were removed, because of the social distancing rules, Graham, James and John, were the only ones that could work in the belfry. The treble bell was hoisted aloft with block and tackle and bolted in place. The new clapper was fitted together with the lower half of the wheel. This process was followed for the rest of the bells with breaks for lunch, tea and cake (provided by the bellringers).
Tuesday saw the same team back again and the top half of the wheels were attached together with the stays and sliders. The team measured up for new rope pully guides and these were made on Wednesday back at the works. On Thursday 16th the pully guides were fitted to the frame and the ropes re attached to the bell wheels. Graham then tested each bell ringing it up and down with clapper adjustment to ensure they were even struck. Finally, at one o’clock we were able to ring all five bells for the first time in eight months.
The job is now complete and we would like to thank Whites for their excellent work. The bells should now last another 100 years or more only needing routine inspections.
Martin Budd, Silchester Bell Ringer