7 June 2014

Learning to Look After Bells

Faringdon's 'Five'
I’ve recently been appointed as ‘steeple keeper’ for All Saints, Faringdon.  (A rather ironic title, since All Saints is famous for it’s LACK of a steeple!)  This means I’m responsible for making sure that the bells there are kept in good order.  I’ve learned a lot about bells this year, being heavily involved in a very hands on way with the major maintenance work on Hinton Waldrist’s bells, but there were still several things which I didn’t know much about.

So on a rather dismal May evening I joined a group of other eager learners for a Tower Maintenance Course at Shellingford, Oxon.  The only tower in our branch which in fact DOES have a steeple.  It also has a mixed ring of six bells, four in a wooden frame, and two in a steel one below, with a mixed set of headstocks/canons and fixings.  So a useful tower to use for a course like this.

You might expect that we all immediately climbed up into the belfry, but no.  We started off with a discussion on the tidiness and safety of the ringing chamber below.  This ranged from discussing trip hazards – which in Faringdon include a huge beam across the entire ringing chamber, to light sources and switches, fire extinguishers and dangerous spiders – of the rope holding kind rather than the scuttling kind.I had not actually considered before just how dangerous it could be if someone accidentally turned off the light switch outside a ringing chamber, and plunged the entire room into darkness.  

So, in YOUR tower: Do you have secondary lighting?  Emergency lighting?  Are your light switches marked, and at a level they can't accidentally be switched off?  Is your spider located in such a way as to ensure it can't hit anyone on the head?

Moving up into the belfry itself, before looking at the bells themselves we were reminded to check the condition of the floor and not to trust it’s strength unless you know it’s sound to bear weight!  And also to check the supporting beams of the frame where they meet the wall.  If there is rot in wood, or if the mortar around a metal beam is flaking or cracking, it needs attention, and that is unlikely to be something which can be done by an ‘in-tower’ level of expertise.  This type of job is likely to need to be assessed by a specialist.

Here I am going to add a little piece which I learned through what could have been a very nasty experience indeed.  Let’s just say that feeling the ladder I was on coming away from the wall was an experience I don’t wish to repeat...  Regularly check the condition and fixings of your ladder/s, steps and traps. 

At a basic level, keeping the floor, frame and bells reasonably clean not only looks nicer but makes looking after the bells much easier and less dirty since in many towers you will be lying on the floor to do some jobs, or clambering across the frame!

Once you’ve actually made it to your bells(!), there are a whole list of things to check:
The bell itself
Rope wear - general wear, wear caused by the pulleys, wear at the garter hole on the wheel
Wheels - damage, bowing, alignment
Stays - cracked, mis-fitted, loose bolts or stay
Headstock/canon fixings - is the bell loose?! If it appears to be, is the bell loose on the headstock, or is the headstock loose on the wheel?
Bearings - is there oil/grease coming from these?
Sliders - are these in good order?
Pulleys - are they running freely? Do the ropes run through them easily?
Clappers - are they tightly fitted? Are they out of true? Is the bell odd struck?

So, there are quite a few things to be aware of, and it is useful to have a checklist to work through.

We also looked at checking the frame – especially for wooden frames, where we discussed the importance of making any adjustments by small increments, across the entire section or frame, so as not to end up pulling the entire frame out of alignment!  So for example, if four bolts need tightening, go round them turning each a quarter turn at a time in sequence, rather than tightening one bolt as hard as possible, and then doing the same to the next.

All in all, this was a fascinating course, and well worth taking an evening to do.  There will be a 'part 2' at some stage, when I take another session to learn about removing, adjusting, splicing, and re-fitting ropes and replacing stays.

I whole-heartedly recommend that all towers send at least one of their band on a Tower Maintenance Course.

The course I did was organised via the Vale of White Horse branch of the Oxford Diocesan Guild.  If you're interested in attending a similar course in this guild please contact Tony Crabtree on 01793 784064, or you can email via the ODG website.  Click on the Ringing Master contact.

Shrivenham's Treble

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