Preserving Draycott’s ancient church bells

One Cresswell man will be looking back on the past year as being a very satisfactory one.
John Clarke not only helped to lead the team that put on an enormously successful Draycott Fayre during the summer, but has also helped to oversee the project to refurbish the bells-chamber at the top of the thirteenth-century tower of St Margaret’s Church.

Decades of debris

Two years ago, it was clear that something had to be done about the bell-tower at Draycott Church.

Sand, dirt,  and debris were all trickling down from the top floor, seeping through the planking on each of the main two storeys, and then falling finally (in dusty layers) on to the ground floor.
The dust simply grew and grew, as, each time the bells ring, the vibrations shake the sandstone tower and a new film of fine dust is formed.

What’s more, the cast-iron frame which supports the bells (whose weight can be measured in tons!) was showing signs of long term corrosion.
John volunteered to coordinate a project to fix the issues.

Cleaning

Climbing to the top of the tower is no easy task.  One has to climb up steep long ladders (the first ladder is reputed to be five hundred years old!), from one platform to the next.
In the bells-chamber itself one has to inch along over and under the girders of the iron frame, walking sometimes like a tightrope artist…

“You have to have a good head for heights” says John.  “The only person I know who has happily volunteered to go up there to the top on their own in recent years is Selwyn Edwards, who is one of the long-time supporters of this church. Despite his age, Selwyn is fearless!

“But the only way we could achieve our aims was to do the jobs ourselves, so we had to learn to cope with heights, and with difficult situations.
To have paid builders or other experts to do things would have cost a fortune”.

The first job was cleaning away the accumulated debris – this clean-up was done with the help of Richard Moore.
Bag after bag of collected bird-feathers, sand, stone-dust and more was laboriously filled and manoeuvred down the various ladders to be thrown away.  “My wife Pauline, who is a church-warden here, was the main help with that job. I really couldn’t have done it without her.”
It took weeks and weeks.

Painting

But what of the corroding cast-iron frame?

The frame, which was installed in 1939, holds the weight of all the eight bells, five of which are around four hundred years old.    (The frame’s horizontal girders slot into cavities in the main wall of the tower, and thus it holds itself up).

First, the surface of the frame was attacked with a small electrical angle grinder, fitted with a heavy duty wire cup-brush, to remove surface corrosion.

To halt the corrosion, John was advised by experts to apply red oxide to the cast iron.  He acknowledges the help and advice of the famous bell-makers John Taylor’s of Loughborough:  “Andrew Mills at John Taylor’s was magnificent – gave us lots of advice – and even put a little replacement part (the original had gone missing) into the post to us as a favour”.

However, if the red oxide had accidentally dripped on to the bells themselves (the bells are made of bell-metal, an alloy of copper and tin) that would have been sacrilege, as they are so ancient… so each of the bells had first to be carefully wrapped in protective layers of cellophane, a really arduous and difficult job done. Fortunately, Derek Anderson, one of the church bell-ringers, was on hand to help.

After the red-oxide was put on, a thick layer of viscous black paint had also then to be applied over the top of that.

After that, felt was laid over the chamber’s floor-planks to seal over the planking under the bell-frame – to stop any more dust trickling through and down…
So the main tasks were completed. It had taken almost a year.

The last task, which has just been finished in the last few weeks, was the installation of lighting in the bell-chamber – fitted by Gordon Winfield, one of the local parish councillors.
Now that that is in place the final hope is for a web-camera to be installed,  so that it will be possible to see the bells in operation.
(The web-camera will be useful partly as an aid for the training of bell-ringers, but also so that parishioners can see the bells in operation, as they are such a historic part of St Margaret’s Church).

Ready for the 21st century

The bell-chamber now looks as pristine as you’d hope, and should be good now for another fifty years.

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John is understandably proud of the achievements over the past year.

“The bells are precious to the community , and I want to see them preserved for future generations. All the people who volunteered on this project feel that way too, I’m sure.

“The bells are all different sizes and weights, the oldest being from 1607, and the heaviest being eleven hundredweight.
Each has a dedication inscribed on it. Some of the inscriptions are a bit mysterious though, and we don’t understand all of them!

“The last of bells were donated in the 1930s, one of them by the Shelley family.
Ken Shelley, one of the later generations of Shelley’s in Draycott, was the so-called ‘Tower Master’ here during his life, and in fact he was never sure if the old tower would really be up to it if all eight bells were to be rung at the same time.  He always warned us to avoid a total simultaneous ringing…”

Bell-ringing

If you too have been fascinated by this story, you might like to join the Draycott bell-ringing group, which meets on Monday evenings at 7.30 at the church, to practise ‘peals’.
John is a member of this group:  “It’s a lot more fun than you’d think, though you have to take it easy at first!  We welcome interested people, so do come along and have a look and, if willing, we will happily train them as future ringers.”

Contact St Margaret’s church wardens to see when are the next best times to go along.

And the great thing about being a bell-ringer is that you stay on the ground floor. You don’t have to climb up those scary ladders…

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