The 22nd July 2017 has been in my diary for several months. The Alton Hand Bell Ringers, of which I am a member, had been invited to take part in this significant local event.
However, for the people of Checkley this occasion was something they had looked forward to for many years. The bells of Checkley Church fell silent decades ago after the bell tower was deemed to be structurally unsafe. As an ex tower bell ringer myself, I can remember ringing in several church towers where you could feel the building move due to the inertia of several tons of bells swinging around. It is remarkable how many old bell towers have survived as well as they have when you think about the mechanics of tower bell ringing. The original oak bell frame at Checkley is thought to date back to 1575. So, silence befell the church tower at Checkley and this was a great loss to the local community.
There had been talk of restoring the bells for many years and it was Clive Smith, the late husband of the current vicar of Checkley, the Reverend Irene Smith, who was the driving force behind this project. Sadly, Clive passed away in 2016. The total cost of restoration would be in the order of £100,000. Undeterred by the scale of the necessary fund raising required, the people of Checkley, together with the support of local businesses, began their fundraising activities and phase 1 of the restoration project was completed in 2005 to strengthen the tower of the Grade 1 listed medieval Church of St Mary and All Saints. The second phase of the project was to build a new steel frame in the clock tower to rehouse the six original Rudhall bells which were cast in 1762. The bells had to be removed for the first time in 255 years, and they were restored and retuned by the Whitechapel Foundry in London, which is where our hand bells were made. Upon their return to Checkley, they then had to be installed in their new frame. This work was completed in 2016.
So, the 22nd July was a celebration of the completion of this work. There were all sorts of family activities in addition to tower bell ringing and even a mobile Belfry located on the Community Centre car park, enabling anyone to try their hand in the art of bell ringing. Closed circuit TV cameras have been installed in the bell tower to give people in the church live footage of the bells being rung. This is a great idea as most people have no idea what this looks like. For the weekend celebrations, a temporary awning had been erected leading from the church to the pub next door which I thought was a nice touch!
The Alton Hand bell ringers’ performance had been billed as a Hand Bell Ringing ‘demonstration’ and we were not sure quite what this meant. Would people be passing through as we rang? Would they be talking? Would there be much interest? Well, we had a very attentive audience and our pieces were well received. In fact I cannot remember another event where we had so much interest after we had finished ringing, with several people wanting to ‘have a go’. So much so, that we played Aura Lee together with members of the audience which was great fun especially for the children, who found it easier to play the chimes and so played them along with the hand bells. Any new recruits Wendy?
Photo by Alan Walters
Find out more at http://www.checkleystaffs.co.uk/bellrestoration/index.html