Anyone passing along Rochester Row over the last few weeks will realise that work on the bells has begun.
This whole project is quite complex and the actual work will take quite a long time to complete so the decision was taken to proceed with the Stage One (the basic bells work). But at the same time fund raising continues energetically so that we hope to be able to complete Stage Two, which includes the educational provision and major refurbishment of the ringing room, as soon as possible.
The morning of Monday 6th July saw a gathering outside St Stephen’s of Andrew Ogden from Taylor’s Bells and 4 local bell ringers who were to provide the volunteer workforce to assist with this big project. By providing this team of workers we have been able to reduce the total cost of the project. Every day during the week at least two volunteers assisted one professional bell hanger.
Additionally a few of the local band had been working hard during the previous week to get ready for the start of the main work by Taylor’s. This preparatory work involved dismantling of bell wheels and other bells parts, and the removal of clappers.
Monday’s work involved a lot of time arranging various protections to ensure that, during the project, dust and dirt did not get into the organ or the clock or other parts of the church. We also did further dismantling work and began to empty the bell chamber of items with no further use. Stephanie was particularly pleased to see the removal of several oil cans and rejoiced in the prospect of no longer having to put on the dirty boiler suit for the monthly oiling of the bearings on the bells!
As this unusually complex project requires the bells to be removed from the tower through enlarged tower louvre openings, additional dismantling work had to be done to the three largest bells; with the bell fittings still in place these bells would be too big to be taken out of the tower even with slightly enlarged louvre openings.
Tuesday saw the careful lowering of the three largest bells onto supports on the frame to enable the headstocks on which they were hung to be removed. This required very precise measurements for the support beams, some cutting away of bits of the old wooden frame and very gentle undoing of the nuts and bolts holding each bell to its headstock.
The next task was to cut off the ‘canons’ of the bells which required use of specialist cutting equipment and additional fire precautions to be taken. In the 19th century all bells were cast with loops on the top of them (the canons) which were then tied with straps and long bolts onto the headstock. These days modern techniques mean that once a bell has been cast, holes are simply drilled through it for the same purpose. The canons on the three bells were all removed by Wednesday lunch time. This reduced the overall height of these bells making it possible for them to fit through the openings.
The rest of Wednesday and a large part of Thursday was taken up with drilling out the crown staples. At the same time as the bells were cast with their canons, a staple arrangements was also made for each bell – using different metal and cast into the top of the bell. This was for the clapper to hang on. Their removal was a crucial part of the process. Not only did it make it easier for a modern clapper arrangement to be fitted but also it made it possible for lifting ropes and straps to be put through the bell. Manhandling a ton and a bit of bell to the position where it can pass, on its side, through a narrow opening is difficult at the best of times and without the canons to hang onto virtually impossible. Ropes, straps and appropriately positioned lifting equipment are all needed.
By early afternoon on Thursday the various set tasks for the week had been completed and we began the removal from the tower of the parts no longer needed. Taking numerous bits of metal and wood down two ladders and a 60 step spiral staircase took quite a long time! Most of this was accomplished by the end of Thursday and Andrew returned only briefly on Friday morning for the final clear up and packing before setting off on his way back to Loughborough.
The next activity will be erection of scaffolding. This will be positioned at the side of the tower nearest Rochester Street and will be used by the Stone Masons who will come in a few weeks’ time to remove louvres and other stonework from a tower louvre opening in anticipation of the removal of the bells late August/Early September.
Following the excitement of the week of 6th July, during which most of the activity was inside the tower, the next stage was definitely external and highly visible to anyone walking down Rochester Row. That was the erection of the scaffolding. The lorry arrived early on the morning of Monday 20th July and the scaffolding was skilfully assembled in order to provide easy access for the work to be done by the Stone masons. It was fascinating to see the speed with which a few metal poles and planks became a secure structure covering almost an entire wall of the tower.
Once the scaffolding was in place it was possible for the Stone masons to start work. This initially involved the careful removal of the louvres and a central mullion in the tower window. And then part of the surrounding stone work also had to be removed in order to provide a space wide enough for the largest bell to pass through. This work began on Wednesday 29th July and took two days to complete. Careful propping up of some remaining tracery was duly completed and the window opening was covered to protect the bell installation from the worst of the British weather!
By Saturday 1st August we were ready for the bell hangers to return in mid August.
After all the preparatory work by scaffolders and stone masons two bell hangers from Taylor’s of Loughborough returned on Monday 24th Aug to begin the final stages of preparation for removal of the bells and fittings. The largest bell weighs over a ton and even the smallest one over six cwt. so it was necessary to install several strong lifting beams to make it possible to lift the bells from their current positions and to manoeuvre them to get them ready to pass through the window opening.
Monday’s work included the preparation of suitably sized ‘pockets’ in the tower walls ready to accept the ends of the main lifting beams. Other dismantling work also took place to make sure that it was as straightforward as possible for the huge metal lifting beams to be brought into the tower and placed in the best possible position prior to full assembly. In all we were expecting delivery of 5 main beams and numerous other bits of metal supporting structure. A framework had been designed to facilitate not only the lifting out of the bells and the old frame but also the installation of the new frame (itself very heavy) and the rehanging of our bells.
Tuesday was Road Closure day, the organisation of which had taken several months to accomplish: permission from Westminster Council, suspension of parking bays and notification of local residents were all essential. By 9.45am all the notices were in place and the lorry arrived with our cargo! It took until early afternoon for everything to be unloaded and included some periods of time when we just watched in awe at the skilful lifting and guiding of the huge girders. Some spectacular photographs were taken. But that was not enough for one day and mounting the beams into the walls then began and by early evening one of the main beams was firmly in place. This huge beam was far too big to manhandle within the bell chamber so it needed a lot of strength and skill and several lots of ‘block and tackle’ to lift it high in the tower to the place from where it could provide a secure anchor from which bells will be lifted.
Wednesday and Thursday were spent in assembling the rest of the lifting beams to make a secure grillage which was tightly fixed into the wall with internal beams strongly linked together. And all of this had to ensure the normal tower access was maintained, including access to telecoms equipment at the top of the spire.
After a week of intense activity we were ready for the most spectacular part of the removal programme.
The four days of the week beginning Tues 1st September caused numerous people to stop and stare! The scaffolding came down on Wednesday 2nd September and then one by one each bell was gently lowered to the ground on a hoist. The tenor was a tight fit but all the detailed preparation had really paid off and shortly after 11am on Friday 4th September it emerged from the tower on its side and gradually was lowered to the ground and wheeled to the awaiting lorry.
The frame dismantling took place during the week of 7th September and by Friday 11th September the bell chamber was almost empty.
We look forward to the bells returning late November.