The Silent Knights Project

 

  Introduction

In 2016 a report stated that the condition of the bells was so poor and precarious that it would be inadvisable for them to continue to be rung until extensive repairs and restoration work had been carried out.The bells fell silent but in 2019 a major restoration project (The Silent Knights Project) was launched.

   


The amount required to fully restore the bells was around £75,000 which was a hugh amount for a small village the size of Hampstead Norreys to raise; with a population of just under 800 it presented quite a significant challenge.   The project was extremely fortunate to receive a grant from the Heritage Lottery, who recognised the historical importance of preserving the bells. Grants and donations were also gratefully received from local and national organisations and this together with lots of local fund raising and the generosity of many local residents, who gave significant amounts in  personal donations, meant that sufficient funds were raised within six months of the launch of the appeal.

 

 

 

Preparing the Bells for Removal from the Tower


Before the bells could be removed from the tower there was a considerable amount of preparation work to be completed.

 

Initially a 3D survey was undertaken, and a 3D computer model of the bell frame and bells was produced. This was necessary to determine how the bells could be manoeuvred out of the frame and through the belfry floor for lowering to the ground.

The bells could not be moved whilst many of the larger items such as the wheels were still attached so the bells had to be prepared ready for the bell hangers from Taylors to visit the church and remove them.

This work was carried out by local volunteers which saved the project  a considerable amount of money. The items removed were the ropes, the wheels, the clappers, the stays, and the running boards. The wheels were returned to Taylors where they were rebuilt. The ropes were stored to be reused, and the clappers were replaced by new ones cast at Taylors.

 

 

  Removing the Bells from the Tower

In June 2020, two bell hangers from Taylors’s started the intricate process of removing the bells from the tower.  This was the first time in 400 years that all six bells had been lowered from the tower, at the same time, so it really was a special historical event. Because of limited working space within the tower, two old-fashioned blocks and tackles were used.

Two timber beams were installed at the top of the tower to which the blocks were secured. A sling and chain were attached to each bell before lifting it out of the frame and then lowering it safely through the narrow hatch to the floor. 

 

 

The Tenor Bell is the largest, weighing in at 510 kg, and was the trickiest one to manoeuvre and it, literally, passed through the hatch with just a few millimetres to spare. It is a tribute to the skills of the bell hangers that all six bells were delivered to floor level without a scratch on them!

 


  

 The Journey Begins!

 

On the bright sunny morning of the 8th June 2020 the bells were loaded onto a flatbed lorry in readiness for their journey to the foundry at Loughborough.  It was a very moving moment, for everyone gathered was aware that it was the first time since the 1600s that all the bells had left St. Mary’s.

 

 

 Foundry and Restoration

 

 

 

When the bells arrived at the Taylor’s foundry they were off loaded into the workshop and allocated their own special area. One of the first tasks was to remove the old wooden headstocks. Once these had been removed the crown (top) of the bell was clearly visible and the retaining cannons were exposed. It can be seen in the picture that one of the bells did not have a cannon; this was the fifth bell which was recast in 1930 by Taylor’s. Modern castings do not normally have cast cannons as the bells are supported by a metal headstock bolted directly onto the crown. This is how the Hampstead Norreys bells have been rehung, albeit without the need to remove the cannons from the other five bells.

 

 

 

Traditional bell casting included an iron “crownstaple” cast inside the bell to support the clapper. The problem with this method of supporting the clapper is that the staple can rust, expand, and crack the crown of the bell.

New clappers needed to be fitted to the bells, so the old crown staples were drilled out.

 

 

Crownstaples after removal

Drilling out old cast-in crownstaples


 

Treble Bell after Cleaning

 

 

 

After centuries in the tower, the bells were ready for a good clean. After being sandblasted, and all the dirt and grime removed ,the inscriptions were clear and easy to read just as they would have been when first cast.

 





Inscription on recast 5th Bell

 

 

 New Headstocks

 

The original headstocks were replaced by cast iron alternatives. These have the advantage of longevity, minimal maintenance, and protection of the bells.

In the past, some bells had their cannons removed before a metal headstock was installed but this is a solution which would not have properly conserved these historic bells. The Hampstead Norreys bells are now fitted with a cannon retaining design that allows the headstock to be bolted to the bell without the removal of the original cannons. The new headstock needs to be the correct size for each bell. First a “pattern” of the required headstock is used to make a sand casting. This patten is placed in a moulding box and a sand mould is made. The box is in two halves and the top half is carefully lifted, the pattern removed, and the top half replaced.

The headstock is then cast by pouring molten iron into the sand mould.

 

 

Wooden Pattern and Sand Moulding Boxes

 

 

Pouring molten Iron into Sand Molds

 

 

Machining a Cast Headstock

  

Once the casting has cooled and been removed from the moulding box it needs to have various fixing holes drilled. After all machining has been completed the new headstock is ready for painting.  

After painting the new headstock is ready to be reassembled onto the bell.              

 

 

Headstocks after Painting

 

 

 Tuning the Bells

 

 

Meanwhile work continued on the bells to improve the overall sound quality. Some bells required retuning.  This involves mounting the bell vertically on a lathe and removing small amounts of metal from the inside.   The tonal features of each bell were checked with computer-based instruments until the best overall result was obtained.  This is skilled work, requiring a great deal of experience.

It should be noted that one of our bells (the 3rd) is a “maiden  bell”,  that is a bell which came out of the mould in    tune.   These rare bells are kept for their historical interest and are not retuned. The other bells in the peal were tuned   to this bell.

 

 

Tuning a Bell on a Vertical Lathe

 

 

  

Bells assembled with New Headstocks

 

   The tuned bells were then bolted to their associated headstock ready for testing.

 

 

  Carpenters and the Timber Workshop

While all the metal work was being carried out in the foundry, in the timber shop new wheels were being made. The wheels at St Mary’s were well-worn but some parts are of historical interest, and it was decided to reuse them. The spokes were an unusual design which had been made by a local carpenter and were still in excellent condition; these were retained, and new rims were made before the wheels were reassembled ready for fitting to the new headstocks.

New stays, sliders and running boards were also fabricated.

 

 

New Wheels being Assembled

 

 

New stays and Sliders

 

 

 

Final Assembly and Testing

 

 

 Finally, the new wheels were fitted to the bells and headstocks ready for testing prior to transportation back to St. Mary’s.

 

  

Final Assembly awaiting Testing

 

   Overhauling the Bell Frame

Since 1680 the oak frame has supported the six bells of St. Mary’s and it has been subjected to heavy work as the bells have rung out over many centuries; this constant use resulted in considerable wear-and-tear to the structure. 

Once the bells were removed and returned to the foundry there was an opportunity to give the frame a good clean and then a thorough inspection.

Numerous bags of dirt and debris was removed from the pit of the frame to expose the lower timbers for the first time in many decades. 

 

The Frame after removal of the Bells

 

 

 Decay to the Lower Frame

Once the debris had been removed a survey showed that parts of the lower frame had suffered decay and rot.
More seriously there was evidence of some localised, but active, death watch beetle infestation. The first priority was to carry out a wood survey, by a specialist company, to establish the extent of the beetle infestation.

 

The survey confirmed the presence of active death watch beetle infestation in small, localised areas so a specialist contractor was employed to treat the affected areas.

The gaps in the timber frame caused by the combination of decay and infestation were restored using specialist wood filing epoxy.
 




Death Watch Beetle Infestation

 

 

Reinforcing Cleat Installed

The original frame was constructed with simple wooden joints. Over the centuries the joints had been weakened, due to the considerable forces exerted on them during the ringing of the bells. As the joints became loose repairs have, overtime, been carried out using metal bracing cleats and tie rods.

The structural report called for further reinforcement of the frame by the installation of new metal cleats and tie rods. Cast metal cleats were made at Taylor’s foundry and shipped to site for installation.

Once the frame had been thoroughly overalled it was ready to receive back the bells from the foundry

 

 The Bells Return to St. Marys

 

 

On the 23rd October 2020, the bells were returned to St. Mary’s. They were carefully off-  loaded from the flat bed lorry and lifted into position at the back of the church. It was a momentous moment and the culmination of many months of planning and hard work to bring the project to near-completion.

 

 

 

The refurbished bells were displayed at a viewing weekend,  for everyone to visit and admire the transformation. Over 400 years of dirt and grime had been removed, shiny new headstocks and clappers fitted, and the bells retuned.

It was really a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ occasion for people to view up close these wonderful historical artefacts and many people took the opportunity to visit to see the set of fully restored bells and how wonderful they looked before they were returned to the tower to be rehung for another few centuries!

It is traditional for bells, returning to their church, to be decorated with colourful displays of local flora and a wonderful band of volunteers worked hard to ensure that the bells looked  magnificent for their welcome return.

A short ‘Welcome Back’ Service,  conducted by Revd. Clive Jones, included a short talk about the history of the bells and the background to the restoration project. This was followed by Prayers and a Blessing of thanks for their safe return. 

 

 



 

Rehanging the Bells

The 26th October 2020 was an exciting and memorable day for the village
community when the bell hangers arrived to start the long and complex process of re-hanging the refurbished bells. Each bell was gently manoeuvred into position and then lifted from ground level up through the tower, through the clock chamber, and back up into the belfry.

This was all achieved by three men taking turns at the slow and strenuous work of hoisting
the bells.


Once the bells had been lowered into their pits the bearing housing was securely fastened to the bell frame. Then the new wheels, clappers, stays, sliders, and running boards were fitted. The long bell ropes were attached and dropped the length of the tower to the ground floor ringing chamber through new rope guides.

Lastly, to complete this first-class project a new oak floor was installed in the belfry. 

The bells were ready to be rung once more.

 


A Bell reaches halfway in the Clock Chamber


The Bells arrive in the Bellfry


A Bell lowered into its Pit

   

 The Test Ring

A final inspection required by the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers (ODG) was carried out by two of their Officers. As part of this, six experienced local ringers had the exciting task of carrying out a test ring. The ODG representatives were very complimentary about how the bells now sounded and handled.  The bells were then handed back to our delighted local team of bell ringers. 

The completion of the restoration project was achieved just two days before the country went back into lockdown again.

You can watch the test ring after a most success project on the video below.