After years of planning and fundraising, the long awaited work on the bells of Newnham church is about to start. It was back in 2012 that the parish learned that its eight bells were in such a poor state, that without a major restoration, they would fall silent.
For many years, bell-ringers at St Peter’s, Newnham have struggled to ring the heavy bells, which are hard to control and almost impossible to learn on. Surveys revealed that not only were the bell fittings damaged and worn but that the bell frame was unstable. And the Victorian trend for increasing the weight of the bells had left them too heavy for St Peter’s slender medieval tower.
Andy Vivian, one of Newnham’s bell ringers said: “We’ve been patching up where we could but it is a great relief to know that we can now finally get the bells working properly. We’re adding a new raised ringing floor to help control the bells, recasting three of the bells to make the peal lighter and adding a glass screen to the ringing chamber which will allow more light into the church. Creating a more accessible bell tower, with bells that are easy to ring, will make this an ideal venue for bell-ringing courses and learners.”
The overhaul aims to bring benefits to the whole bell-ringing community. Speaking for the Gloucester and Bristol Diocesan Association of Church Bell Ringers, (known as the G&B), their secretary Steve Coleman said, “Our grant to Newnham on Severn is currently the largest we have ever approved because, in our view, the project is so important. The project team’s plans for the future are every bit what we want to see – especially as they intend to make the church a ringing centre for the whole of the Forest of Dean.”
The restoration appeal has a target of £155,000. So far, £125,000 has been raised or promised. Just under half has come from local supporters through donations, fundraising events and an allocation from church reserves. The rest has come from charitable grants. The G&B has made available just over £20,000. The Gloucestershire Environmental Trust has contributed £15,000. The Gloucestershire Historic Churches Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Ironmongers’ Company have each contributed £7,500. And smaller grants have come from several sources including the Allchurches Trust, Old Brightlandsians, the Haberdashers’ Company and Forest of Dean Bell Ringers.
The work will start in early July. Six local volunteers will be assisting bellhangers, Nicholson Engineering, to lower all eight bells down through three hatchways in the tower. The frame will follow, dismantled and lowered piece by piece. The bells were to have gone to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London but following its unexpected closure last year they will now be sent to the Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry in Holland where the heaviest bells will be recast. Meanwhile, the cast iron frame will go to Nicholson’s works in Bridport, Dorset, for sandblasting, recoating and rebolting.
Cam Dickie, the chairman of the Bells Restoration Appeal, said, “I’ve been hugely impressed by the skills, enthusiasm and generosity which has brought us to this point. Thanks to the expert advice from some of country’s best professionals in the field, I’m confident that we have a project in hand which will ensure a bright and sonorous future for bell-ringing at St Peter’s.”
With lighter, easy-going bells and shorter ropes, bell ringers of all ages and strengths will be able to learn to ring at Newnham. “Bell ringing at St Peter’s used to be the province of beefy men”, says tower captain, Jane Curtis, “But nowadays bell ringers are a mixed crowd and we wish to encourage both young and old to take up the art.”
Former churchwarden, Alan Curtis, admits they faced some hard decisions as the project developed. “While it was tempting to do the very minimum, we realised this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get the bells of St Peter’s working well and at the same time ensure the long term stability of our medieval tower. The price tag is huge but we knew we had a good team behind the project and I’m delighted that the church council decided to take the plunge. We’ve had amazing backing and encouragement – from the G&B, the Gloucester diocese, from our Structural Engineer, Adrian Cole, and our architect, Ruth Nicholls. Our Bellhanger, Andrew Nicholson, has been a wonderful collaborator in developing the fine detail. And we were delighted that Fieldhouse Builders, who have a high reputation in the village, emerged as the leading bidder for the installation of the raised ringing floor and glass screen.”
The aim is to complete the work in time for the National Ring Out to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice on November 11th.
More fundraising events are in the pipeline. The first is on Saturday June 23rd – Riverside Rock, an evening of musical entertainment on the lawn of Newnham House, starting at 7pm – bring a picnic. Tickets £10, from Newnham PO or via the internet
The image is a most unusual view of the belfry. Carolyn Black used a 360° lens, with the camera resting on the lower level of bell frame. You can see all four windows of the belfry in this two dimensional photograph