Bells in ringing chamber © Peter Trent
There have been bells at Saint Mary’s since the early fourteenth century when the present tower was built. Originally there were three large bells hung in the massive oak frame that still holds our bells. By 1552 records show that the ring had been augmented with two more bells.
In 1826 those five old bells were removed and the current bells were cast by the respected Norfolk bell founder, William Dobson of Downham, using the metal from the old bells.
The 1826 bells are hung in an extraordinary medieaval frame which is believed to be as old as the 14th century tower itself. Close examination shows how the frame has been adapted over the centuries to meet the needs of the time: the original three large bells, the augmented ring of five, and finally Dobson's 1826 bells. The frame is well worth seeing in its own right.
Its massive timbers, reminiscent of those of a wooden warship or an ancient mill, are rough hewn and rugged but no longer strong enough to support the bells if restored to full circle ringing.
For over hundred years the five Dobson bells called villagers to worship but even before World War II they had fallen into disrepair and, whilst individual bells were occasionally chimed, they were silent thereafter as a full ring.
What to do about the bells has been on the PCC agenda for years but it was the firm, but quite proper, advice from our Diocesan Bells Adviser, Peter Trent, to cease "clocking" the treble that finally galvanized us. "Clocking" is the bad practice of chiming a bell by tieing a rope to the end of the clapper, to its flight, and pulling the clapper against the inside of the bell. If done carelessly, this can cause the bell to crack as the clapper may be held against the bell after striking, rather than immediately falling away, and intefer with its natural vibration.
In November 2014 an Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus was installed by The Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The apparatus was blessed and the bells re-dedicated by the Bishop of Lynn, The Right Reverend Jonathan Meyrick, on 7 December 2014, as part of a Benefice Confirmation Service. On the preceeding day a Day of Celebration was held, as part of our annual Christmas Fair, during which visitors were taken up the tower to see the bells and a demonstration of hand bell ringing was laid on.
The decision to instal an Ellacombe Chiming Appartus rather than restore the bells to full circle ringing was pragmatic. Full circle ringing would have cost five or six times as much which, with all the demands on our finances, would have been hard to justify. Moreover there is no band of ringers available to ring the bells before service either in the village or locally.
Purists may regret this decision, but with the project completed, we are certain we have made the right decision. We have done nothing to stop a restoration to full circle ringing in the future but have secured the bells safely for the present. Already we have eight volunteers who are chiming the bells before our 9.30 am Sunday Mass. Who knows where their new found interest in bell ringing will lead?