Sunday 29th October 2017 saw the culmination of the St Nicholas Church, Combe Raleigh bell project with the rededication and blessing of the bells by the Right Reverend Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter. This is the history of the project.
The tower is the oldest part of the present church building dating from the late fourteenth century. Our oldest bell was cast by Robert Norton of Exeter c1430 and bears the inscription ‘Plebs omnis plaudit ut me minore sepius audit’ which has been translated as: ‘All people rejoice as they hear little me more often’. This bell has been calling the faithful for nigh on 600 years.
Until 2017 the church only had three bells. We don’t know if this had always been the case, but the 1553 inventory of church property lists Combe Raleigh as having three bells, two of which were subsequently recast. In 1900 these three bells were rehung in a new oak frame by Harry Stokes of Woodbury. This frame had pits for five bells but the two additional bells never materialised.
The Original Three Bells
Until the 1950’s the three bells were regularly rung full circle, after that, until the late 1960’s, they were mainly chimed. There then followed a period of fifty years when the bells were rung only very infrequently, usually by visiting bands of ringers.
In late 2008, after listening to the bells being rung by visitors from Solihull, the question was asked, ‘Why can’t the bells be rung more often?’ The obvious answer was that we had no ringers. With the support of the then Vicar, the Reverend Allan Sheath, and the Churchwardens, three members of the PCC and one husband set out to learn the art. Soon they were joined by two other villagers and the six, popularly known as ‘the Combe Raleigh Clangers’, were taught by Derek Ballard of Honiton.
From August 2009 the bells were rung regularly each month for the Family Service and on special occasions such as weddings, baptisms, harvest and at Christmas. Having had the installation inspected by a professional bell-hanger the next question was, why can we not have five bells? After inviting three companies of bell-hangers to quote for the work it seemed as if this could be achieved for the sum of £45,000. There was a rider though, all thought that we would find five bells unsatisfactory and all recommended that we investigate the possibility of having six bells. Naturally this would put up the cost and with a new steel frame we would be looking for perhaps £55,000.
This would take time and was a big commitment, especially for a village of barely 200 people, but still seemed to be achievable. It would take an awful lot of coffee mornings and book sales to raise this amount so we started to look for other ways of raising the cash, while the practicalities were being worked out. For a start all the bell-ringers pledged that any wedding fees they received whether at home or at other towers they rang at would go to the bell fund.
It had been noted that in early spring, somewhere around St Valentine’s Day, the churchyard had a glorious display of snowdrops and the idea of a Snowdrop Tea was formed. We would invite people to come along to admire the snowdrops and we would provide tea and cake for them.
At the same time one of our ringers decided we could sell snowdrops and thought that perhaps 500 would be enough. In the event it was far from enough and we were taking orders for later delivery. Last spring we sold almost 2,500! In recognition of the fact that if there was no church there would be no bells, the ringers gave half the proceeds to the church and we continue with that practice.
The success of this event exceeded our wildest dreams and to date we have sold over 11,000 snowdrops, none from the churchyard. After this, imagination went riot. There followed Plant Sales, Car Boot Sales, Ceilidhs, talks, exhibitions and concerts all accompanied by tea or coffee and the famously large pieces of homemade cake. Ringers produced decorations, wood turned items, notelets, cards, guide books and fridge magnets, in fact almost anything that would help to boost the fund. Not forgetting the Grand Garden Fete held at Combe Hill, supported most generously by the Lazarus family and which, despite the weather trying to put a dampener on it, was a huge success.
There are always setbacks, challenges some would call them. The idea of a new steel frame was turned down; the wooden one was to be kept. There was insufficient room in the bottom of the tower for six ringers, storage, cleaning and domestic facilities, we would need a ringing gallery; an early estimate put this at £20,000. Not put off by this we accepted that the new challenge was to raise £75,000, quite a lot more than our original £45,000. After much negotiation and a moment of inspiration by our bell-hanger we agreed a proposal that would satisfy all parties. The wooden frame would be kept, but could be modified to take six bells. The gallery could be built, but would have a glass screen behind the green men and there could be a door cut into the turret stairs. When the quotations for the revised scheme came in we realised the enormity of the challenge, we were now looking at a £95,000 project.
This new figure made us take stock. Abandoning the project was unthinkable, but could it be delayed, or certain works deferred, until the money was available? Delay would certainly result in additional costs. Our fundraising efforts had been very successful with some very generous grants offered, including from the Devon Church Bell Restoration Fund; we needed to have faith and redouble our efforts.
As if the challenge of the bell project was not enough, the PCC had decided that the church needed toilet facilities. The two projects were running alongside each other. Viridor Credits gave an extremely generous grant towards the toilet costs which allowed that project to go ahead very quickly. When their representatives came to inspect the works, to be sure that it was money well spent, they were suitably impressed. Seizing the moment, our church warden asked about the possibility of a grant towards the cost of the gallery which would permit an improvement to the domestic facilities. She was advised to put in a draft proposal; in due course this became a grant application. Our faith was rewarded with a grant that covered the entire amount of the extra costs of the gallery. Both builder and bell-hanger had agreed to hold their costs for a short while to enable us to find the extra funding; we could now let them go ahead.
It was a significant moment when work to take out the existing ring of bells commenced. It was significant for all the wrong reasons. On starting to open the hatch in the clock chamber floor it became apparent that the floor was dangerously unsupported; before anything else could be done this had to be made safe. Nicholson Engineering in Bridport hastily made a steel supporting frame over the weekend so that work could go ahead as planned. Ably assisted by the ‘geriatric bell-hangers’ (volunteers from the Guild of Devonshire Ringers) the bells were lowered and the frame removed for transport to Bridport.
The frame was to be modified for six bells and the bells then going on to Whitechapel for tuning, shortly before that operation closed.
Though some had been to Nicholson’s workshop before, there was an eager group who went along to see the six bells together for the first time and the progress on the frame. Standing on the floor the frame looked far too big to fit the belfry, but some quick measurements were reassuring; it would fit – just.
Work in progress at Nicholson’s works
Now the end was in sight and everyone was eager to see the bells back and ready to ring. Patience was required; first the clock chamber floor had to be completely replaced, adding further to our costs. Then work could commence in earnest on construction of the gallery, including breaking through a very thick stone wall into the turret stairs.
While all the work was going on our ringers were practising at other nearby towers. After twice taking third place in recent years, in the 2017 Striking Competition of the Guild of Devonshire Ringers East Devon Branch, held at Shute, they took first place, winning the Edward Summers Memorial Shield.
The team with the trophy L-R: 1. Trevor Hitchcock, 2. Lisa Clarke, 3 Pam Bailey, 4. Charles Boyce, 5. Paddy Priscott, 6. Laurence Clarke.
The bells and frame were returned to the belfry before all the building work was complete and again assistance was freely given by the amateur bell-hangers including our own Laurence, Mark, Stan and Alex with his very useful tractor. Without Alex and his tractor, lifting the bells off the lorry would have been a big headache. At last the building work was finished and the final work on the bells could commence. One of the first tasks was to thoroughly clean the church, it is amazing just how much dust can be generated. It was a very frantic last couple of days completing all the fiddly work and fitting the ropes.
Andrew Nicholson making the final checks before the handover.
On the afternoon of 24th August 2017, nine years after the question ‘why are the bells not rung?’ was first asked, Andrew Nicholson made his last checks before saying, ‘now, it’s over to you’ and the local ringers had their first try-out of the new ring of six. It was a delight to listen to them. It was even more so to hear a select band ringing Cambridge Surprise Minor in celebration.
There followed the blessing and re-dedication of the bells on 29th October 2017. The church was packed full for the service which was conducted by the Bishop, assisted by the Rev Sue Roberts, Rector and the Rev Jane Lankester, Vicar. Ringers came from great distances, from as far afield as Hereford and Kent to be present on this historic occasion and most of the East Devon churches and their ringers were also represented. Organist Kevin Lane, who many years ago learned to play the organ at St Nicholas’, travelled from Thrushelton on the edge of Dartmoor, especially for the day. Lessons were read by Rosemary Mapleston, churchwarden and Lisa Clarke, tower captain. After the dedication the St Nicholas’ bell-ringers rang a short length of call changes following which the Bishop led the applause of an appreciative congregation. The ringers, Trevor Hitchcock 1, Ruth Hitchcock 2, Lisa Clarke 3, Mark Moran 4, Paddy Priscott 5 and Laurence Clarke 6 were surprised by this unexpected acclaim, unusual during a service.
The Bishop reflected that it was an amazing achievement, raising almost £110,000 in such a tiny community and it showed the dedication of villagers and the love they have for their ancient church. The Rev Sue Roberts described it as ‘a hugely joyful occasion and a truly moving and memorable experience. It is wonderful to think that these bells will call people for centuries to come.’
After the service everyone was invited to the Village Hall for tea and to see the Bishop, Churchwarden and Tower Captain cut the celebratory cake.
Picture shows Lisa Clarke (Tower Captain), Robert Atwell (Bishop of Exeter), Rosemary Mapleston (Churchwarden) cutting the celebratory cake
ST NICHOLAS’ CHURCH COMBE RALEIGH RINGERS 2017
Standing: Joel Trim, Paddy Priscott, Stan Thompson, Mark Moran, Lisa Clarke (Captain), Laurence Clarke, Trevor Hitchcock.
With faith all things are possible, but if eight years ago we had been told the total cost might exceed £110,000 it is very doubtful that we would have gone ahead with the project. There have been bells in Combe Raleigh for the last six hundred years and with the recent work we hope to have left a legacy which will see the bells ring out for another six hundred years. As the Rev Sue Roberts said ‘it is wonderful to think that these bells will call people for centuries to come’.
It has been a huge achievement, having gone, in nine years, from a tower with three almost unringable bells and no ringers, to one with six bells and eleven ringers. Additionally, Lisa has one beginner just taking the first steps to learning the art of church bell ringing. You could be the next.
Particular thanks are due to the Keltek Trust for sourcing the three additional bells and donating one of them. The ‘new’ bells came from a variety of sources; one was an ex-Trinity House buoy bell, one from St Philip’s Church, Bolton and the third from the Poole Sanatorium near Middlesbrough. Despite their being from different founders and each with its own distinct history, together with our existing three bells each from different eras, they form a delightfully tuneful ring. All connected with the project wish to express their profound thanks to everyone who has supported it in any way during the long journey that led to this successful conclusion.