Benenden are now a Twelve!

Dickon R. Love, December, 2003

Many who attended the large gatherings of the Ringing World Roadshow, the National 12-Bell Striking Competition, plus the smaller county gatherings in Kent, will not have failed to have noticed a short bearded gentleman conducting business from the back of his van, unloading boxes in exchange for money in circumstances not out of place in 'Only Fools and Horses'. However this Del Boy was no plonker, but instead implementing an inspired plan to raise money for an equally inspiring project: to augment the eight bells at Benenden thus providing Kent with a very useful ring of twelve. The plan? To sell beer to ringers! After 4 months, 12,000 bottles of beer was sold raising 5,600 for the project.

Photo DrL

The Del Boy in question was Rod Lebon. He is the tower captain of St George's, Benenden, a village situated on the Weald of Kent some twenty miles south of Maidstone. Benenden has always been renowned as a good ring of eight, just under a ton in weight and made readily available for visiting ringers (there is almost a quarter peal a week attempted there). It must have been about ten years ago that Rod bounced the idea of augmenting Benenden to ten to the Author on the Cambridge University Guild 'Guild Week' one summer. He felt it was quite difficult maintaining a rural band on a heavy ring of bells, and with such an augmentation, he would have a much more manageable front six while at the same time generating an easy available ring of ten for the District. The Author's reaction was positive, but he suggested that perhaps a ring of twelve would be of even more use. Rod took this suggestion on board, consulted with the foundries and soon came to the conclusion that of all the hair brained ideas the Author might sometimes come out with, this one was quite feasible. A frame for 12 could be

Photo DrL 2003

designed keeping all the bells on one level (thereby preserving the integrity of the original octave) and given that there are no rings of 12 in the area, it could prove to be of even more value to the District. Since the eight were deep and slow turning for their weight, there was every likelihood of an excellent result.
Progress was then slow. The church immediately gave its backing but felt unable to spearhead the fundraising centrally. One of the nearby residents, who would frequently complain if the bells were rung with the sound control shut, offered the assistance of an old friend of hers to chair the fundraising effort. This provided the motivation required and the appeal took off. Four bells were donated by individuals in the parish almost straight away, and to help raise the remainder of the money the fundraisers came upon the idea of BEER! Shepherd Neame is the country's oldest independent brewery, is based in Faversham and is famous for its regular output of Master Brew, Spitfire and Bishop's Finger. Rod ordered 12,000 bottles of Spitfire which was rebranded as "Bellringers' Delight". They were packed into boxes of a dozen and sold ostensibly to buyers either singly or in sets of ten boxes (for which the buyer received a free box). This worked extremely well. The beer was distributed all over the county and the country and in no time made a sizeable profit for the fund.

Perfect Circle

The work itself was carried out by Hayward Mills Associates. Peter Hayward produced an excellent design to adapt the present metal frame to hold all 12 bells with a virtually perfect circle with little rope draw. The new bells themselves were cast by John Taylor & Co. It was this foundry that retuned the original bells in 1971 and cast the existing treble (now the 5th); no further tuning work on these bells was required. 

The final stages of the project seemed to pass by very quickly. Bells were cast, hung in 3 weeks, tried out and on 21st December, were dedicated at the morning service by the Vicar. That afternoon, the first peal on the twelve was successfully completed, conducted by the Ashford District Ringing Master. Those ringing in this peal were identified to represent the gratefully received assistance from the UK ringing community as a whole.

And so what of the result? The ring is now one of very few twelves rung from a gallery. The circle, as has been said, is very good. The trebles feel sufficiently heavy to control with ease without a hint of 'flightiness'. The overall effect of all twelve bells ringing is a very pleasing one. There is plenty of hum all round without being overpowering (as a consequence of the gallery). The trebles fit the eight very well and together turn the whole instrument into a veritable musical box. All the bells can be heard, although as things stand, there is scope to make the trebles slightly more distinct without affecting the overall effect (which as a 'training twelve' will be very important). Clearly all expectations have been fulfilled and this is demonstrated by the result.

Useful in Kent 

There are only two other rings of twelve in Kent (plus a private miniring): one is at Canterbury Cathedral and the other is in Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea. Both these rings are some distance away. Canterbury (for obvious reasons) cannot be particularly available for those wanting to practise twelve bell ringing and may be viewed as rather heavy by some students. Quex Park has the advantage of being available and light, but geographically is quite remote and acoustically very challenging. Benenden therefore should prove to be an extremely useful resource for the Ashford District and the County.

The sound control is very good at Benenden. The bells are readily available for visiting bands. Members of the Ashford District ring regular weekly quarter peals and there should be opportunities for a peal a month. In fact, there are more complaints about the bells not being audible enough than the other way round, prompting Rod to regularly, yet judiciously, leave the sound control open. The local band is extremely pleased to be able to practise changes on a lighter six with aspirations for ringing on eight, ten and twelve.

A flat 6th

Following the completion of the work, another parishioner came forward insisting on buying a bell. For this reason plans are afoot to install a flat sixth above the existing sixth to produce a light eight.

The effect of this project on ringing in the Ashford District will be an interesting one to follow. It is already a district full of keen quarter peal ringers and busy meetings. But with no regular maximus band in the county, perhaps it is now up to Benenden to lead the way. This was a bold vision and Rod, Karen, their family, their ringers and their church are to be congratulated on bringing this vision to such a successful conclusion. Rod still feels he may have been mad to listen to the Author, but on this occasion he is rather pleased he did, and then remained firm … rigidus quam virga (as the Cambridge University Guild will tell you).


At the Church of St George. Tenor: 18-0-24 in E flat.
On Saturday 21st December, 2003 in 3 hrs 24 mins
5007 Stedman Cinques

Graham D Heath
Dickon R Love
Jon Waters
Clare J Larter
Karen Lebon
Richard H Edwards
C Frederick C Pearson
J Roderick N Lebon
Andrew B Mills
John B Keeler
Philip H Larter
Thomas M Barlow

Conducted by Richard H Edwards

1st Stedman Cinques: 6 and as Conductor.
1st peal on the augmented ring of 12 on the
day of the dedication, 200 years after the
first peal at Benenden. Rung on behalf of,
and in gratitude to, all the donors of the
parish and ringers throughout Britain who
contributed generously to this project.

Photo DrL Dec 2003

History of the Bells 

The earliest record of bells at Benenden comes from a letter written in 1418 by the Archbishop of Canterbury to John, Bishop of Sora. He was asked to dedicate the new church (specifically blessing the four altars) and consecrate the four new bells. These bells originally hung in a detached timber tower similar to that at nearby Brookland, but 132 feet high, making it quite a landmark. Five bells were there in c.1550 when the tenor was stated to be 27 cwt. Disaster struck in 1672 when the campanile was hit by lightning, completely destroying it and gutting the church. The recovered bell metal was subsequently sold to finance the repair to the church, but the tower was never rebuilt. In 1718, the present tower was, this time attached to the church and somewhat less lofty, and the following year a ring of six bells was cast by Richard Phelps. Lester and Pack recast the tenor and second in 1753 and 1764 respectively. Then in 1802 Thomas Mears I augmented the bells to eight with two trebles, also recasting the original treble in the process. More recasting took place in 1819 (the fifth by Thomas Mears) and 1882 (the fourth by John Taylor) and by 1923, it was necessary to rehang the octave. This work was carried out by Alfred Bowell of Ipswich who, as well as rehanging the bells on girder headstocks and tie-rodding the frame, also recast the sixth: he charged 220 for the work plus an additional 2 the following May when he had to rehang the seventh. The next major work didn't take place until 1971 when John Taylor and Co recast the treble, retuned the remainder and rehung the octave in a new metal frame. This work was very successful transforming a rum old collection of pots into the singing octave we have today. They were dedicated on 1st May. Hence the augmentation in 2003 by Hayward Mills using Taylor trebles represented the fourth augmentation of these bells. 

To date, 134 peals have been rung at Benenden (plus a false one). The first was on 1st March 1803 (Plain Bob Major) rung soon after the bells were augmented to eight. The Nineteenth Century then saw an additional twelve peals completed (the last in 1888). Only four peals were rung in the first ten years of the Twentieth Century as presumably the bells were getting harder and harder to ring, but ever since the rehanging activity by Bowell in 1923, there has been a steady stream of peals. The first peal attempt on the bells after the 1971 rehang was lost and the Cambridge University Guild was accorded the honour of ringing the first peal (since they were second on the list). It therefore seems quite fitting that the Guild is 2nd on the list of attempts on the twelve.

See also the Benenden Page