THE GODMERSHAM RESTORATION
Richard C. Offen, 1987
|Had they existed three hundred years ago, the following might have been the sort of headlines you would have read in the national newspapers for 1687: "King Receives Papal Nuncio';- 'Venetians Bombard Athens - Parthenon Destroyed". You would have also been able to read the critics' appraisal of Dryden's 'The Hind and The Panther" and the correspondence columns would have been full of heated argument over the publication of a book entitled "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathmatica" written by one Isaac Newton. In this book Newton set out to explain revolutionary new mathematics to describe many physical phenomena, including the laws of motion. Little did Newton himself realise that in the centuries to come it would be his mathematics which would enable men to walk on the moon.||
ST LAWRENCE, GODMERSHAM
all earth-shattering stuff, but in a small, sleepy village, on the banks of the River
Stour in Kent, there were far more interesting things going on to stir the imaginations of
the local population. A man by the name of Christopher Hodson had arrived in the village
and was setting up strange apparatus near the church. What was this man doing? He was
preparing to cast a new ring of five bells for the Church of St. Lawrence, Godmersham.
Many features worthy of note
This church, nestling in its picturesque setting on the western banks of the Stour, has many features worthy of note, including some of architectural and artistic interest. The base of the northern tower extends into an apsed chapel, with four deeply-splayed Norman windows, Norman arches and thick flint walls. On the outside of this unique chapel can be seen a blocked-up doorway with a fine tympanum of a cross, worked in flints. On a wall in the chancel can be found Godmersham's most prized possession - a stone carved with the figure of an archbishop, sitting on a cushioned seat, his staff in his left hand, his right raised in benediction and showing him in the full richness of his vestments. This stone is thought to be an image of St. Thomas-a-Becket, which for several centuries was built into the window of a nearby house. It was only recently that the full significance of this carving was realised and it was returned to its rightful home in the church.
Two hand and four steeple
The Edwardian Inventory of church goods, dated 1552, shows that Godmersham possessed "two hande bells. . . four bellys in the steple". The only other reference to the bells in the Godmersham records refers to the repair of a gudgeon and a clapper. Strangely, to find out more about the bells at Godmersham during the 16th century, we have to look in the Church Warden's Accounts for nearby Wye Church. In 1572 the tower at Wye was severely damaged by fire, destroying the bells; these were recast by Robert Doddes of Lenham, who was obviously also contracted to recast a bell for Godmersham, as the Wye Accounts show: "laid out at Godmersham at the taking down of a bell to be sent to Lenham for supply of metal . . .1s 4d.". One perhaps might assume from this entry that Wye had merely purchased some redundant metal from Godmersham, but a further entry, referring to the actual casting, gives a different impression: "for our charges and fees to the Bell-founders men, and the charges of the churchwardens of Godmersham for 3 days at the casting of the 3 greatest bells at Lenham".. Would the Godmersham churchwardens really have made the trip to Lenham if they had merely sold some scrap metal to a neighbouring parish? It is also interesting to note that the casting took place at Lenham, some 20 miles away from both Wye and Godmersham, in days when the transport of large loads was very difficult.
But to return to the events of 1687. One can imagine the excitement caused amongst the local inhabitants by the visit of a bell founder. There must have been a continual stream of visitors to the temporary foundry to chart the progress of the new bells. People watched in fascination as Hodson built his furnace and created bell moulds out of a strange loamy mixture. Having made his moulds and buried them in a pit, all would have been ready for the great moment. The roar of the furnace could probably be heard at some distance, and many people would have assembled to witness the casting. Channels from the mouth of the furnace led to each of the waiting moulds, and, when the founder judged the metal to be at the right temperature, the clay plug would have been removed, allowing the molten metal to run down each channel in turn. Amidst clouds of smoke and steam, Hodson would have put his ear to the ground to listen for the signs that each mould was full - a risky business this, several founders having been killed or badly injured when moulds have exploded or metal overflowed onto the intently-listening craftsman. An acrid smell clung to the air and left a strange taste in the onlookers' mouths, making many cough and choke. At the completion of the operation the spectators drifted away to go about their normal business, no doubt still bubbling with the excitement of the scene they had just witnessed.
The new ring was hung in a two-tier wooden frame, with the treble hung above the other four. And so they remained for the next three centuries, the last work having been caried out on them in 1829, according to an inscription on the tenor headstock. The sound of this ring, calling over the river and beautiful surrounding park-land would have been familiar to the famous authoress, Jane Austen, who was a frequent visitor to Godmersham during the first few years of the last century. Her brother, Edward Knight, had inherited Godmersham Park in 1797 and Jane, to use her own words, "relished her visits". She delighted in the space, the elegance, the ease, and even a little unwonted luxury when there were neighbours to dine: "I shall eat ice and drink French wine and be above vulgar economy", she wrote to a friend of one of her visits.
By the end of the 19th century, there seems to have been very little ringing carried out. Indeed, Godmersham is one of the only towers to has been classified as "unringable" in every annual report of the Kent County Association of Change Ringers. Even the oldest residents of the village can only ever remember the bells being chimed, and, by the end of the last war, this had been reduced to "clocking". A state of total dereliction prevailed in the belfry; the tenor gradually became submerged beneath a large jackdaw's nest and the condition of the frame timbers rapidly deteriorated, accelerated by rain blowing through a missing louvre window. One visitor to the belfry a few years ago had the alarming experience of finding a snake amongst the bells - the reptile subsequently turned out to be dead, but did nothing for the nerves of its discoverer! More recently, the frame foundation below the tenor was causing great concern, as it appeared to be giving up the struggle to support some 13 cwt. of bell and was sagging alarmingly.
A "knight in shining armour"
With an Electoral Roll of only 30 and a building generally suffering from years of neglect, there seemed little chance of the ring ever being restored. Thankfully, a "knight in shining armour" appeared on the scene, in the form of the new owner of Godmersham Park. He showed great interest in his parish church and resolved that it should be thoroughly restored and transformed into a warm and welcoming place, fit for the worship of God. Thanks to this generosity, many repairs have been carried out and the interior transformed by sympathetic and careful redecoration. The restoration of the bells now looked possible, and with financial assistance from the Manifold Trust, the Kent County Association Bell Restoration Fund, the Sunley Trust and many other bodies, the renovation of this historic ring became a reality. Reports were commissioned, schemes drawn up and, eventually, an order placed with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
Fight over frame
It was assumed that from this point on the restoration would be very straightforward but, in the event, it turned out to be anything but, the main problem being the old bell frame which, as has been stated, was in very poor condition. The Kent Archaeological Society decided to take great exception to its removal and started to fight for its retention, arguing that it was "a perfectly satisfactory and most interesting mediaeval bell frame". Whilst conservation of our heritage is most important and highly laudable, the retention of objects merely because they are "old" and with no subjective reference to their intrinsic or real historic value is pure sentimentality and of no value to future generations. The Godmersham frame was certainly not mediaeval, nor even a good example of 17th century joinery (the period to which it can definitely be ascribed), besides which, its continued presence presented a very real threat to the fabric of the historically significant tower. The argument put the parish in an invidious position: on the one hand, they desperately wanted to hear their bells again, but on the other, they did not wish to incur the wrath of every conservationist in the land for the destruction of an important frame. As one member of the congregation remarked: "What are we to be: curators of a museum of unusable relics, or a lively, vibrant witness of the Christian Faith?"
Had it been possible to support the old frame, and position the new one below it, this course of action would have been taken. But this would have meant the foundation of the new frame being positioned in a structurally very weak part of the tower, with many window openings in it. After many hours of sometimes quite heated discussion, sense prevailed and it was agreed to carefully dismantle the old frame in such a way that it could be reconstructed elsewhere as a museum exhibit.
It was therefore with a great deal of trepidation that the Kent County Association of Change Ringers "Hit Squad" started the work of dismantling in November, 1986. The two main areas of concern being, would it be possible to get the frame apart to the satisfaction of the archaeologists and, without too much "butchery"? The other was whether, once certain key timbers had been removed, the frame would take on the job of demolition itself and beat the workers to the bottom of the tower? In the event, the job was reasonably easy, the whole thing coming apart with only one joint requiring to be cut. It must be pointed out, however, that a good majority of the frame descended the tower resembling ground ginger rather than solid timber, thus bearing out the arguments about the unsuitability of the structure for re-use.
Whilst the bells were "on holiday" at the foundry a considerable amount of structural work had to be done in the tower. This included filling-in a disused flue, which ran the entire height of the tower, leaving a groove some ten inches square in the fabric. A new, independent, sound-deadening floor was also constructed of timber, covered with tightly-packed cellular building blocks. Scepticism about the effectiveness of this floor has proved unfounded, it allowing just the right level and quality of sound into the ground-floor ringing room.
Pleasant, mellow and fruity
When all was ready in the tower, the bells, new frame and fittings returned and work started on installation. This was carried out by Whitechapel's Phil Jakeman, assisted by members of the K.C.A.C.R. Soon the great day for a "tryout" arrived, and, on a warm July evening, just 300 years after they were cast, the bells of St. Lawrence Church rang out for the first time in over a hundred years. The churchyard was full of excited ringers (how do they get wind of a tryout?) and interested parishioners, all keen to witness this historic event. Everyone agreed that Mr. Hodson, ably assisted by Whitechapel's tuner, had produced a very pleasant, mellow and rather fruity ring. The bells handle very well, but with a very small rope circle there is a tendency to ring them too fast, making them seem harder to ring than they actually are.
The church was, packed to overflowing for the Service of Re-dedication on Sunday, 20th September, 1987, ringers from far and wide joining the local congregation for this event, which took place during Family Eucharist. In his address, the Rector, the Rev. John Hewes, explained that the word "Eucharist" meant "thank you", and that was exactly what he intended to do! He went on to mention the many people who had been involved in the restoration of the church and, in particular, the bells, pointing out that in future the bells would sing their own thanks to God before each celebration of the Eucharist. During the singing of the Bellringers Hymn, the Rector, visiting clergy and servers made their way to the tower door for the Prayer of Re-Consecration, after which an opening touch was rung by a representative band of those who had helped in the restoration.
Marked in style
During the opening touch an unfamiliar sound could be heard from the back of the church - that of champagne corks popping! The Sunley family, who are the owners of Godmersham Park, decided that such an event as this should be marked in style and had arranged a superb champagne reception for the entire congregation. Many ardent tower-grabbers were seen agonising between the queue to ring on Kent's latest ring of bells and the queue for another glass of "bubbly"! To continue the celebrations, the grounds of Godmersham Park were made available to all who wished to explore their beautiful contents. In the lovely early-autumn sunshine this made a delightful end to a memorable day.
Another chapter in the long history of a Kentish village now opens: a chapter in which the bells will again play a full part in the life of the community, sharing in its joys, its sadness and, week by week, summoning the faithful to worship. Already a keen band is under trainingand looking forward to ensuring the bells at Godmersham do not again fall silent.
|FOOTNOTE: Since this article was written, a new bell was added to augment the ring to 6. The bell was dedicated to the memory of Charlie Bell, the Tower Captain who oversaw the restoration in 1987.|