Neil W Jones 2005

On Sunday 26th March, the bells of St Margaret’s, Rochester were rededicated by the Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon of Rochester and marked the culmination of a very long project to get the bells ringing again.

The church St. Margaret of Antioch is about half a mile south of Rochester Cathedral and looks down on the East bank of the River Medway from its vantage point at the edge of the valley. Indeed, the church is quite a noticeable landmark for many looking across the river towards Rochester, particularly for rail travellers.

The site of the church dates back to at least 1272, and a Saxon burial ground indicates that worship at this site probably went back even further. However, the tower is now the oldest part of the current church, dating from around 1458, the main body of the church was rebuilt and dates from 1824.

The tower had an anticlockwise ring of 5 bells in it from as early as 1552, and by 1790 a treble was added to bring the total number of bells to 6. Just over one hundred years passed until the bells were augmented again, being made an 8 in 1896 and the first peal, Grandsire Triples, was rung on the bells in February of the following year. The two extra trebles were supported in a metal frame above the existing wooden frame and this was perhaps a contributing factor to the events leading to the long silence. By the 1960’s, the bells were getting difficult to ring and after a peal of Plain Bob Major in May 1973, the 13th peal in the tower, the bells had the wheels removed and were deemed to be unringable. In 1974 all ringing was stopped.

A long silence followed, and fund raising began to make repairs to enable the bells to be rung. There were a number of problems to rectify, these included the point where the roof of the nave joined the tower as well as the problems with the construction of the bell frame. As with any restoration project, the cost of repair was not keeping track with the fundraising. Something had to be done, and by 2003, the parish, lead by the enthusiasm of parishioner and chairman of the Parish Buildings Development Group, Alan Moss, had decided to pull out the stops and push for the restoration and rehang of the bells. By this stage, they had the unenviable task of raising almost £70000 to enable this dream to be realised.

In 2005, the target was achieved and on 3rd September the Kent County Association of Change Ringers hit squad (Bell Restoration Team) moved in under the supervision of Brian Butcher. With help from local ringers and parishioners, the bells were lowered and the frame removed. Later in the week, Messrs R Swain and Sons, a local haulage company kindly offered to transport the bells to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for retuning and repair.

Early in 2006, work began in the tower to prepare for the installation of a new steel frame for the 8 bells. Despite having previously been hung on two levels, with the removal of the wooden frame, it was possible to fit all 8 bells onto one level. It was also decided no longer ring from the existing ringing chamber, but to ring the bells from the ground floor. On 6th February, the bells returned to the church and Peter Scott of Whitechapel, assisted by local ringers began the task of rehanging the bells in the new frame. The bells were rehung clockwise, with all new fittings ready for testing on 15th February. Canon retaining headstocks were fitted to the 6th and 7th. The verdict of the ringers at the test ring was that the bells were very good.

The rededication was arranged for Mothering Sunday, at the conclusion of the Family Eucharist. Needless to say, the church was full when the time came. After the Archdeacon, the Ven. Peter Lock and the Vicar, the Rev. Gary Colville processed to the tower to the accompaniment of the Carol “Ding Dong Merrily on High”, the Archdeacon firstly wished everybody a Merry Christmas before going on to dedicate the bells. The bells were then rung for a few minutes by some of the local ringers who had been involved in rehanging, assisted by ringers from down the road at the Cathedral. This was duly applauded by the congregation. After the conclusion of the service, there was a little more ringing before a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples was embarked upon to conclude the events.

The final part of the celebration of the end of the long silence occurred on Easter Day when, at the invitation of the Vicar, a full peal was rung. Many people popped into the church to listen during the course of the peal and more interest in the project was generated in the neighbourhood as a result. This was the first peal in the tower for over 30 years, the first peal of spliced and the 14th peal on the bells.

Now all that St Margaret’s needs is its own band of ringers. The ringers of Rochester Cathedral are currently helping to ring for services at the church and a group of local ringers from various towers have been organised to train a band at St Margaret's. Hopefully, within a few months, a local band will be able to fully enjoy this delightful ‘new’ ring of 8 in Medway.

Obviously, many ringers will be keen to visit over the next few months. However, after such a long silence, we need to gradually re-establish a pattern of ringing which will also establish good relations with the neighbours, particularly as St Margaret’s is in the middle of a residential area of Rochester and there is a home for the elderly just across the road. Although the bells have had a peal and a quarter peal rung on them in the last few weeks, visits by outside bands will probably need to be restricted over the next few months as the local residents get used to the sound of the new bells, we hope that prospective visitors will be mindful of this.

Quarter Peal

Rochester, Kent. (St Margaret). 26 March, 1260 Grandsire Triples: Frank Lewis 1, Malcolm Smith 2, Anita Perryman 3, Arthur Vidgeon 4, Alan Driver 5, Brian Butcher 6, Neil Jones (C) 7, Phil Stott 8. 1st Quarter on the refurbished bells following their rededication by the Ven. Peter Lock, Archdeacon of Rochester on Mothering Sunday.