RINGING RESUMES ON THE ROOF OF KENT:
|High on the
North Downs on the roof of Kent is the remote village of Waltham (pronounced
Walt-ham). To get there from Canterbury the visitor would drop into the
Petham Valley (where the intermittent river “Nailbourne” may or may not be
flowing across the fields) and then travel the few miles up a long slow hill
until the village appears perched on the top. Until recently the village
boasted its own school, pub, church and Post Office, although sadly, with
urbanisation the trend, only the latter two survive today. The church of St
Bartholomew sits on the edge of the village overlooking the Petham valley.
At one end the pretty ring of six in Petham church can sometimes be heard
echoing down, past St Bartholomew’s and down further towards Elmstead, in
whose church a large rectangular timber belfry houses its silent derelict
The church is old with a squat rectangular tower that barely rises above the simple wide nave. I moved to Petham in 1979 when my father was made Rector of both churches and I remember being told by the Churchwarden that one of St Bartholomew’s fingers was brought to the church at its consecration. In the tower were four bells, all arranged in a line in an old timber frame. All the bells were cast in the seventeenth century by the same founder, Joseph Hatch of Ulcombe, who was responsible for a vast number of bells in Kent. Even today 88 of his bells can be found ringing in towers across the county and his tombstone still stands in Broomfield church yard. The 3rd is dated 1602 and is considered to be Joseph Hatch’s earliest known bell, so much so that he used the foundry stamp of his father, Thomas. Hatch then cast the other 3 bells in 1631 to complete the ring of four.
Nothing is known of the early ringing on these bells, and by the time David Cawley, Tony Davies and Cyril Beeching inspected them in the summer of 1964, no ringing here had ever been recalled. Cyril was Church Warden of Petham, later Captain of the tower there for over 30 years (and incidentally the person responsible for teaching me to ring) and therefore the only opinion that the Rector valued. Both Cyril and the Rector were persuaded to allow a full inspection with a view to restoration. Only two of the bells at that stage had ropes (the 2nd and 4th) and these were long past their useful life. The belfry was filthy, but as the windows had all been glazed (which also meant the bells could hardly be heard outside) there were no problems from birds. The plain bearings were bone dry, the third wheel was broken and the all the bells were dreadfully loose. A lot of work was done in the belfry to patch things up; the bearings were flushed and four old ropes were given on loan from All Saints, Whitstable. When David and Tony first rang them up, it was reported that Cyril’s face was a picture of both terror and amazement as the sundry bumps and bangs from above ironed themselves out into a regular bearing thump. Showers of debris descended onto the floor through the rope holes and the various other holes in the floor and settled everywhere (which didn’t please the Rector too much, but he was assured optimistically that this was because this was the first time the bells had been rung!).
In 1966 David Cawley made a formal report on the bells recommending that the four bells be rehung in a new frame. Since he did not consider that there was enough space to augment the bells to six with two trebles, he suggested one alternative would be to break up the tenor, tune the other three and cast two or three trebles out of the metal. Such thinking was commonplace at that time even though nowadays it would be considered an anathema!
Nothing was done at this time: the church was so mouldy and damp that there were many more pressing reasons to raise and spend money. Nonetheless, the bells were now ringable and all ringing came under the care of the Petham bellringers. When I started ringing at Petham in 1983, the only ringing that used to take place was for the occasional wedding and joint benefice services.
This ring of bells was full of all sorts of unusual distinctions: they were all cast by the same founder; they were rung from the chancel step in the middle of the church in front of the whole congregation; they were hung such that the ringing circle was anticlockwise and the four bells sounded an unusual scale. The scale has raised all sorts of questions. The church guide book claimed that they were in the Aeolian Mode (with the tenor sounding the note A). I was convinced that the tenor sounded closer to G sharp. David Cawley’s inspection in 1966 reported that they were in the Dorian Mode and an eminent ringer’s wife at the time declared that they were “the middle minor four of the back six of the front eight of a ring of twelve in the key of C”! The most recent inspection decided that they were in the Lydian Mode, and this has been the quoted scale ever since. (An explanation of these scales is given in the accompanying glossary.) Whether the bells were planned to be in the Lydian Mode is not known. It has been suggested that the tuning was so approximate that this should have been regarded as a random scale which we are only now defining. However, there are a number of similar scales in Kent and elsewhere on four, five and even six bells, so Waltham may have been a surviving example of an earlier custom.
The ringing of the bells often proved to be a fraught activity, and certainly used to entertain the on-looking congregation. As they turned on their square bearings, the clunck, clunck, clunck sounds were almost as dominant as the haunting sound of their unusual scale, and ringers frequently had to dodge the falling dust, grime and occasional nail that continued to fall from the ceiling. There is therefore little wonder that ringing at Waltham was not the most popular pastime for the Petham ringers. As a young ringer, I used to enjoy the challenge, and with other keen members of the Canterbury District, would often be seen trying to keep this venerable peal going and ringing as often as possible. The crowning moment for this old ring was when a recording we made was broadcast for the BBC’s “Bells on Sunday” programme. No peals were ever rung on these bells, and the couple of known quarters that were attempted all failed.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of money was raised by the church for badly needed restoration. Whilst it was always intended to rehang the bells as part of this project, sadly, the scope of the restoration had to be restricted to the fabric. Thus by the early 1990s, with interest dwindling even more, all ringing stopped and the ropes were removed.
The bells were not forgotten altogether though. On a return to Waltham in July 1996, and after a little work, it was possible to ring the bells again. They were then rung again the following year as part of the launch of an appeal to finally bring these bells into full working order. Suddenly there was a new drive in the parish, spearheaded by the two Churchwardens, Bobbie Jenkinson and Pamela Cox. They sought to have a new clockwise frame for six bells built in the small intermediate chamber underneath the old anticlockwise timber frame (which had been ordered to be preserved). They planned to have the four bells turned, tuned and refitted and each donated a bell to create a ring of six.
Whilst the direction of the ringing circle was not to be preserved, it was felt that the unusual Lydian scale should be, so a faculty was sought and an order with Hayward-Mills was placed on this basis. It was hoped that the parish would receive assistance from the Millennium Fund, but unfortunately the application was unsuccessful. Undeterred though, the time soon came in 1999 for the bells to be lowered from the tower by the Kent County Association and delivered to Hayward-Mills.
With the bell foundries experiencing the pressure of work to complete projects supported by the Millennium Commission, Joseph Hatch’s four bells languished on the ground for somewhat longer than expected. When the bells finally arrived at Taylor’s for tonal analysis, it was revealed that only the 2nd and 3rd of the ring of 4 would require tuning to bring them more sharply into the Lydian Mode. However, Taylor’s were also able to point out that limited tuning to the treble and tenor only would bring the bells into a conventional diatonic scale. Were this approach to be taken, Joseph Hatch’s first known bell (the 3rd) could be left in its original condition.
The Parish was faced with a choice: should they continue with the plan to create an unusual sounding scale which may or may not appeal to villagers or ringers, or should they take the opportunity to finally create a diatonic ring that is now the preferred scale for all new rings, preserving Hatch’s original début bell in the process? I was asked to speak to the PCC to help answer the many questions that they had. To help I brought some handbells along, and with the help of some ringers from Sturry, we were able to demonstrate change ringing on the two scales to the parish, thereby giving them their first glimpse at what they were really deciding upon. At the end of the meeting a vote was taken and the Parish agreed to go for the diatonic scale.
The two trebles were cast on 29th June, 2001 at Loughborough and the new frame was installed in December. Hayward-Mills worked very hard to ensure that the frame was in and all six bells were ringing for Christmas Day, which they achieved albeit with some late nights! To bring the ring into a diatonic scale, Taylor’s only needed to tune the treble and skirt the tenor, and even then the tuning proved to be minimal: 15 pounds of metal came off the tenor and only 1 pound was needed off the treble. Together with the trebles, Waltham now has a very pleasant ring of six with its own delightful character. The two new bells sing out with their characteristic rich tone. The back four follow with a definitely older sound, although the tenor rounds off the peal with a very good strike and hum covering Joseph Hatch’s slightly inferior tone of the (now) 5th. The internal acoustics are excellent, although the bells are not as loud as they deserve to be outside, despite the fact that a dormer opening was built into the roof to help carry the sound out into the valley.
The dedication service took place the following month on 24th January when The Rev’d David Cawley was invited to preach and then dedicate the ring, some 34 years after he was first worked to get the old four ringable. It was a bright sunny day which prompted David to recall that he used to refer to the Petham/Waltham valley as “The Valley of the Golden Sun”. The church was filled with an invited congregation of proud parishioners and ringers, including the bell hanger, Andrew Mills. The joint Petham/Waltham band, which is now responsible for ringing the bells, rang a well struck course of Reverse St Bartholomew Doubles to the applause of the congregation.
On a personal note, the dedication service was really quite moving. After so many years, the replacement of the four old manky ropes tied to the walls under the tower that stared back at the congregation in the nave with six new gleaming ropes is a powerful visible symbol of the new era of ringing at Waltham. It was particularly good to see my old mentor Cyril Beeching, who with my father (who was also present) and I seemed to be the only people willing to ring at Waltham at anything more than an infrequent basis during the final era of ringing. At last, Waltham has a ring of bells that it can be proud of that can now respond to the echo of the bells of Petham further down the valley. How long must we wait now before the bells of Elmstead are able to join in along the course of the Nailbourne.
Bobbie Jenkinson, on behalf of herself, fellow churchwarden and the PCC asked me to express their sincere thanks to Hayward-Mills Associates for all the help they have given during this project. There were many periods of frustration, but Hayward-Mills was of immense help throughout.