Technical Options

Contract Specification: Technical Options #

This Addendum supports the process of preparing a contract specification with descriptions of various parts of an installation which may be relevant to your tower. For those less familiar with bell installations, links are included to relevant chapters in the companion document Belfry Upkeep.

A Code of Practice on the Conservation and repair of bells and bell frames is available as a PDF download.

The Tower #

For new bell installations and projects involving changes to the location of the bells, important considerations will be where and how the bells are to be (re)located in the tower. Structural engineers are likely to advise on the suitability and strength of the tower structure and its ability to accommodate the bells at the location intended. An architect may be engaged as well, particularly where alterations in the church are more extensive and design work will be required. The church architect should be informed of the work proposed, particularly any changes that will impact the visual appearance of the building internally or externally.

Architects who undertake quinquennial inspections may not be the most appropriate for design work as the skills and experience are different. Structural engineers and architects must have relevant expertise, be appropriately accredited and carry professional indemnity insurance. The Diocesan Advisory Committee and the local ringing society may be able to suggest suitable professionals.

Proposed designs and materials for the installation will be suggested by the bell hangers, in conjunction with structural engineers and architects. In many projects, the existing tower structure and its heritage will influence what may be feasible. Will a historic bell frame, timber or stonework have to be retained? Techniques are now available to reduce the forces acting on a bell tower when the bells are rung full circle, for example by using a concrete ring beam as the foundation for the bell frame, lowering the level at which the bells are hung in the tower, occasionally reducing the overall weight of the bells, rehanging the bells so that they swing in directions that direct the greatest forces onto the strongest walls, and strengthening an existing frame with supplementary steel work. If compromises have to be made then care needs to be taken to ensure that the outcomes hoped for will be achieved.

Floors and ceilings, doors and trap doors, may also be replaced as an integral part of the project. It may be essential for the work itself, and a good opportunity to improve walkways (Figure 1), ladders and working platforms.

Steel Walkway

Figure 1: New galvanised steel walkway to improve access above the bells

Traditional timber ladders may need to be replaced or improved (Figure 2) but with space constraints in a tower, creative designs may be needed to accommodate a safe ladder in the space available. Caution is required to ensure that the design and installation of replacement ladders will not obstruct rope paths or space required for ringing safely.

Old timber ladder

Figure 2: Old timber ladder which may need to be replaced or improved

Such work not only facilitates the project itself, but also improves safety in the tower for subsequent routine use and routine maintenance. Care must be taken however, as towers often retain historic woodwork which may exhibit local styles and practices that have been widely lost elsewhere. The church architect will advise and heritage bodies may require some items to be retained in use or preserved.

Frame #

Belfry Upkeep provides general information on bell frames.

For a completely new installation, bell hangers are likely to use a metal frame that will be custom designed and fabricated. For restoration or augmentation (addition of one or bells), what can be retained of any existing frame will be suggested by the bell hangers, in conjunction with the architect and structural engineers. There may be constraints on the design and layout of the frame due to requirements to retain all or part of the existing frame, the location of items such as the staircase, clock, windows, as well as the strength and condition of the tower.

Many bell frames present difficulties of access for inspection and maintenance, particularly for more elderly Steeple Keepers. This may be an opportunity to incorporate additional steps, hand holds and small ladders.

Points to be considered are:

  • Is a new frame to be installed and of what material?
  • Are the foundation beams in good condition?
  • Will it be sited at the level of an existing frame or at a different level? Moving a frame lower in the tower, below the louvres, may reduce forces on the tower and improve the sound outside, by avoiding individual bells ‘shouting out’ through the louvres.
  • Is a historic frame to be conserved in situ for reference? If the new frame is located lower down, it may be possible to retain the old frame in situ. If this is done, arrangements will need to be made for access to the old frame for historical inspections. It will also be necessary to provide access to the louvres for installation and checking of metal grills to prevent access of wildlife.
  • What will be the effects on the sound of the bells outside the tower and internally for the ringers?
  • Is provision to be made for addition of more bells in future – for example, existing six bells to be rehung in a frame designed for eight with two spaces left for a subsequent project?
  • What about the location of the clock or other items that are currently in the tower?

Bells #

Belfry Upkeep provides general information on bells.

The history, condition, age and founder(s) of any existing bells are usually a very important consideration. information on existing bells can be provided from:

Points to consider are:

  • Is a bell cracked? Not all cracks are visible to the naked eye. It may be feasible to weld a cracked bell, but this is a highly specialist process.
  • Is the bell worn where the clapper strikes? It may be possible to turn the bell so that the clapper strikes at a new point on the soundbow
  • Does the bell have canons and will they be removed, or fitted with a canon retaining headstock?
  • Cast in iron crown staples are better removed completely to prevent cracking of the bell.
  • What is the tonal quality and how do the bells fit musically with each other? Can one or more be tuned?

Bells that do not have a good tone may be tuned but usually only if they are not of historic interest. It will be less likely that there will be agreement to bells being tuned if they were cast prior to about 1600.

If a bell is unsuitable for retention, then they may be conserved for their historic value, perhaps configured as a chiming or clock bell or simply on display. If suitable and with permission, they may be sold or donated for use in another tower.

If a surplus bell is retained on display, care is required in the selection of its location. In spite of their weight, bells have been stolen, even when thought to be secured. Thieves value the metal, not the bell, and may simply break it up for ease of transport.

If new bells are proposed, then how many, and of what weights? Is augmentation really needed? Will the outcome facilitate the attraction, training and retention of ringers? Is there a need for a fourth ring of ten within a few miles? How big or strong is the tower structure? Adding two bells to a heavier ring of eight will enable a light six to be rung (although there is a temptation then always to ring the light six, never the eight or the ten!). The options will need to be considered carefully, without just jumping to a decision!

Does the clock use the same bells, is there a chiming mechanism? Will this be restored or removed as part of the project?

Fittings #

Depending on their condition, some existing fittings (ropes, wheels, pulleys, bearings, headstocks, stays, clappers…) may be suitable for reuse, repair or may have to be replaced. These items all have similar basic designs with slight variants depending on age and the bell hanger. Unless existing fittings are particularly unusual or historic, those being replaced will become surplus. Rather than paying for disposal, consider ways in which they may be redeployed once they have been removed from the tower, for cost and environmental reasons. There are various options:

  • Items still in good condition may be donated for reuse in another tower; local ringers and bell hangers may suggest possible locations.
  • Create a display in the church or demonstrations elsewhere about the bell project, whether for the short or longer term.
  • Donate to the local ringing society as items for use in training sessions for new ringers, or new steeple keepers.
  • Sell or auction as souvenirs to raise funds, after cleaning and polishing.
  • Wooden pieces may be carved or turned by volunteers or local college students to make items for use in the refurbished tower – perhaps a new bench, table, rope spider and coat hooks. Pieces may also be turned into a wider range of small items that can be sold to raise funds. The wood will usually be well seasoned and much appreciated by craftsmen!
  • Larger timber beams and headstocks may be sold for architectural salvage.
  • As a last resort, the most severely damaged or rotten timber may contribute to a 5th November bonfire – a very cost effective means of disposal!
  • Stonework may be suitable for salvage, or even as hardcore.
  • Metal items have sometimes been reused by enthusiasts to make ornamental items.

Could the project be a zero waste project? Think about this as a goal! Note that the latest version of the Faculty Rules sets requirements for reaching net zero. Sustainability may also be expected or required by some funding organisations. If so, this should be addressed in the contract documents.

Bell Chamber #

The bell chamber accommodates the bells and protects the bell installation from weather and the open environment. It is also an integral part of the complex “musical instrument” that is a ring of bells. The shape of the bell chamber, the materials from which it is constructed, and the openings in it, that determine how sound energy from the bells is dissipated within the building and how it propagates externally.

Points to be considered, especially if a new frame is installed, are:

  • Work on the internal masonry – making good holes left by the removal of old foundation beams, support for new ones.
  • Access to the frame – if it is moved within the tower, modifications to doors and trapdoors may be needed.
  • Any openings to the bell chamber must be covered by substantial galvanised wire mesh inside the tower to exclude birds. In some locations, especially in exposed coastal locations, addition of a weather resistant woven plastic mesh will reduce moisture ingress.

Noise Management #

Useful information on noise management, both internal and external to the tower is available in this downloadable PDF.

External to the tower #

External sound management is technically a complex subject area and may need specialist advice for the most challenging environments if complaints are to be avoided.

With any changes to a bell installation, the noise levels outside the tower and the audibility of the bells by the ringers during ringing need to be considered. If the bells have not been rung for a long time (for example a year or more) or they are likely to be rung more frequently than previously, then complaints may arise from neighbours. The noise level acceptable outside the tower will depend on the buildings, their occupants and environment adjacent to the tower. The tower may be next to especially sensitive neighbours occupied day and night such as hospitals or care homes, or buildings such as schools or colleges, that do not wish for disturbance during working hours. The number of complaints by neighbours about church bells may increase, as land and property in the vicinity of towers changes. Complaints typically increase in warmer weather when people may be in gardens and outdoor spaces. Unresolved complaints about noise could contravene Environmental Protection legislation.

Clock bells chiming are more often the cause of complaints than change ringing. The clock may be set to strike every hour or additionally chime some or all the quarters. Some church clocks still strike and chime 24 hours a day, while many now have an automated system to silence the bells overnight. Adding such a mechanism may be a sensible action as part of the project. Similarly, if the clock is still wound manually, then electric winding may be much appreciated! Electric winding takes up much less space. The weights only move by about a metre so there is no need for a long drop.

It may be feasible to fit sound control “shutters” across louvres and other external openings to restrict the sound levels outside the tower. Rather than fixed installations, it is better to fit sound control that can be opened or closed readily, so that the bells are heard for services and special events but closed for bell ringing practices and longer ringing sessions (these can typically be quarter peals lasting 45 minutes to an hour, or peals lasting over three hours).

Within the tower #

For ringers inside the tower, the bells must be clear as well as audible, but not so loud that “calls” (instructions during the ringing) cannot be heard. This means that the floor below the bells (which may or may not also form the ceiling above the ringing room) may need additional sound insulation. Suitable materials must be used to produce the effect required, but also considering the risks such as from fire and the attraction of pests.

Ringing Room #

The area where the ringers stand to ring the bells is usually of greatest interest for the ringers, but also for other church users particularly when the bells are rung from ground level. While most of the work in the bell project will be further up the tower, the project should also take the opportunity to improve the condition of the Ringing Room, particularly if the bells are a new addition or if the tower has been silent for a long time.

For those involved in the project who are unfamiliar with bell ringing, it is very helpful for them to be shown ringing in a few different towers so that they can see some of the requirements and constraints, potential hazards and risks. Each tower is unique but many factors will be common.

The access, rope draught, ventilation etc are likely to be determined by the existing tower structure, but advice will be provided by the bell hangers, architect and structural engineers. A ground floor ringing room enables disabled or less active ringers or visitors to access. A project is a good opportunity to improve safety at accesses and on staircases; remembering to provide for both routine use and emergency evacuation. Emergency lighting may be an essential addition.

With the covid pandemic, ventilation has become very topical. Windows should be made openable wherever possible to provide sufficient ventilation, while remaining secure. If there is no or very limited natural ventilation, as in some tower structures, then creating a source of fresh air should be considered seriously.

Improved electrical supplies for power tools and lighting may be essential for the duration of the project and additional efficient heating may make the environment more welcoming for ringers who are now accustomed to higher standards than formerly. A guide to improving the tower environment is here.

A project will also offer an opportunity to install training aids such as simulator and / or dumbbell, if not already in place.

Some ringing rooms are open to the whole church, so are draughty and cold, expensive to heat, especially for short periods. Ringing involves physical exercise so ringers will prefer a ringing room to be at a lower temperature than normal domestic room temperatures of 19-20C. However, some heating to take the chill off, especially for those waiting to ring, will be welcome in winter. A glazed screen or partition may be acceptable as part of the design, even heavy full-length curtains (Figure 3) will make a marked difference to the retention of heat and economy.

Full length curtains

Figure 3: Curtains help to keep ringing room warmer in winter

Ringing rooms may be shared by other church users as vestries, storage, meeting spaces or to accommodate other church fixtures such as the clock or monuments. In some projects the layout and users is changed so discussions are essential between other users and experienced ringers to ensure that the space required for ringing remains safe and appropriate. Space needs to be left behind the circle of ropes (and up to ceiling level) for the ringer to stand and ring safely, ideally a metre or more from any other furniture, fixtures or fittings. The circle of space in front of the ringers also should be clear or at most accommodate a low table, for example, that does not obstruct the view across the tower or risk catching ropes.

Even though bells and their larger fittings are likely to only enter and leave the tower every hundred years or more, free space must be left accessible along the whole path vertically through from the bell chamber to ground level. There are instances where a kitchen or other facilities have been constructed so that major work would necessitate the removal of these facilities if work on the bells was to be undertaken!

Agreeing the décor, furniture and fittings in the ringing room will require agreement from all parties; and decisions over colour schemes, floor covering and similar items can lead to some of the lengthiest debates. What seems to be minor detail can often cause heated discussion, such as the colour of a new carpet!

The materials and construction of the walls and flooring may limit what will be approved. Although ringers understand that the area used for ringing may have to be used for other purposes, (storage of choir robes, flower arranging items, Christmas decorations, chairs and tables, other church property), it is inappropriate for the ringers to be expected to move many and substantial items before ringing. Ringing rooms should not be viewed as large empty spaces for the storage of things “…. that might be useful sometime”!

Building a gallery or new ringing room at a higher level may be one of the major outcomes of a project. The height of a ringing room is usually greater than that of a domestic room – probably 12-15ft (4-5m). If very much higher than this, then there may be a recommendation to insert a rope guide (Figure 4), but less than this will make handling the bell ropes difficult.

Rope guide

Figure 4: Rope guide fitted in a tower with a long draught between the ringers and ceiling

The addition or alteration of rope guides requires Faculty permission and advice from the church architect; this is an example of a structural change.

Ringing from the ground floor enables ringers to be better integrated with the church as they are visible. If moving the ringing room to a higher level, then the ringers may then not be visible and feel out of contact. There will be a need for the ringers to have some way of communication with the ground level, for example to see when the bride arrives for a wedding. Installation of a simple battery or electrically operated bell or warning light will be sufficient. A glazed screen is a good way in which a gallery can be enclosed but also enable the ringers to be visible (and warmer in winter!) but with suitable ventilation.

Access #

Access to a new higher level ringing room may be via an existing spiral staircase. If this is not the case and a new staircase is to be created, then space will be occupied, and its style will need to fit. In some towers, a basic set of stairs may be appropriate, but where the staircase will be visible to the church, then an original and more aesthetically pleasing design may be conceived. This is where an architect should be able to exploit their skills, in matching the new work into the existing structure.

Finishing Touches #

Finishing touches are also important – all make the environment more welcoming and helpful for ringers.

It is also worthwhile enabling non-ringers see ringers in action and the bells themselves turning, if possible. If the ringers are not visible, then CCTV and suitable lighting may be installed that show the ringers and bells in use.

Image Credits #

1New galvanised steel walkway. (Photo: Alison Hodge)
2Old timber ladder. (Photo: Alison Hodge)
3Long curtains between ringing room and church. (Photo: Alison Hodge)
4Rope guide. (Photo: Alison Hodge)

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Disclaimer #

Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, neither contributors nor the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers can accept responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any activities undertaken based on the information provided.

Version 1.0.1, February 2024

© 2024 Central Council of Church Bell Ringers