For the benefit of anyone who has not seen the bells in Chilham church, they are mounted in a steel frame at the top of the tower. There are eight bells in total, the heaviest acting as a chime for the church clock. This is why the clock does not strike when the bells are prepared for ringing – such as before a wedding.
Each bell is mounted on a kind of cranked axle called a headstock, and at one side there is a large wooden wheel with a rope round it which passes through the floor to the room below. When the rope is pulled from below, it causes the wheel, and thus the bell, to turn full circle, first clockwise, then anti-clockwise.
Bells are numbered from the lightest (called the Treble) to the heaviest (the Tenor). When No.4 was recast in 1810, it almost certainly utilised the metal of a previous bell from 1760, as we know that five bells were cast in that year from five even earlier bells, one of which had been exchanged for one from the near-by church at Wye. In those days it was normal for the bell-founder to travel to the church, and to cast the bells on site, usually in or near to the churchyard. There are even records of this being done inside the church in some places.
As has already been explained, these bells are turned full circle when they are rung. In doing so the bell is struck just before it reaches the top of its stroke, thus the sound is thrown outwards for maximum effect. It is not uncommon for this sound to be heard over a mile away.
This is very much an English system. There are many bells that are swung back and forth (chimed), and many that are fixed with the clapper pulled against the bell, or struck by an external hammer. Of the 5,000 or so rings of bells hung for full-circle ringing, all but 70 or so are in this country. Almost all of the others are in areas of English settlement, such as America, Australia and South Africa.
Most towers have five, six or eight bells, although some have only four, and others as many as ten or twelve. Canterbury Cathedral has fourteen, but no more than twelve are rung at any one time.
Although there are extremes, it is common for the tenor in an eight bell tower to weigh between 15 and 20 cwt. Ours at 18 ¾ cwt. is, therefore, just a little above average. The local extremes must be St. Alphage Whitstable at 3 cwt. and the Cathedral at 34 cwt.
Our bells are really only youngsters in comparison with some towers! The tenor at St. Margaret’s church at Rainham (near Gillingham) was cast in 1582 and was being rung six years before the sailing of the Spanish Armada! On the other hand both Taylors of Loughborough (who cast our three smallest bells) and the Whitechapel Bell foundry (Britain’s oldest manufacturing company) are still casting bells today.
With our large and reasonably weather-free ringing chamber Chilham is very popular with visiting bands of ringers, and local people will often near the bells being rung outside the resident band’s regular practice evenings.
It can be seen that what we have in Chilham is by no means unique, but we certainly a have a ring of bells to be proud of. They are a legacy from the past that we must preserve for generations to come.