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Restoration of Cuddesdon Church Bells - June 2018

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An update from Keith Hawley on the restoration of the bells and bell frame at All Saints Church Cuddesdon 



All Saints Church Cuddesdon dates from the 12th century with additions in the medieval period and later extensive restoration, especially in Victorian times. It has many fine features illustrating different periods of architectural history and the influence exerted by the Bishops of Oxford who lived in Cuddesdon until very recently. It has, for example, a bishop’s throne and memorials to important ecclesiastical figures.

Although located in the church, the bells of Cuddesdon are fondly regarded by the local community as community assets, regardless of faith or none. They have been a symbol of unity in our community and rung in celebration of national and local events for four centuries. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of walking in the Cuddesdon water meadows in 1918 and listening to the Cuddesdon bells ringing out the armistice. We want his spirit to hear them again at the 100th anniversary of the armistice in November 2018.


Need for the project

The bells are hung in a seventeenth century frame and the earliest bells still in use date to 1617. They were added to in the 18th century. They are thus of great historic interest and being weighty bells make a fine rich sound, but some 16 years ago, following an inspection of the frame, the Parochial Church Council who are the custodians of the bells understood them to be unsafe. Unable to afford conservation due to pressing priorities with the fabric of the church, including a leaky roof, the bell ringing team was disbanded, and the bells were taken out of use.

The PCC were keen to restore the bells and bell frame since there is great local interest in achieving this, especially from people who are unable to travel far and for whom hearing the bells again will be a treat and a comfort.

A status report commissioned from Whitechapel Foundry concluded that, although in need of urgent attention, with diligent monitoring the bells could safely be used pending the needed remedial work. After only several uses however there were renewed problems making them unfit for general use. The work identified as needing to be done comprised:

• Hatches being created in the floors of the bell chamber and clock chamber in the tower to bring the bells down to the ringing chamber. An arched recess in the wall between the ringing chamber and the north transept to be re-opened. This is the avenue created in Victorian times for removal of bells but until now has been completely closed off.

• The organ being covered, and scaffolding erected over it to enable the bells to be lowered to the ground.

• A specialist team of bell hangers removing the bells from the bell chamber, lowering them to the ground and transporting them to the works.

• Casting a replacement treble. This was cast at Whitechapel foundry and was one of the last to be made before the foundry closed.

• Tuning the new treble together with the other five bells and preparing them be re hung. Cannons to be retained on the earlier bells.

• Bell frame in the bell tower to be reinforced and the whole frame structure and housing thoroughly cleaned and treated with preservative.

• The bell ringing chamber to be completely renovated and decorated. We intend to panel part of it and provide it with adequate lighting, heating, and spaces to record ringing events of potential historic significance.

• The bells returned to Cuddesdon and re hung in the bell chamber with all new fittings.

• The removal route safely closed.

Since all the above work was planned we experienced two major problems:

• The tenor was found to have cracks at the top requiring specialist welding at a cost of almost £4000

• The beam in the ringing chamber ceiling was found to be rotten requiring replacement of the entire ceiling.


Who is doing the work?

The work is being supervised and directed by the Church Architect who was appointed to supervise the ongoing major restorative works on the church funded largely by the Heritage Lottery Fund. He was appointed after a tendering process and has been very helpful in identifying how the conservation works on the bells can be organised. He is fully qualified in conservation and has an excellent record. He works closely with the churchwarden appointed as project manager by the PCC, who is extremely knowledgeable of the history and present-day conservation requirements of the church.

The contractor creating the route for removal/replacement of bells and all other building work is a local firm also appointed following a tendering process to carry out the restoration work that started in September 2016. The managing director has freely given his time and expertise to help us advance this project.

We had very limited options for commissioning the work on the bells and intended using the Whitechapel Foundry. They had been very helpful in identifying what needs to be done and cost effective in the preliminary work carried out for us. They were fully conversant with the frame and the bells, and were sympathetic to the conservation needs. Their sympathy for maintaining the existing frame contrasted with other opinions that it should be ripped out and replaced with a metal frame, something which we believed would not find favour with conservationists and would be a great loss of local architectural history. The Whitechapel foundry closed however after 400 years at the time we confirmed our ability to complete a contract with them and they were unable to take a commission to carry out the main works. Instead they arranged for local bell hangers, Whites of Appleton, to do all that is required working to the specification agreed with Whitechapel. Whites and Whitechapel had worked closely together for many years.


Costing and available funds

The cost of the work has escalated from around £70,000 which was our original estimate to just over £100,000. This results from us having to meet additional costs which could not have been anticipated. We still believe that we have value for money however since all the additional work, especially to the ceiling of the ringing chamber, was necessary and if the need for it had not been identified at this point it would have been far more expensive to deal with it in the future and would have been a major health and safety issue in the meantime!

The cost of the work is being met from a combination of grants, personal donations, and fundraising events and at this point around £85,000 has been secured.


Progress and what still needs to be done.

All the main work has been completed and the route in and out for the bells bricked in.

• Whites still need to remove rot from parts of the frame and treat it with resin, attach the clappers, install new ropes and test ring.

• Local volunteers will panel one wall of the ringing chamber and complete the decorations.

We envisage that all the work will be completed in the next few weeks.

Although the PCC will be asked to meet all liabilities that become due we do need to try and raise the shortfall of up to £15,000. This is to ensure that the PCC have sufficient reserves to enable planning for further conservation work to take place. Recent surveys suggest that at least another £500,000 would be needed to fully restore the Church and safe guard its long-term future.        


The project is part of an intention to protect Cuddesdon’s heritage but specifically a response to concern that the bells have been silent for too long and that people want to hear them, especially on special occasions – weddings, Sundays, jubilee celebrations and national events. The work is now almost complete, and the bells should certainly be ringing to mark the anniversary of the end of WW1 which was an original motivating factor.

If we could complete the fundraising in the same period that would be most satisfying!

Keith Hawley
June 2018