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The Best Kept Tower Competition

First published in August 2002.

With the Best Will in the World...

It all started back in 1992 when the bells were recast. In an honourable effort to brighten up our Ringing Room to go with the new bells the thick lime plaster was removed from the stone walls, and the lower parts – which were mainly plaster with wooden top and skirting – were repainted. However, since then, redecoration seemed to have taken a "back seat" to the ringing of the bells. The lighting was improved on the tower steps in 1995 and in the Ringing Room itself in 1997, however something needed to be done with the clock movement.

The original position of the movement on the south wall of the Ringing Room meant that no light could get in through the south window, and also that any tall ringers on the back three bells (sixth, seventh and Tenor) had to mind their heads. Our aim was to open up the window once more and provide more space in the Ringing Room for the ringers. The amazing thing was that we managed to continue our normal pattern of ringing throughout the entire process.

Work restarted with a vengeance in 1999. The first step was to remove the red and white pinstripe carpet that had quite literally caused many a headache over the years; then to remove the old wooden casing from the clock movement to give us some access, after which the movement itself was lowered to the Ringing Room floor and dismantled, the various wheels and such like being placed into cardboard boxes. One of the floor-to-ceiling cupboards that had contained one of the clock weights was also removed. The original weights dropped all the way to the floor of the church porch below and had to be wound back up every week by hand, but a pair of electric motors (one for the going train, one for the striking train) and considerably smaller weights were installed some years back to take over that job.

The new clock case mounted on steel beams and brackets - click for the full-size versionWith the clock out of the way we were able to chip and scrape the remainder of the lime plaster from the stonework behind where the clock case used to be. The walls were then treated with several coats of PVA to seal in the dust. Eventually, the time came for the clock to be rebuilt again in its new position, resting on two steel box-section beams which were suspended between a pair of heavy-duty steel brackets, themselves bolted to the wall. This meant that the entire movement, including the steel beams, was above the top of the window with the pendulum swinging across the opening. Both of the clock weights now dropped down inside the one remaining floor-to-ceiling cupboard, even then only coming down half-way.

A wooden framework was built around the clock movement and beams, and the entire structure was clad with pine tongue-and-groove including a perpex-fronted case below the clock to protect the pendulum. This somewhat obstructed access to the window, but at least the light could now filter through. Ironically, before long we found ourselves hanging a blind in that same window to keep the sun out of our eyes!

The lower part of the walls was also clad with tongue-and-groove – it was attached horizontally, rather than the more common vertical orientation, in an attempt to make the room seem larger. This worked well, however the old door, which is constructed from three vertical planks, now looks comparatively tall and narrow. This door, along with any other woodwork in the room which wasn't tongue-and-groove, was given a finish of chocolate brown paint which complemented the reddish-brown stonework and pine cladding. Blue carpet tiles were laid soon after, completing the look.

But that was by no means the end of the story.

Determination and Renovation

There are some things that a Tower Secretary should simply not be expected to do, and DIY in a pokey stairwell is most definitely one of them. Although to be fair I suppose it was my own fault – I did offer, after all.

When the information came through in December 2001 about the Best Kept Tower Competition, I knew straight away that we should enter. Due to a delay in the paperwork we only had a few weeks to decide whether we would enter or not, and after that a matter of months before the judging was due to take place. Time was short, but after spending so much time and effort on the Ringing Room over the past two years, I finally persuaded the Tower Captain, Ryan Price, to agree to us entering. Then one quick email to the Branch Secretary, Tony York, and work had begun once more.

View down the tower steps following removal of the lime plaster from the stone walls - click for the full-size versionThe first – and biggest – task was to make the tower steps match the Ringing Room – in other words, to remove the thick lime plaster from the walls. Nobody was very keen on undertaking that massive project so, realising that if it wasn't done now it probably never would be, I offered to do it myself. Luckily for me a lot of the plaster was loose and just fell off as soon as I looked at it, but there was one rather large patch which had been redone with cement at some time and that was hard going.

As in most old spiral staircases, space was considerably tight. Dust and grit filled the air, not to mention covering the steps. If we'd left the rubble where it fell we could almost have turned it into a rather dusty helter-skelter, but that would have made access to the Ringing Room rather difficult so of course it all had to be shifted. Thankfully I wasn't alone in this matter, and I am indebted to the Tower Captain and Treasurer, Ryan and Eileen Price, for all their help with the clearing up.

I was stuck chipping and scraping those walls for almost two weeks solid, but the result was more than worth the effort. A couple of coats of PVA later and it almost looked like it had always been bare stonework... almost. We also took the opportinuty to tidy up the wiring and installed new lighting in the stairwell to replace the two previous (and rather unsuitable) lights. The outside door at the bottom of the steps was stripped of paint, had its cracks filled, and then got a couple of coats of the same chocolate brown paint that had been used in the Ringing Room – quite an interesting task in the wind, rain and darkness while the lighting was being done. Needless to say, though, the whole lot looked a hundred times better.

The newly-repainted door to the tower steps - click for the full-size versionAs well as being stuck on the tower steps, I also spent quite a bit of time crawling around the surprisingly dusty bell chamber. It seemed that no sooner had we finshed clearing up the dust from the floor than it needed doing again, though I had the most fun repainting the part of the bell frame which caught all the weather, and catching all the weather myself in the process. More cold wind, rain, and a lack of proper lighting – the bulb had blown in the floodlight, leaving us with just an old fluorescent strip light – don't make ideal conditions for painting, or for anything else for that matter.

Finally, we had completed almost everything we had on our list. There were (and probably still are, to be honest) a couple of things yet to be done, but they would have to wait – the Judgement Day (excuse the religious pun) was upon us. We shifted everything out of the Ringing Room that shouldn't have been there, such as a big tub of stone paint and the stump from last year's church Christmas tree (don't ask – I didn't), into the church porch below. Then on the day, the judges arrived half an hour earlier than we were expecting them. Luckily Ryan had arrived a little before them, hoping to do a final quick clean-up before they turned up, but there wasn't time for that. They went straight to work, peering into all the nooks and crannies, and making copious notes all the while.

They were all up in the belfry when I arrived. When they came down they revealed that we were already through to the final four, then we wished them a safe journey home and crossed our fingers. We had over a month to wait before the result was announced at the Association AGM in April and, as it turned out, I was the only one from Mangotsfield who could attend.

I was on the edge of my seat for the first part of the meeting, eagerly eyeing up the impressive trophy on the front table. After sitting through the results of no fewer than two striking competitions, the time came for them to announce the winner of the Best Kept Tower Competition. In true competition style the results were read out in reverse order. In third place: Hempsted, Gloucester Branch. In second place: Great Rissington, Forest Branch. And in first place, for putting in the most effort: Mangotsfield, Bristol Rural Branch – we'd won!

For the next year that "impressive trophy" took pride of place in the west window of the Ringing Room. The accompanying certificate, however, spent the best part of that year in a plastic document wallet, hanging by a paperclip from a nail in the wall, though it was eventually given a smart wooden frame (albeit oversized – trust me to buy one too big!). The following April I was once again at the Association AGM, this time to hand over the trophy to the winners of the 2003 competition, Wroughton (Swindon Branch). I'm proud to say I had a hand in them winning, too, though in a considerably different capacity – I was on the judging panel.