Wed, 17 Jun 2020
Residents and friends of Hampstead Norreys were granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity over the weekend to observe the historic bells of St Mary's Church, before they are removed for restoration work.
The bells – the oldest of which dates from 1619 – were set out inside the church, having been taken down from the belltower by workmen earlier in the week.
Between 10am and 4pm on Saturday and Sunday, visitors were allocated time slots, allowing them to enter St Mary's and view the bells.
They will now be taken to a foundry outside West Berkshire, where major repairs will be carried out.
With the exception of a replacement bell installed in 1930, all the pieces were cast in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the replacement was moulded using metal from a bell dating from 1685.
They have never before been lowered together, therefore the weekend's event was a historic occasion for the village.
In 2018, assessors recommended that St Mary's should stop ringing the bells, due to their age and dilapidated condition.
In November that year, St Mary's was unable to participate fully in the Armistice commemorations, which included the sounding of church bells nationwide. Nor were the bells able to mark the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Therefore, an appeal was launched by the St Mary's Bell Project Team to renovate them.
The restoration is one of the most significant projects of its kind to have ever been commissioned by the Hampstead Norreys community.
It will cost around £75,000 and a large part of this sum is being covered by the Heritage Fund. Other major donors include the Englefield Charitable Trust and Greenham Trust.
Bookings to view the bells were arranged via email and social distancing restrictions were observed, with limited groups permitted access.
Organisers have said that there will be further opportunities to view the bells when they return at the end of the year.
Hampstead Norreys villager and project manager John Craig – who oversaw the removal – said: "It actually went extremely well, bearing in mind that we only had a few days to set it all up, because we didn't know the bells were going to be removed until 10 days before.”
Mr Craig said that despite the short notice, all safety measures were put in place: "It was all done in a bit of a rush, but we organised it with social distancing very much in mind.
"We had eight stations, two-and-a-half metres apart.”
The whole process was recorded on camera and people were on hand to answer questions.
"We had a camera installed in the top of the tower, so we could see them actually removing them out of the bell frame.
"Then we had other cameras where we were able to see them lowering them down through the hatches.
"We had two people inside answering questions.
"We were constantly talking the whole time – we were inundated with questions.
"I would rate it as an exceptionally successful event."