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Security watch keeps village church bells awaiting repair safe from thieves

PUBLISHED: 11:59 30 November 2019

Hitcham parishoners celebrating the £100,000 grant award from the National Lottery Heritage Fund back in the summer Picture: FRIENDS OF ALL SAINTS CHURCH

Hitcham parishoners celebrating the £100,000 grant award from the National Lottery Heritage Fund back in the summer Picture: FRIENDS OF ALL SAINTS CHURCH

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Villagers kept a 24-hour security watch to keep their church bells safe from thieves after they were lowered gently to the ground ready to be restored in a £230,000 lottery-backed project.

Left to right, Henry and William Hurford, Georgina Hurford, Doreen Seeley, Melanie Hek with Isla and Imogen Hek at the event to make the lowering of the bells at All Saints Church, Hitcham Picture: NICOLA CURRIELeft to right, Henry and William Hurford, Georgina Hurford, Doreen Seeley, Melanie Hek with Isla and Imogen Hek at the event to make the lowering of the bells at All Saints Church, Hitcham Picture: NICOLA CURRIE

With one bell cracked and the headstock in poor repair, it was a precarious time for the workers at All Saints' Church, Hitcham.

Project co-ordinator Nicola Currie said: "First volunteers from the village cleared two tonnes of detritus from the belfry floor so the trap in the floor could be opened.

"The Suffolk Guild of Ringers provided an experienced team to detach the bells from their fittings and then lower them the 46 feet to the bottom of the tower. We are extremely grateful to the guild for their help which has saved the project over £6,000.

"We knew that the headstock (the thick piece of wood from which a bell hangs) on one of the bells was becoming unsound so had already chocked up the bell.

The bells ready for their journey at All Saints, Hitcham PIcture: NICOLA CURRIEThe bells ready for their journey at All Saints, Hitcham PIcture: NICOLA CURRIE

"Sure enough once it was lowered and the metal straps were removed the headstock came to pieces in our hands. It turned out that the headstock holding up the tenor bell, the heaviest at 18cwt was also starting to crack so it's a very good thing the project has the go ahead. Modern metal headstocks will now be fitted."

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The village staged a 24-hour security watch in the church while the bells were on the ground until they left for the safety of John Taylor's Bell Foundry in Loughborough for their restoration, to which the Heritage National Fund is giving a £100,000 grant. Builders Cubitt Theobald have moved in to begin to install the new ringing floor which is being positioned where once there was a musicians' gallery.

The bells which have not been rung full circle for 100 years are being restored and rehung in in a new bell frame with a new ringing floor, leaving the rare 16th century bell frame preserved in situ.

Declan Oxford with the tenor bell at Hitcham church Picture: NICOLA CURRIEDeclan Oxford with the tenor bell at Hitcham church Picture: NICOLA CURRIE

The project is called Restoring Henslow's Bells after the Rev Professor John Stevens Henslow, the church's most famous rector who was Charles Darwin's mentor and tutor. He installed two of the bells in 1837 to mark Queen Victoria's coronation.

The six bells which date from 1697 had not been lowered since that date.

More than 200 people visited All Saints to see the bells before they left, and enjoy a photo competition, crafts and refreshments.

"It was a wonderful afternoon which brought the whole village together," said the Rev Tiffer Robinson, Hitcham's Rector. "The project will also build a room at the base of the church tower in which we plan to install an equal access WC and servery so that the building can be used by the wider community.

"One of the large, grade one listed 14th to 15th century building's greatest assets is the sense of light and space, it's what everyone comments on when they visit the church for the first time. The organ which used to block the west window has been moved as part of the work, letting even more light stream in."

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