Wells Cathedral

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“Noisiest of the unseen servants of the Cathedral, but least heard of, are the ringers.” Thus began a pamphlet entitled ‘Wells Bells’ – an extract from the Friends of Wells Cathedral report from 1971.

Wells Cathedral has the heaviest ring of ten bells in the world. The tenor bell, known as ‘Harewell’, weighs 56¼ cwt and is the fifth heaviest ringing bell in the world following the tenors of the rings of twelve at Liverpool Cathedral (82cwt), Exeter Cathedral (72½ cwt), St. Paul’s, London (62 cwt) and York Minster (59¼ cwt). The ring is in the key of C. All the bells are housed in the southwest, or Harewell Tower to which the bells have been moved in stages. There also exist the clock bells (hung in the central tower and north transept) and three recently added chiming bells (“Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity”) used as service bells and to ring the Angelus and hung in the north-west tower.

Three clock bells also exist that chime the quarters – these are controlled by one of the oldest medieval clocks in the North Transept above the Virgers’ office. The hour bell is at the top of the central tower, while the quarters are outside near the north porch. A small bell also chimes the quarters inside, operated by Jack Blandiver next to the medieval clock face in the north transept. The pub “The Quarter Jack” in Wells is named after him.

Bells appear to have been hung in the lantern, i.e. the lower portion of the central tower, soon after it was built (c 1215 – 1220). It is frequently referred to as the ‘Belfry’ from 1297 onwards, at a time when it rose no higher than the level of the main roof. Work on raising the central tower began in about 1315, and it was roofed in 1322 – almost certainly with a lead-covered spire destroyed by fire in 1438. By 1338 the sinking of the foundations on the West side caused it to crack and the bells Peter, Dunston, Bytton and ‘the small bell’ were transferred to a temporary bell-tower ‘near the Deanery’. This may have been the base of the Northwest tower, or in a wooden bell-cage on the green. The latter seems more likely since repairs were later necessary to the wooden ladder on the ‘old Northern bell-tower’. Since the Western towers have good stone stairs there would not appear to be any need for wooden ladders.

During his lifetime, Bishop Harewell gave two-thirds of the cost of the Southwest tower. He also gave two bells, the new tenor, known as Great Harewell, and another called Little Harewell. In 1414-5 all six bells were hung or rehung in the South-West tower.

The Cathedral bells are based on a set of eight cast by Abel Rudhall in 1757. The bells were augmented to ten in 1891 by the addition of two Whitechapel trebles and installed in a new iron framework by Blackbourne and Greenleaf of Salisbury.

The successful addition of a new rope guide for the front 6 bells and new decor in December 2016 is the latest work to be completed in the tower.

Points of interest in the ringing chamber are:

  • 10 holes in the ceiling (behind 7th and 8th bells) also lining up with similar holes in the floor allowed tunes to be chimed on the bells from another chamber lower in the tower. These ropes have not been fitted in living memory.
  • Two holes below 4th and 5th bells that allowed these bells to be chimed from the ground floor for midweek services when the other bells were not rung. This chiming became redundent when Faith, Hope and Charity were installed at the end of the 20th century (apart from a short period when the chiming mechanism of these bells broke).
  • Speaking tubes (plus matching whistles) to allow communication between the ringing chamber and the belfry and also between the ringing chamber and tower entrance. These are now not used. Communication with the tower entrance is instead via a buzzer and associated intercom.

Dove’s Guide for Church Bellringers gives details of each of the bells (opens in a new window)

The ringers at Wells Cathedral are affiliated to the Glaston Branch of the Bath and Wells Diocesan Association of Church Bell Ringers

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