Ringing in the changes at Morpeth’s Clock Tower

Morpeth Clock Tower, Oldgate.
Morpeth Clock Tower, Oldgate.
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Morpeth Clock Tower has had a modern piece of technology installed to keep the ancient tradition of the evening curfew bells alive.

For hundreds of years, the bells have chimed at 8pm each day to mark the end of the day and to tell residents to ‘deaden their fires and retire for the evening’ in readiness for work the next morning.

Now, thanks to £25,000 of funding from Northumberland County Council, a new piece of equipment has been fitted to electrify the existing bells and enable them to peal each night, even if a bell-ringer is unavailable.

Significantly, there is an override function so the bells can still be rung in the traditional way, including at special events such as the Northumbrian Gathering, Fair Day and on Remembrance and Armistice Days.

The upgrade work has also involved the automation of the tower clock to provide highly-accurate timekeeping and save it being wound up manually each week.

Matt Cracknell, ringing master of the Morpeth Clock Tower Bellringers’ Society, said: “Traditionally, the curfew was rung by the young ringers of the society, but there are now restrictions on this because of changes in the insurance criteria which means they need to be accompanied by a responsible adult.

“The society will always aim to ring the curfew manually. The new system will not replace the bell-ringers, but will act as a back-up during periods when ringers are on holiday or unavailable.”

He added: “There are eight bells in the tower and for big occasions we need to find eight people which can sometimes be a problem. The automated system provides us with much greater flexibility.

“Each night, Morpeth residents will continue to hear the same bells as they have always done, but the peal may be carried out automatically instead of manually.”

The Clock Tower, which has previously been used as a gaol and meat store, is a grade II-listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument so the sympathetic modifications have had the required Scheduled Monument Consent from Historic England.

The work was carried out by specialist clockmakers, Smith of Derby. Gavin Macdonald, the technician who worked on the job, said: “It has been a challenging project, as to ensure the bell-ringers could still play the bells we did not want to obstruct the swing of the bells and space was very tight.

“Each bell now has within it a bespoke modified hammer linked to an electronic controller which tells the hammer when to hit the bell. It is a fantastic system that is also programmed to play Christmas carols, hymns, wedding peals and change ringing.”