SLIDESHOW: Bell festival prepares for Archbishop’s special visit

The tiny village of Middlesmoor is getting ready to welcome a very special guest to next month’s Bell Festival.

The festival which has been taking place for 145 years and the village which has a population of 40, will play host to the second most important figure in the Church of England, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu. Harrogate Advertiser Series Upper Nidderdale correspondent Jan Robinson finds out more about the history of the event.

The Bell Festival in 1914. (S)

The Bell Festival in 1914. (S)

There is something quite unique about Middlesmoor Bell Festival. Significant in the fact that the dual celebration is a rarity combining a commemoration of the installation of church bells with a children’s festival.

Its inception came 145 years ago in 1868 when Mary Ann Barkwith gifted the Middlesmoor community with a peal of six bells for St Chad’s Church. The generous donation was in memory of her great-uncle, Simon Horner (1735-1829), who was born in the village then became a prosperous merchant in Hull.

Simon Horner had been a true benefactor to the small Upper Dale community. He built a school on his own land, which was endowed in 1803, granted an annual sum of £20 to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to 14 of the poorest children in the township of Stonebeck Up.

However, he held a long-standing desire for the church to have a good peal of bells, although this was never achieved in his lifetime.

So, in 1868, his great-niece fulfilled his ambition. St Barnabas Day, June 11, was selected as the day of celebration and has been an important date in the Upper Dale’s calendar ever since.

It also held another personal meaning for Mrs Barkwith, as the date of her mother, Ursula Reynard and eldest sister, Rachel Whitaker’s birthdays.

The Middlesmoor villagers were very proud of their new bells and on June 11, 1868, the first peal was rung at 1pm by visiting bell-ringers from Sharow, near Ripon and the traditional procession was born as clergy, teachers, choir, churchwardens, stewards and children marched down the village to the church singing a hymn.

Emulating her great-uncle, Mrs Barkwith also attended to the village children’s needs. She arranged sporting events and a substantial tea. She also had the foresight to provide a small legacy for future occasions on the condition that no rude games were permitted.

A comprehensive history of the Bell Festival can be found in Dinah Lee’s book - A Stone’s-throw from Heaven. Ex-Middlesmoor resident Dinah, organised the event for 40 years. She writes: “Churchwardens and officials wore brown ribbons, and bore the initials UR (Ursula Reynard) and RI (Rachel Whitaker).

The children enjoyed various sports, then afterwards it was the adults’ turn, often indulging in the tug-of-war, wheelbarrow race, greasy pole competition and fell race. It was the highlight of the year.” Catering arrangements were taken seriously. Personal status could be enhanced if the important role of tray holder was bestowed upon them. The holder would be responsible for a table with the objective to present a good tray - containing teapot, milk, sugar, etc. However, competition as to who could provide the best tray, was stiff, the winner’s piece de resistance often being the use of a silver teapot!

The peal of six bells were constructed by Messrs Blew & Sons, Birmingham, at a cost of between 500 - 600 guineas and with a combined weight of over two tons.

In 1981, Lyn & Chris Robson and their children, Alice and Kevin, joined four of the remaining local team and started ringing for weddings.

It was not until 1994 that a regular team was set up, a revival organised by local builder, Martin Holmes. Chris Robson was designated as Ringing Master and still rings the changes with the present day team.

In 2000 it was realised the bells required repair. Once the Millennium was welcomed in ringers travelled from all over Yorkshire to help with the bells’ removal from St Chad’s tower to Whitechapel in London.

In the meantime, Martin Holmes and his team constructed a new frame, floor and a splendid wooden staircase up to the church’s ringing chamber.

Bell Festival secretary, Angela Raynard, no relation to Ursula said: “The tradition and routine has not changed over the years and will remain the same as we celebrate our 145th anniversary on Saturday, June 8.

“This year the church service will be taken by a very special guest - the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. Under the guidance of headteacher, Milena Vjestica, the Lofthouse schoolchildren invited the Archbishop, who was very pleased to accept.”

The excitement is now mounting in readiness for our VIP visitor. Games and stalls are being organised and the lengthy list for teas prepared. Mary Ann Barkwith would, no doubt, have been delighted.