Tower, Clock & Bells

Picture of Church TowerThe tower of St. Mary's Parish Church is an important feature of an imposing group of buildings in the centre of Barnard Castle. At the junction of Newgate, the Market Place and The Bank, the towers tall rectangular shape contrasts with the octagonal Butter Market and the triangular gables along the roof of Barclay's Bank, making an impressive set of geometrical shapes.

The church was not always so prominent. At first it probably had no tower at all and even when, in 1874, the present tower was built, its lower half was hidden by tw-storey buildings which stood on the corner of Newgate and The Bank. These buildings formed Amen Corner, a name which suggests an association with the building they obscured. They were demolished in 1933.

When created in the first of of the 12th Century, the church was a rather simple rectangular building, but by the second half of the 14th Century it had both tower and spire. The tower itself may have been quite squat, but the spire, which was roofed in lead, was very tall, slender and elegant. The spire survived for about 450 years before it became unsafe and had to be dismantled. The Church's spire must have been impressive to many generations of inhabitants of the growing town, and during that time the roof-level of the church was considerably raised.

In an attempt to compensate for the loss of a tall spire, the tower itself was raised to sixty feet high, and on top of that a towerlet was built with a pyramidic roof.

The new tower, nevertheless, lacked the distinction of the old spire and, moreover, the towerlet with its pointed roof was removed after only a few years. The tower itself stood for about another hundred years as a feature of the church until 1868.

Towers do not merely enhance the appearance of their church, but perform the important function of housing the clock and the bells. Further details of the clock may be found by clicking here, and details of the bells by clicking here.

The bells were, however, silent by necessity from 23rd October 1868 until 17th July 1874, the condition of the old tower having been found to be so weak that it was considered unsafe to ring the bells. The whole church was undergoing restoration at that time and extra funds for a new tower could not be quickly raised, but after the foundation stone was laid, on 17th July 1873, progress was so rapid that the tower was completed within a year.

It was eighty feet high(twenty feet higher than its predecessor) and, unlike the old tower, it had an external door which gave access to the main building, so the entrance to the tower became the entrance to the church; the font was moved there so the tower's ground floor became the baptistry, thus becoming the symbolic as well as the physical entrance to the church.

The ringing chamber is accessed by a spiral staircase, and, unusually in an anti-clockwise direction; a total of 39 steps!

Information  source: "St. Mary's Tower Clock and Bells" by Alan Wilkinson/Peter Wise and Dave Bailey