The Bell Tower

Something a little different today.  This is a transcript of a radio piece I’ve been asked to contribute on a local community radio station, Lionheart Radio based in Alnwick.  Thanks Anna Emmins and Tamsin Davidson!

If this is to be a regular slot, I thought I’d start with something many in Berwick will be familiar with.

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Early postcard of the Bell Tower.

The Bell Tower is the most prominent feature of the old medieval walls in Berwick but like so many familiar features in towns, perhaps many people take it for granted.  When was it built?  And what was it for?  Its a fascinating story that is far from straightforward and has confused many!

For those of you who don’t know Berwick that well, the Bell tower is at the north end of the old town not far from the railway station.  Its a magnificent and rare survivor of this kind of medieval alarm system, saved only because its height was so useful for ships’ navigation along the coast.

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Detail of map (CPM 1:24) from 1561 showing Berwick Castle and the north medieval walls.  The original semi-circular tower on the site of the Bell Tower is circled.  Note the projecting “murderer” gun platform.  Lord’s Mount is the large circular tower to the right.

The tower is an octagonal structure built using locally quarried pink sandstone in a series of four visible tiers.  At first glance, it appears to have been built on top of an embankment but that’s not quite true as we’ll see.

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The Bell Tower from behind the countermure.

The upper two floors have windows facing north, south, east and west and on the second floor above the embankment, there are blocked up doors on the east and west faces that once led out to the sentry walk around the walls.  Above the doors are recesses which once held decorative coats-of-arms. Over the west door were the three lions of England but the other is unknown. These were lost only in the 19th century.

In the 16th century there were four bell towers or “day watch houses” as they are often referred to – one in each quarter of the town – and this was probably the case in earlier years.  The first mention of one is in 1388 when a chap called John of Derby is paid the princely sum of £40 to supply Berwick with cannon and “bells called watch bells”.

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Black Watch House Tower overlooking the river, possibly another bell tower.

In 1538, a surveyors report of the walls and castle was written, listing all the towers and their sizes and what condition they are in – usually pretty ropey.  And among all these towers is a bell tower.  But its not our bell tower!  In 1538 the bell tower was in the north east corner of the walls, a site about 90m to the east of our bell tower now occupied by the large gun emplacement, Lords Mount.

In 1907, Francis Norman, a retired naval commander and benefactor of the town wrote an early tourist guide and describes the bell tower as having the base of an earlier tower inside!  So what’s that all about?

A few years ago I was allowed to go inside the Bell Tower – a bit of a tight squeeze for someone my size.  I thought this base would be right down at the bottom of the tower but its not.  Its circular and comes up to the bottom of the doors – the height of the sentry walk.

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Inside the Bell Tower showing the “base” of an earlier tower.  Note the threshold of the west door.

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Inside the Bell Tower looking south.

The other problem is that this early base and the bell tower straddle the walls whereas the early medieval towers were semicircular and were in front of the main wall.

The other clue is in 1568 when the Elizabethan walls were being built, we are told the old walls were lowered in height to 17 feet – the height of the bottom of the doors from the ground.  So what I reckon happened is this:

  • Originally there was a 30 feet high wall with a semicircular tower on that spot.
  • In the 15th century an earthwork that we think of as the embankment was built up behind the wall to strengthen it against enemy cannon fire.
  • In 1540, Lord’s Mount was built and the original bell tower demolished.  The nearby semi-circular tower was adapted or replaced with a full circular one though map evidence suggests the rebuild did not occur until the early 1560s.
  • By 1568, the walls and this tower were lowered to 17 feet.
  • Then in 1577 we get the first description of our tower:

ʻthe day watch tower is rebuilt in rough stone in eight cantes [meaning sides], 26 feet high above the walls, and 14 feet in timber above the same stone a work, surmounting the old tower six feet in heightʼ.

  • Many years later with the degradation of the curtain wall, the earthwork slumped forward giving the appearance of an ordinary embankment.

A short animation showing these changes can be seen here.

A 17th century painting hanging in Berwick Town Hall shows the present Bell Tower in this original form with the wooden structure of the campanile seen rising from the stone structure.

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Detail of Town Hall 17th century painting showing the Bell Tower in its original form.

In the 1620s an account also gives us a good idea how the signalling system worked.

‘[Berwick] hath five goodly Gates, a Watch Tower called the Bell Tower which gave warneing by towleing a Bell at the sight of any Shipps and did hang out a Flagg giveing as many towles as there were Shipps, and such like if they espied any horsemen within our Bounders.’ 

In other words, if you were on watch duty and you saw three ships sailing from the north, you’d ring the bell three times and point the flag in their direction.  If you saw six horsemen coming over Halidon Hill, you’d ring the bell six times and point the flag north.  And if you saw a couple of hundred horsemen riding up the valley I guess you’d just ring it like crazy and hope someone heard!

Incidentally, you had to be on your toes.  Wo betide anyone caught napping on duty.  Instant sentence of death!

In 1619 the bell had been sold by the Berwick Guild to one John Durie of Burntisland in Fife for £36.10s.. The tower’s bell was replaced in 1639 after Government criticism. A bell, recast in 1677, believed locally to have come from Berwick, is displayed in the former burgh chambers in Burntisland, Fife.

In 1799 Dr Fuller suggests that further storeys be added and:

“the furnishing of it with a proper telescope would answer the purpose, 1st of a useful observatory in time of war, 2dly, of an excellent landmarks for ships at sea, and 3dly of a great ornament to the town.”

At some point in the late 19th century, the doors were blocked up.

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Early 19th century sketch of the Bell Tower looking east.  The doors are unblocked.  Some degradation of the top tier has occurred.  Note Lord’s Mount in the background.  This was filled with earth until an archaeological excavation in the 1970s.

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Sketch of the west side of the Bell Tower by J. C. Buckler (1877). Note the extra tier exposed on the right side. The top tier has been restored.

In the late 19th century the Town Council wanted to demolish the tower and fragments of the north wall for a housing development. Fortunately, public recognition of the importance of the tower led to a campaign for its preservation. The extant parts of the north wall were leased to the Government in 1904.

Further consolidation of the tower took place in 1992.

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