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May 16, 2012, 04:08 PM


By Lawrence Skilling

Climbing St John's Church bell tower [photo ©L Skilling

Kent, UK - Our latest job in St John's, Chatham in Kent involved getting a sanctuary lamp down from its high position above the nave. The only way we could do it was by balancing a very tall stepladder on top of the main altar and then unhooking the weights, chains and all.

The height was not so great, only about 16 or 17 feet, but there was that moment one step from the top when the vertigo kicked in. It was the bit where I had to twist around, try and lift this thing that weighs the same as a pretty heavy suitcase off its chain and at that point the ladder quivered and flexed. I looked down and there was Mick and Kevin holding the base of the ladder and instead of feeling comforted, I just have this realisation of how they would be if I overbalanced, tumbled and smashed my back on the encaustic tiles below.

Kevin, the fireman, would immediately go into professional mode with well practiced platitudes from some government manual, would make a neck brace from a section of pew and then call the emergency services using some special insider code. Mick, on the other hand, who is quite emotional, would probably start crying out, "Oh my God! I knew this was going to happen! He's paralysed isn't he?!"

Both scenarios were equally awful. "I can't do this…", I murmured, and clambered down. In an instant, the 18 stone Kevin took my place on the ladder, raced up it and claimed the lamp.
My cowardice bothered me.

The next morning before anyone else arrived I resolved to climb the bell tower; this was the only way to reclaim my mojo and kick out that wimpy punk ass bitch ladder wobbler. The way up involved four stages. First one, up to the centre gallery with the rotten floor; second up the 25/30 foot vertical pigeon-filth encrusted ladder up to the trapdoor. This took a couple of attempts.

The first time, I bottled it when I realised how stiff the trapdoor was and that one had to shove it all the way over whilst hanging onto the ladder with the other hand. When I finally managed this, I peered into the dark space that housed the church clock. It was rank and to enter it I would have to haul myself over the lip of the hatchway, my body dangling over the drop. The floor up there might be rotten or it might not. There might be a carpet of pigeon carcasses to sink my hands into. Maybe adventurous, high-altitude rats feeding on the dead pigeons.

I climbed down again. Then I realised that what I had to was physically the same as when I climb into my mother-in-laws attic and that wasn't so bad. I climbed up very quickly, without ever looking down, pushed the now loosened hatch open and dragged myself up into the first tower chamber, all the time muttering 'Grandmas Attic, Grandmas Attic' under my breath.

From there to the actual bell chamber involved another small staircase and one last, very ricketty, very long ladder but I managed this with the help of my new mantra. I figured even a very rotten ladder wouldn't completely disintegrate - a rung might snap but the side supports surely wouldn't just separate leaving me to plummet another 20 feet onto the dank platform below where no-one would hear my screams.

As I admired the bells which probably no-one had seen or rung for 20 years or more (we first quoted on this church 10 years ago and it had been shut for ages before that) I realised that if someone had said "You can have the bells if you want" I'd have to confess that looking at them was the very best that I was going to manage. Not that English Heritage, The Victorian Society et al would sanction such a thing - this was yet another one of those buildings that was going to have to be destroyed by arsonist vandals before anything positive could happen to the site.

I peered through openings to the streets below and felt pleased with myself. But the fear did not go. Even though I knew the floors and ladders were solid I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was close to dying in some way. The wind that whistled around the tower seemed more powerful than anything man could muster. Why shouldn't it blow this ancient structure down? Everyone said that the building was basically in a state of near collapse. At times it seemed as though the gusts of wind were making the tower sway. Looking at the sea in the distance I realised that to crack a neurosis like this I would have to get a job as a bloody steeplejack.

Back on the ground, I was thinking about how quiet the tower was, just like all long abandoned buildings, when our new team arrived for the day.

"What have you been doing?" one of them asked.

"Just sorting things out," I replied.

Antique Church Furnishings

Story Type:  Columnist

ID: 66688

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