THEY have been ringing through the town for centuries but for the next six months the chime of the abbey bells will be missing from Romsey.

Crowds have gathered in Romsey Abbey to catch a glimpse of the historic bells as a major operation gets under way to restore them to their former glory. After ringing for hundreds of years above the abbey tower, the eight bells - weighing from 350 kilos to 1.25 tonnes - are carefully being lowered out of the octagonal belfry to start the process of replacing the worn out wooden frame and foundations that have held them in place since 1791.

It is the first time since 1932 that the bells have been removed from the top of the abbey when three of the eight bells were melted down and re-cast.

Martin Daniels, Captain of the Romsey Bell Ringers, has been ringing at the abbey for 22 years and says the work is being carried out to make the bells easier and safer to ring.

"The bells have to come out because the foundation that holds the bell frame right in the top of the tower is rotten," he said.

"We hope to have them back in about six to eight months' time in good working order. They are very important for the whole of the abbey. Not only do they call people for Sunday service, they ring for around 20 to 30 weddings every year.

"They are a major function of the abbey and for Romsey with ringing for civic occasions as well as services."

Plans to restore the foundation of the bells has been a long-running project for the abbey and involve a huge amount of effort from bell specialists and engineers to lower them some 70 ft from the roof of the abbey to the ground safely.

"It's a great day as we have been waiting 15 years to get the scheme up and running," said Martin.

"The whole project is costing £170,000 which includes work to the fabric of the tower and to restore the timber.

"From the outside, people probably won't notice any difference to the sound of the bells but for us there will be soundproofing and they will be easier to ring.

"We plan to make the whole installation good for another 200 to 300 years," he added.

The eight bells will be on display in the abbey until the end of next week.

History of the Bells

Bells in Romsey are first mentioned in a mandate from Pope Calixtus III in 1457. He wanted more larger bells in the parish because they couldn't be heard well enough.

According to parish records, six bells were first hung in the tower of the Abbey in 1624, but one of the bells was too big so had to be stored separately.

In 1638 it is believed tragedy struck the Abbey as a burial record states that John Adderley was killed in the tower "by the fall of the great bell".

It is believed the first six bells were not a complete set and in 1791 a new ring of eight bells were made - possibly from some of the metal from the original bells.

The treble, second, fourth, sixth and tenor bells are still the original 1791 casts and the third, fifth and seventh were melted down and recast in 1932.