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John Hook’s fictional description last month of Minnow climbing the tower steps while trying to smoke out a pigeon, and coughing as he breathed it in, reminded me of the time about 25 years ago when I arrived for Sunday evening ringing and found the church full of thick black smoke.

We had lent the plastic bunting that we used to string from the top of the tower to the gate posts on open days to someone else, and when he returned the box of bunting he left it at the back of the church for us to take up the tower. But while it was waiting there someone set light to it.

Flames were lapping up the wall behind the font, next to the wooden screen, when the first ringer arrived. Quick action with a fire extinguisher put out the flames but the church was full of acrid smoke, so how to clear it out?

I turned on the heating, which blew in large amounts of air (about three times the church’s volume per hour) but the smoke was reluctant to come down to ground level to go through the open doors.

In those days the gallery arch was open to the nave, which could offer an escape route for the smoke up the tower stairs. But for that to work I needed to open the door onto the tower roof.

As I climbed the stairs I held my breath through the thickest smoke, but with 89 steps to the top I had to breathe quite a bit before I reached the fresh air on the roof, and as I climbed I remember hoping that what I was breathing wasn’t toxic. That was the thought that came to mind when I read John Hook’s account of someone, many centuries earlier, engulfed in smoke, up the tower stairs.

John Harrison (March 2023)  

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