Saturday Morning ‘Old Building I Spy’ Top Floor: Hidden Secrets & the Bell Tower, 12th March 2016

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It’s highly ironic that a post I’ve been wanting to write for ages – ever since I first laid eyes on those curious, old wooden beams in the centre of the newly-opened up top floor of the old building on my March tour –  has been so delayed.  Apologies.  Schools are always very busy places near the end of the summer term and teachers get very tired.  Posts which delve into the past are the most demanding ones to write too.  They feel more important.  Need more research.

That has certainly been the case with the bell tower.  It’s there visually in all the old photographs, but, despite scouring both histories, there is little to find there other than the following reference to its demolition in the Centenary Book: ‘An expansion in the buildings was necessary in the post-war period both on account of the increased number of pupils and the desire to improve facilities. The neglect of six years needed to be made good before new work could be undertaken. The tower on the main building was demolished in 1951 as it was unsafe.’

Newcastle High School building, 1900.
Newcastle High School, 1900 (Church High Centenary Book).
Newcastle Church High, 1935 (CH Jubilee Book).
Newcastle Church High School, 1935 (CH Jubilee Book).
Church High School, 1951 (Church High Centenary Book).
Newcastle Church High School, 1951 (CH Centenary Book).

It seems to me the above photograph must be one of the very last ones taken of the school buildings with the bell tower still in place.  Indeed, one wonders whether the image might actually have been taken as a final photograph just prior to the tower’s demolition.

Bell Tower Sketch, Rachel Arthur, Centenary School Magazine.
Bell Tower Sketch drawn by Katie Arthur, published in the Church High Centenary School Magazine, 1984-1985.

I first came across the bell tower as a line drawing illustrating an article on The Centenary Service in the first Church High magazine I ever read and I never forgot the image.  Now that technology allows us to digitise and enlarge images, we can see that Katie Arthur has produced more of an interpretation as opposed to an exact copy of the structure; she would have been relying only on her eyes, of course.  Viewed in close-up now, the architecture was actually much more substantial and elaborate with a weather vane at the very top.

Bell tower detail, c 1910.
Bell tower detail, c 1910.

Whether it actually contained a bell, I don’t know, but my feeling is that it must have done.  I am no expert on architecture at all, but I find the design fascinating: a mixture of perpendicular gothic at its base, with gable finials in keeping with those on the neighbouring United Reformed Church, and Italian octagonal renaissance style at the top.  The above image also shows one of the many stone ball finials which make the Church High building’s roofline so distinctive.

In a detail of the 1951 image (below) showing the tower ‘front-on’, the intricate stonework of the bell rotunda is clearer.  By this point in time, following the addition of dormer windows, the skylights, which remain a feature of the roofline to this day, are visible.

Detail of the bell tower in 1951.
Detail of the bell tower in 1951 with skylights below.
The skylights in the Church High roofline today indicate the original site of the bell tower.
The skylights in the Church High roofline today, now all in slightly different positions, indicate the site of the bell tower.

Church High frontage & roofline 2016

One of the most interesting aspects of the renovation has been the revelation that the bell tower’s structure still remains even now.   When Wates came across large vertical beams in the centre of the top floor during the strip-out stage, they fully intended to remove them until they realized they were structural to the building.  I’m sure they would have ‘got-there’ by themselves using old plans, but I was delighted to be able to tell them all about the old bell tower.

The newly-exposed structure of the old bell tower in February 2016.
The newly-exposed structure of the old bell tower in February.

Church High Bell Tower 2

The top floor of the building is destined to be sixth form study space once again – another example of things coming full circle – and the newly-exposed bell tower will now be a part of its interior design.

The bell tower structure looking even better surrounded by newly-plastered walls on March 12th.
The bell tower structure is enhanced by the newly-plastered walls on March 12th 2016.

Church High bell tower structure March 2016 2

In addition to providing structural support for the impressive tower and perhaps a platform for a bell ringer, it’s likely that these beams also mark the site of an access stairway.  It is clear as day to me now that, not only was it hidden away on one side of the top corridor all of the time I was at Church High, but, most fittingly, the bell tower formed the walls of the cupboard half-way along the corridor, its door raised slightly above floor level, used for the Alumnae Archive.

Just before the school photograph on the corridor wall to the left, is the slightly raised doorway to the Church High Alumnae Archive.
Just before the framed school photograph on the wall to the left of the top corridor, is the slightly raised doorway of the Church High Alumnae Archive – once the bell tower entrance.

Another of Church High’s hidden storage spaces in the roof – the area I used to call the ‘Computer Graveyard’ – is also now opened up by the renovation process.  This narrow space under the north west eaves didn’t even allow Steven Farrell to stand upright, but was an ideal ‘out-of-the-way’ place for storing those IT bits & pieces that might still come in useful some day – and often did thanks to the technical nous and creative ingenuity of our school-based IT Team.

The west eaves at the top of the building as they are at the moment and when used as IT storage space in 2014.
The north-west eaves as they appear now and when used as old IT storage space in 2014 (Anthony Morris, left, Steven Farrell, right).

Steven Farrell, Church High School.

As the chalk writing on one of the only existing roof trusses makes clear, the main IT area in the eaves is destined to be closed off again.

The only surviving king-post trusses are to be be sealed off by a stud wall eventually.
The only surviving king-post trusses are to be be sealed off by a new stud wall eventually.

At the opposite end of the top floor an alabaster tiled fireplace, possibly installed when living quarters were created in the roof space for the caretaker in the late 1930s, is now opened up for all to see.

An alabaster tiled fireplace has been opened up and incorporated into the new design.
An alabaster tiled fireplace has now been opened up and incorporated into the design.

Who’d have thought this was sitting behind Deputy Head Alison Roe in her office at the south end of the top corridor for all of that time?

Alison Roe in her office with the boxed-up fireplace behind.
Alison Roe in her office with the boxed-up fireplace behind.

My March 12th tour of the top floor of the old building, beginning at the old south staircase, progressing along to the ICT Suite (now divided into two English classrooms) and ending at the top of the newly-created lift shaft just to the left of the new north staircase within the glass-fronted extension, can now be shared by you too:

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