At stumps, England were 296 for seven, having started the final session on 167 for five at Old Trafford after West Indies, 1-0 down in the four-Test series, had enjoyed a rare spell of dominance.
Bell was 77 not out and Stephen Harmison unbeaten on two. Together with Matt Prior (40), Bell put on 98 for the sixth wicket in 26 overs.
Fast bowler Corey Collymore led the West Indies attack with two for 44 from 20 overs.
Daren Ganga, captaining West Indies in a Test for a first time after Ramnaresh Sarwan sustained a tour-ending shoulder injury while fielding during England's innings and 283 run second Test win at Headingley, West Indies' heaviest Test innings loss, was pleased with his side's performance.
"It was a very good day for us. We showed our competitiveness right throughout the day. It was a total team effort," Ganga told reporters.
And he said recalled fast bowler Fidel Edwards, while expensive in taking one for 75, had added a fresh dimension to the attack with his extra pace.
"Our attack lacked a bit of penetration and more variety was something you were going to see in this Test.
"Fidel is that type of bowler. If he can come and knock the tail over, it would be a good innings work for him.
"We were a little bit more consistent in terms of how we bowled, and in terms of our energy on the field and I think that was important."
Ganga added: "We were able to create pressure. That is something which we have lacked in the series so far.
"There's quite a lot of room for improvement with our extras (West Indies have already conceded 38) but we're going to try to improve."
England opener Alastair Cook, who made 60, said: "It's pretty even at the moment. There's plenty in it for the bowlers and the batters. It's a good cricket wicket."
Edwards, late in the day, hit England spearhead Harmison on the helmet, and Cook added: "Anyone who can bowl at 90mph plus makes it hard work, especially on that wicket."
Warwickshire's Bell struck some eye-catching drives on his way to a 99-ball fifty with 10 fours while Prior, content to play a supporting role, attacked anything loose when given the chance.
"Belly played very well," Cook said. "He seems to like batting at No 6. Hopefully, he can guide us through to get us above 350 tomorrow (Friday)."
And Cook added he expected Harmison, who took six for 19 at Old Trafford against Pakistan last year, to be a force on the pitch.
"I think he's just ordered a couple more helmets. It was a good finish in the top corner," joked Cook in a reference to an Edwards delivery that hit Harmison on the helmet. "I hope he (Harmison) comes out fighting. He tends to bowl very well on these wickets."
Just when it seemed Prior would bat through to the close, he got carried away and tried to hook medium-pacer Dwayne Bravo's looping bouncer from above shoulder height and was caught at mid-wicket by Runako Morton.
The wicket-keeper faced 66 balls with seven fours but West Indies were back in the match.
A lively pitch, offering assistance to fast bowlers and shotmakers alike, lured Edwards, who delivered a wasteful 10 no balls, into the trap of bowling too short.
But when he pitched one up with the new ball, Liam Plunkett, backing away, was bowled middle stump for 13. England, well placed on 112 for one at lunch, then saw Collymore take two wickets for nine runs.
They resumed with Cook 51 not out and England captain Michael Vaughan 40 not out. Vaughan had added just one to his score before he was bowled by a full-length Collymore delivery that nipped back. Vaughan faced 99 balls with six fours, sharing a stand of 104 with Cook.
He returned to modest applause having received a mixed reception when he came out to bat following his newspaper criticisms of injured all-rounder and local hero Andrew Flintoff for his pedalo escapade at the World Cup.
Vaughan's exit brought in Kevin Pietersen, looking for a third hundred in as many innings after his 109 in the drawn first Test at Lord's and a Test best 226 at Headingley.
But Collymore dug one in and Pietersen, on nine, saw a spliced hook go straight to Bravo at deep square leg.
And 132 for three became 132 for four when Cook's square-cut was well caught by Bravo, diving forward at point, to give debutant pace bowler Darren Sammy his first Test wicket.
England were unchanged but West Indies made three changes with the fit-again Shivnarine Chanderpaul in for Sarwan, Sammy for Sylvester Joseph and Edwards for Daren Powell.