FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – One of the aspects that Charlestonians often take for granted, but is greatly appreciated by tourists who visit, is the sound of bells. A number of churches in the Charleston area have bells in their towers and steeples, but in only four – St. Michael’s, Grace, Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, and Stella Maris – are the bells rung by hand. It’s an old English custom called Change Ringing, meaning that the sequence of bell musical notes are changed by variations in order, and with eight bells such as St. Michael’s, there can be up to 5,000 differing scales. Bells are made of brass, sometimes mixed with copper and iron, and are cast in foundries from the top down on molds. Larger “tenor” bells can weigh tons, as does the biggest at St. Michael’s at 1900 pounds(which, in bell tradition has a saintly name “St. Michael”), while smaller “treble” bells still weigh in a hundreds of pounds. They are tuned to specific notes by saving metal inside the flanged rim, or “sound bow”, and the eight in St. Michael’s offer an octave ranging from A-flat to G-7. The massive bells are hoisted into place by experts such as England’s Whitechapel Foundry, and hung on rockers that can be swung nearly 360 degrees by means of attached ropes that lead to a room below where ringers synchronize pulls. The term peal of bells is derived from “appeal”, as traditionally bells before services were rung to draw congregants, while for more solemn calls to funerals, they are rung “half-muffled” with a leather cover silencing every other stroke of the clapper. I have taken a turn at change-ringing, and it is much harder than it looks, with the weight of the swinging bell on backstrokes easily powerful enough to yank you into the ceiling. 

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