By Delores Schweitzer for Island Eye News
If Edgar Allan Poe were longing for the jingling, tinkling, rhyming, chiming, clamoring, clanging experience explored in his poem “The Bells,” he need look no further than the Ring Around Charleston, which took place the weekend of February 21-23. The Holy City is not just a destination for weekends, weddings, or wildlife. With three “change ringing” church bell towers downtown and one a short drive away on Sullivan’s Island, Charleston is the most ring-rich city in North America. Consequently the city is a popular mid-winter trip for ringers hoping to improve their skills on different sized bells.
Change ringing is essentially the practice of controlling really heavy bells in such a way that a band of 6-12 members can ring simple patterns with a conductor calling changes. A more experienced group can ring elaborate methods called peals and quarter peals, which may last over three hours and go through more than 5000 changes. The North American Guild of Change Ringers defines change ringing as “a team sport, a musical performance, an antique art and a demanding pattern-based exercise, all at once.” And so it is all those things.
Says Eve Gentieu of Sullivan’s Island, who rings at Stella Maris on the island and Grace Episcopal church downtown, “I enjoy four things about change ringing: The challenge – getting control of the rope and the bell, and once that is mastered, the continual challenge of learning new methods, how to call changes and methods, and trying to get the big picture of how all the bells fit together.
“Second, the concentration – each person must maintain his own pattern while being aware of what the other ringers are doing. Third, the camaraderie – the Charleston bell-ringers are an affable group, and the teamwork that goes into ringing creates a bond between us. Finally, the sound – when everything goes right, it is very satisfying to be a part of that glorious noise.”
This year, the Ring Around Charleston provided opportunities for over 100 ringers from the United States, Canada and Great Britain to try out the bells at different towers, attempt quarter peals and full peals, and participate in Sunday service rings at St. Michael Episcopal, Grace Episcopal, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, and St. Paul and Stella Maris Catholic Churches.
Isabelle Couture of Quebec commented, “I loved ringing at Stella Maris, even if we didn’t complete our quarter-peal attempt. The bells were small and easy to ring [200-500 pounds], compared to the ones at home, where the tenor is 1600 pounds.”
Stella Maris ringer Tommy Knisley enjoyed being a tower tourist in his own town, “listening to the quarter peals at Grace and St. Michael’s, and meeting people from Canada and England.”
Jackie O’Rourke of Mt. Pleasant sees ringing as a chance to “exercise your brains we well as your arms.” She was challenged to tweak her posture of the past seven years. “Bob Aldinger from Hendersonville, NC, helped me with my form and how to watch other ringers shoulders and arms pulling down, instead of the ropes. He had me look at the bell differently than I’ve done in the past.”
Just as the Brits drive on the left side of the road, they call bells differently, too, so it is a mental challenge for many new ringers to make the shift. Fortunately, the Brits at RAC are kind and patient with the colonials. Says Arlene Southerland, 14-year ringer and tower captain at Stella Maris, “I enjoyed Rodger and Kath Baldwin of Hertfordshire, who coordinated most of the ringing at Stella Maris. Both are in their 80s and still enjoy, teaching, ringing and traveling.”
Steve Collins started change ringing in Houston 36 years ago and joined the Charleston ringing community in 2003. As some tourists “collect” lighthouses or National Parks, ringers find themselves collecting towers, particularly when the bands are so welcoming of newcomers. Collins has rung in 17 towers in the US and about 100 in Great Britain, and he still enjoys learning from visiting ringers. Alan Regin of London was a particular inspiration. Regin runs ringing tours of the States where the traveling band ring a peal at a towers, practices with local band and shares a meal after. This year, Alan’s group completed a full peal of “Charleston Surprise Major” at Stella Maris with 5152 changes in 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The RAC wrapped with a lively party of speeches, awards and singing downtown on Saturday night, but skills and friendships will continue to grow as ringers visit other towers and bands in the interlude, until the tintinnabulation comes happily back around to Charleston in 2016.
If you are interested in trying your hand at change ringing contact one of the churches and ask to speak to the tower captain about practice times and how to get involved.