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Saving Old North Church bells

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''Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of . . .''

Geoffrey Davies?

Unlike the patriot-hero of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem, Mr. Davies is not riding out to save a nation.

Instead, he is in the waning hours of a crusade to save the bells in the tower of Boston's Old North Church - the same tower in which, on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere saw the twin lanterns that effectively signaled the beginning of the American Revolution.

And although Mr. Davies, who teaches chemistry at Northeastern University, is an Englishman, Paul Revere would probably have approved of his activities.

Not only did Revere's foundry manufacture bells, some 42 of which are said to have been identified; but Revere was himself a bell ringer at Old North Church. He signed a contract there in 1750, at age 15, to be part of the customary eight-man team that pulled the bell ropes on ''the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America'' in 1744.

Those words, in fact, are cast into the 948-pound ''sixth'' or ''A'' bell of the eight-bell set. Of the 19 rings of bells known to exist in North America, these are the oldest - and, says Davies, the best. Cast by Abel Rudhall in Gloucester, England, they were so artfully designed that each one apparently required no further tuning.

Nor have they needed any since. ''The bells have not materially altered since 1744,'' says Davies, who also learned to ring changes at age 15 and now trains in the Boston area. Climbing the wooden stairs toward ''the trembling ladder, steep and tall'' that Longfellow described, he notes that these powder-gray bells predate the Liberty Bell by eight years - and that none of them is cracked. ''You're looking at a set of bells that are the equivalent of a Stradivarius (violin),'' he says.

But the bells have been largely silent during this century - a victim of benign neglect and the slow destruction caused by the rainwater that washes into the open belfry. Although the bells themselves are in excellent condition, the headstocks and clappers have deteriorated. So have the metal bearings, which were last replaced in 1845 and must be oiled constantly.

And when the bells are rung ''full circle,'' the wooden supporting frame moves dangerously - since, says Davies, ''there is 9,000 pounds of horizontal thrust in each direction when the bells are being rung.''

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