The Sound of Derbyshire - Past and Present

The clock on the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield

The clock on the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield - Credit: Archant

Richard Bradley discovers the pleasures of creating a local sound diary and in the process unearths some fascinating local customs

Recording a range of vehicles on Emergency Services Day at Crich

Recording a range of vehicles on Emergency Services Day at Crich - Credit: Archant

Since the early days of tourism as a concept, Derbyshire has been famed for its spectacular scenery which continues to lure visitors from around the world to see the ‘sights’ of the county. But why do we prioritise the visual so much? Most of us will take a camera on holiday or a day trip to record memories of our leisure time for posterity, but instead why not – like me – take a sound recorder to capture interesting noises on your travels?

This is not a particularly new hobby. A chance purchase at a Derby car boot sale by sound artist and radio producer Mark Vernon of a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a batch of tapes turned out to contain the archives of The Derby Tape Club, active in the 1960s and 70s. Mark subsequently tracked down and interviewed the now elderly former members of the Club, making a documentary for BBC Radio 4 in 2004 (incorporating fragments from the tapes found at the boot sale).

My interest in sound was formed during my teenage years growing up in Derbyshire (providing sound effects for school plays at Highfields School, Matlock, and shows by Bakewell Youth Theatre). More recently, I acquired an Edirol R09HR, a small handheld digital sound recording device which I now carry with me in case I happen across an interesting sound.

But in today’s fast-paced world, how hard is it to capture sounds distinctive to a particular place? With the decline in regional industries in the UK and the increase in automated announcements in public spaces such as railway stations (voiced by sterile computers and lacking the warmth of a local accent), is the soundscape around us becoming subject to globalisation without us realising? Is everywhere starting to sound the same?

Recording the sound of water at Derwent Dams

Recording the sound of water at Derwent Dams - Credit: Archant

For the past few years I have been exploring an alternative mode of tourism, guided by sound and not sight, as I attempt to compile a ‘Sonic Guidebook to the UK’. Although I’ve made special recording trips to various parts of the country, there have been plenty of interesting sounds for me to collect on my doorstep.

In 1976, the BBC Sound Effects Department released an LP to the public entitled Vanishing Sounds In Britain, containing nostalgic recordings including horse-drawn traffic, a beam engine, watermill and a steam roller. In fact, many of these noises are still quite easy to capture in the 21st century, thanks to the dedication of groups of enthusiasts and local businesses. Within a five mile radius of Darley Dale – where I grew up and my parents still live – can be found a heritage steam railway line (Peak Rail), horse and carriage museum offering pleasure rides (Red House Stables), functioning Victorian watermill (Caudwell’s Mill), historic textile museum with working looms (Masson Mills, Matlock Bath), and beam engines formerly used to power the High Peak Railway and regulate the water level in the Cromford Canal. So I was quite easily able to compile my own ‘vanishing sounds’ compilation during a weekend stay with my parents.

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At nearby Crich Tramway Village, retired and restored old trams from around the world groan up and down the cobbled street clanking their bells. The Museum holds regular themed events, such as their Emergency Vehicles Day which I attended in 2011, capturing the attention-grabbing sounds from a continuous four minute convoy of vintage fire engines, ambulances and police cars. Some of these dated from the pre-siren era and were fitted with alarm bells instead, sounding like oversized alarm clocks driving past.

If you revisit a familiar place after a spell away, you notice the visual changes – an old building knocked down, a new flatpack chain store built on former waste ground, the local pub or school converted into flats – but changes in the soundscape are more subtle. A now-quiet corner of one Derbyshire village – Rattle, at Ashover – gained its unusual name through once being so noisy as a result of the sound produced by the mechanised stocking frames which many houses in this part of the village installed in their attics. This cottage industry thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries – in a sweat shop-style operation, a local entrepreneur bought material and paid the cottagers a piecemeal rate to turn it into clothing using their rattletrap apparatus. Most of the workers’ cottages are now demolished, but the name remains to remind us of this vanished aspect of the village’s history, although we can now only imagine what it once sounded like when the weavers were in full flow.

Remains of Prehistoric animals that once roamed Derbyshire in Buxton Museum

Remains of Prehistoric animals that once roamed Derbyshire in Buxton Museum - Credit: Archant

We would expect cities to be noisier than our villages these days as a result of traffic and the increased volume of people who pass through. But back in 1864, Derby MP Michael Bass was moved to produce a pamphlet called ‘Street Music In The Metropolis’ in his bid to get an act through parliament to reduce ‘the daily increasing grievance of organ-grinders and street music’.

Depressingly, sounds which are becoming harder to capture in the county are more likely to be those produced by nature, with the traditional herald of spring, the call of the cuckoo (a secretive bird, easier to hear than see), becoming a less frequent occurrence, along with the sound of skylarks, corn buntings and turtle doves. Loss of species is sadly nothing new. Going further back (way beyond the era of recording technology), within the county we would once have heard more exotic natural sounds: those of hippopotamus, elephant and rhinoceros. In 1896, bones belonging to all three were discovered in the gravel of the Derwent at Allenton, near Derby.

Derbyshire has a healthy amount of strange archaic customs which have survived into modern times, although we have lost a couple of the noisier ones. I travelled down to the village of Broughton in Northamptonshire to make a recording of the ‘Tin Can Band’ – a group of villagers who meet at midnight on a December night each year and go round making as much noise as possible using anything to hand (on my visit the ‘band’ included drums, saucepans, whistles and a hunting bugle). It’s been happening for at least 200 years and no-one is fully sure why. I was interested to read in S O Addy’s Traditional Remains (1895) that the village of Eyam used to stage a similar custom on Shrove Tuesday, where at 1am the boys of the village rattled old cans, blew cows’ horns, and generally made a racket. The boy who remained in bed the longest despite all this was christened ‘the bed churn’. Anyone who thinks that noisy youths are a recent social problem, take note. I also found a reference to an obscure custom called ‘Ting Tang Night’ in the archives of the late Winster folklorist and Morris Dancer Dave Bathe, kept at the University of Sheffield. This formerly occurred at Wirksworth until the end of the 19th century. One of Bathe’s correspondents, Edith Spencer, informed him that on the 23rd December, ‘the old custom was for men to walk the streets banging on anything that would make a loud noise, mainly tin cans, iron pots and spoons etc. which they did to frighten away evil so that the town would be ready to welcome the Christ Child.’

Derbyshire used to have several curfew bells, rung in the winter months to warn householders to cover their fireplaces before retiring to bed to prevent house fires – the word stems from the French ‘couvre-feu’ = ‘fire-cover’ – and to guide travellers back to centres of population for the night. These bells formerly rang out at Ashford-in-the-Water, Bakewell, Castleton, Winster, Chapel-en-le-Frith and Eyam, but have all now died out. Over at Scarcliffe near Bolsover, the church of St Leonard continues to ring its curfew bell for three weeks either side of Christmas Day. The picturesque folktale attached to this custom states that a local noblewoman, Lady Constantia de Frecheville, was out riding with her illegitimate son one winter and became lost in the fog. Hearing the bell of St Leonard’s enabled her to guide herself back to safety, and in gratitude she left land to the church in order to perpetuate the ringing of the curfew. A statue of Constantia and her infant son can be seen in the church.

For much of the 20th century, coal mining was a thriving industry throughout Derbyshire, until the closing of the last of the county’s collieries at Markham in 1994. It was formerly the custom for the pits to sound their sirens at midnight on 31st December to herald in the New Year, but this is now another of Derbyshire’s lost sounds, along with the once everyday sounds of the pits functioning.

In his memoir Nature Cure, the nature writer Richard Mabey recalls that when making a documentary in the Yorkshire Dales, the sound engineer working on the film recorded 54 different kinds of recordings of moving water. In a landlocked county such as Derbyshire one water sound missing to us is the relaxing sound of seawash on the shore. However, I have managed to get some evocative watery recordings locally, including: a burst underground spring flowing through the road surface in the Hope Valley following heavy rainfall; the mighty hiss of the Derwent Dam in overflow; and the constantly flowing water of St Ann’s Well in Buxton, where locals and tourists alike bring empty bottles to fill up on the free water supply.

One bonus of my quest to capture sounds is that, if you ask nicely enough, it can get you behind usually closed doors. One sound that I had been quite keen to capture for a while was the ticking of a clock tower mechanism, and had had several failed attempts. I contacted the people at the Crooked Spire (or to give it its correct name, the church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield), who were only too happy to assist me. The church runs daily guided group tours which go up the tower, but I had arranged my own personal trip up there with verger Paul Wilson into the clock room to ensure some nice clean recordings free of voices and footsteps. In the end, the workings that power the clock on the iconic spire proved to be surprisingly quiet, not much louder than a grandfather clock.

‘What’s next then Richard?’ Paul asked me as we exited the narrow confines of the stone spiral staircase and into the stained glass filtered light of the church. It’s a good question – there are so many interesting sounds out there to record, if we just listen...

So, whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool local or a passing traveller, enjoy the wonderful sights of Derbyshire. But also take time to stop and enjoy the sounds around you as well.