Pipe Music from Underground

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This year, 2010, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone of Bris- ingamen by Alan Garner. It’s regarded as a modern classic, an influential work and has never been out of print. I’ve been involved with some of the preparations for the cele- brations, so was intrigued to find that there was a bagpipe connection in it all.

Garner’s book develops the legend of Alderley, with its account of sleeping knights and great treasure under the hill and the ensuing action plays out across real landscapes of woods, cliffs and mines of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. In exploring the legend and the local area I came across references to music from under the ground there, which may interest some Bagpipe Society members.

In 1843, Elizabeth Stanley, of the family of local landowners, wrote in Alderley Edge and its Neighbourhood, “The people living on the Edge persuade themselves that

they hear music under the ground”. Garner’s cousin Eric had de- scribed hearing music under- ground on the Edge when he

was a boy. But looking into it further I was intrigued to hear a recording of him describing what he actually heard.

At the age of 7, which would make this event in 1941,

Eric Garner had been playing with two friends on the Edge, when they stopped to rest at the place called Stormy Point. He remembers it being a dull, murky, drizzly winter’s day. There they heard music under- ground, moving in a line be- neath them at Stormy Point. They were terrified and ran home.

This much I had heard before, but what I hadn’t real-

ised was that Eric had de- scribed the music as “a set of bagpipes started wailing, on Stormy Point”. Suddenly I was greatly intrigued. If you were going to imagine, or create a

story about ethereal music from underground where sleeping knights await the day to rise and save England, then surely you would suggest heavenly singing, or a harp? But bagpipes..?

I then tried to think about what the sound would be that he was describing. Being a 7-year-old boy in Cheshire, in 1941, I doubted he’d come across anything other than the Great Highland Pipes, so assume that was the sort of sound he heard. Eric had described “wailing” and presumably this resembled a reedy noise, along with some kind of a droning.

If we exclude the very unlikely chance of a Highland piper having a practice in the cramped tunnels in the rock under Stormy Point at that moment, we could perhaps consider the possibility that the sound was created by the passage of air through those very tunnels and disused mines. Maybe, under certain climatic conditions causing the air pressure in the tunnels to change could create a bagpipe like sound?

As far as I can tell, no-one else living today has heard this sound. According to Alan Garner, his cousin Eric has lived very close to this spot all his life and walks to Stormy Point almost every day, but has never heard the same music since. Music from underground had been heard more regularly there in the 19th century, but then there was far less tree cover on the Edge which may have allowed the air pressures above and be- low ground to change more regularly – I don’t know, I’m not technically minded like that.

But I tried a quick internet search anyway, and whilst I found no more mention of bagpipes underground at Alderley, I did come across another intriguing clue. In 1980, some local geologists were trying to find the location of some lost mine workings in Mottram St Andrew, near Alderley Edge, where the rare vanadium mineral “Mottramite” had been recorded in 1876. They had drawn a blank, until one night in the pub they overheard a local woodsman talking about how, in certain weather conditions, he heard bagpipes playing in his garden. The geologists went to investigate and duly found the shaft of the mine.

So, to me at least, it does seem likely that with certain atmospheric conditions, disused mine workings can produce a sound suggestive of bagpipes. It also reminds me of the folktales from around Scotland of pipers descending into a tunnel and playing as they progress along so their companions above ground can follow the track of the tun- nels – at some point the pipes go silent and the piper is never seen again. This particular legend is not found at Alderley, though the landscape is rich in other folktales.

This autumn, on Saturday 9th October 2010 , there shall be a medieval fair on Alderley Edge as part of the celebrations of the Weirdstone 50th anniversary. Amongst the various happenings, I’ll be there to ensure that bagpipes are once more heard on the Edge.

Should you want to find out more, explore these websites;

Eric Garner’s story of the music http://www.alderleyedge.manchester.museum/ popupt.php?res_id=2170

Mottramite – http://www.campylite.com/mottramite.html

Celebrations about the Weirdstone anniversary – http://www.weirdstone.org.uk

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