Discovering the folklore and traditions of Derbyshire through film
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:15 10 July 2020
While tales and folklore pass through generations, technology too can reconnect us to our county’s past
Derbyshire-bred, I have, since 2000, lived in Sheffield. Like many Sheffielders, a good proportion of my leisure time is spent venturing into neighbouring Derbyshire’s towns, villages and countryside.
The arrival of coronavirus put paid to those trips, along with visits to my elderly parents in Two Dales and wider family in the Bolsover-Chesterfield area and whilst I missed being physically in Derbyshire during lockdown, I still travelled the county (as well as back in time), thanks to a wonderful internet resource, ‘Britain on Film’, provided by the BFI (British Film Institute).
This consists of a navigable, zoomable map of the UK with pin markers highlighting the filming locations of thousands of digitised archive films dating to the earliest days of moving images, drawn from BFI’s rich archive collections and beyond.
The regional character of Derbyshire is highly evident in the selection of films presented on the map. Included are home movies and local TV reports of the county’s events and customs (like well dressings and the annual Ashbourne Shrovetide Football), early films recording the range of physical activities to be enjoyed in the Peak District National Park, to the coal mining heritage of North East and South Derbyshire and the textile industry of the Derwent Valley.
One early curio on the map is titled Evidence. Whilst the shots of the townscape of Chesterfield in 1935 is an interesting enough historical record in its own right, with horse-drawn carts rushing by and most of the men in the crowd sporting Peaky Blinders-style flat caps, this film has the unique distinction of being the first time film footage was used as evidence in a British court case.
Evidence records the illicit gambling activities of a gang of illegal street bookmakers and was successfully used to bring about their conviction. The Derbyshire Times report described the novelty of the situation for defendants and magistrates alike when Chesterfield Court House was ‘temporarily turned into a cinema’.
Our everyday lives being captured by surveillance cameras is commonplace nowadays, and footage routinely used in court cases – but it was Chesterfield Police who were the pioneers. Fourteen of the 39 accused were convicted, with fines ranging from £2 to £20.
Advances in technology have meant miniaturised bugging devices can now covertly record people’s actions with ease, but in 1935 PC Saunders of Chesterfield Borough Police had to secrete himself and a bulky camera in the first floor of a building overlooking the Market Place, where he spent a week capturing the activities of the bookmakers.
Adding rather a surreal touch to proceedings, at one point the historic footage is gatecrashed by a troop of elephants ambling into frame and making their way across the marketplace – they happened to be performing in a circus that was visiting town at the time of PC Saunders’ surveillance.
The altogether less serious Wirksworth Uphill Beer Barrel Race begins with a tracking shot of the town enveloped by the surrounding green hills. The shot is soundtracked by birdsong, and a familiar voice – TV game show host Chris Tarrant who, back in 1976 when this contribution to the map was filmed, was a rookie regional TV reporter clad in leather jacket and denim flares.
Tarrant muses on Wirksworth’s ‘most striking feature – a quite enormous number of pubs’, over shots of the town’s hanging inn signs. Wirksworth’s pub landlords are seen drinking beer from old fashioned glass tankards (with over-the-top slurping sound effects dubbed on), before taking to the hills where they are filmed competing to push full beer barrels to the top of a steep slope, Tarrant assisting whilst interviewing competitors. He breaks off to ‘discover’ the event’s instigator hidden behind a small gorse bush imbibing the contents of his barrel. Whilst the hiding behind the bush appears contrived for the cameras, the unnamed man does appear to be genuinely sloshed as he explains the genesis of the event is to raise money for the 1976 Wirksworth well dressings.
Whilst Wirksworth Uphill Beer Barrel Race documents an event which seems to have passed into historical obscurity, Derbyshire still has two similar competitions. In Wirksworth itself, the Wirksworth Wheelbarrow Race, held in tandem with the town’s carnival and well dressing, was itself a 1970s event which lapsed, but has been revived in recent years. Here, teams of two compete in conveying themselves by wheelbarrow around the town’s pubs - seven of which have weathered the test of time and remain with us today. At each pub stop both team members must down half a pint in as quick a time as they can – this is not one for the faint-hearted spectator!
Closer in spirit to the event depicted in Tarrant’s film is the Great Kinder Beer Barrel Challenge, where teams of eight compete to transport an eight-gallon beer barrel (full, but for the purposes of the competition, containing water) from the Snake Pass Inn to the Nag’s Head pub at Edale – a distance of three miles, made more challenging by having the not inconsiderable obstacle of Kinder Scout in the way.
As with several of the Derbyshire films on the BFI’s map, the Beer Barrel film is an ATV regional news item digitised and supplied to the BFI by MACE – the Media Archive for Central England. It is possible to watch digitised versions of nearly 250 Derbyshire-shot items from their collections on their website.
One particular gem not included on the BFI map is a 1986 piece by ATV’s regional successors Central News East, an undercover investigation into the world of Derbyshire hen racing. We are shown Wirksworth market and the transit of chickens in large wicker baskets. The feature is apparently prompted by animal rights protesters complaining about the treatment of chickens during the races, reported as taking place monthly.
Under the pretext of recording a feature on Wirksworth market, the cameras move inside the Hope and Anchor pub, where some country folk are seen handling chickens. Some of these people sport hi-vis jackets and badges which identify the wearer as a ‘Steward’ or a ‘Starter’.
Attempts at initiating an interview lead to patrons fleeing the pub with their flat caps pulled down over their heads, and when trying to question the landlord the reporter is told to ‘sod off’. Rule sheets for the racing are shown on camera along with a form book with odds (giving a race location as Elton) and a poster on the wall for ‘The Duke’s Challenge Cup’. The film crew then move to a ‘secret location’ to film a race. ‘It’s a very old tradition, it’s gone on since 1832,’ claims one entrant whilst stroking his chicken. The hens are shown about to be released from starting traps, before the camera crew are rumbled and chased away by the landowner.
It might be worthwhile at this point highlighting the broadcast date of the ‘news’ item: 1st April 1986. The concept of hen racing forms a long-running Derbyshire joke, mocking country life and practices in the remoter corners of the county. Jim Drury records in his book of Birchover village history, Fetch The Juicy Jam, that a gang of Irish navvies working on the village water supply in the 1950s had their legs pulled by locals about a supposed traditional hen racing tournament that took place in the isolated hamlet of Aldwark on the Tuesday before the first snowfall of the year. It is a tradition which has been ‘revived’ at Bonsall, held in the car park of the Barley Mow pub on the first Saturday in August since 1992.
Doe Lea is an interesting documentary record of life in the North East Derbyshire mining village, made in 1968 by young people from the short-lived Stainsby Arts Centre, established in 1967 but wound up in 1971 owing to council cutbacks.
Despite their brief existence, the Arts Centre left a long-lasting legacy in addition to this film – one of their initiatives continues to this day in the form of the renowned Stainsby Folk Festival. This film is of personal interest as my dad grew up at Doe Lea, the son of a Glapwell Colliery worker who was a colleague of Dennis Skinner - a young, pre-parliamentary Skinner can be glimpsed briefly in the film, attending a meeting where Tom Swain, North East Derbyshire Labour MP from 1959 – 79, is speaking.
In 1953 when my dad was nine, he moved with his parents to nearby Glapwell. This took them up the hill geographically and, in the opinion of one of the film’s interviewees, up in the world in status too. Over shots of newly-built bungalows on Glapwell Hill, an anonymous female Doe Lea resident comments scathingly ‘We call Glapwell the half-a-crown end of the village, these people that’s moved out of Doe Lea, up to Glapwell, and got this half-a-crown on theirselves, they think they’re a lot better than what we are’.
My grandparents were pleased with their new home - but I don’t imagine they thought they were better than their peers in Doe Lea; indeed my dad remembers his own dad catching the bus to Doe Lea Miners’ Welfare for his weekly pint after the move.
The film shows a close-knit community with soot-stained miners emerging from below ground and children playing street games in the rubble-strewn streets, whilst young girls totter around in their mums’ high heels as washing flaps on the lines hung between houses.
Doe Lea was made five years after Harold Wilson’s famous speech where he asserted a prosperous ‘new Britain’ would need to be forged in the ‘white heat’ of a scientific revolution. The film hints the youth of the village would rather commute into town to work than follow their forefathers down the pit. One man opines, ‘You go in anybody’s house and they don’t want coal, it’s dirty black stuff, nobody wants anything to do with coal... in five years’ time, there’ll be no mines because nobody wants any mines’; another voice responds, ‘When the pit ceases to exist, there is no economic reason for the existence of the community’.
The eventual closure of the pit in the early 1970s wasn’t the end of Doe Lea, however. No longer having any miners to house, the National Coal Board sold the properties to the local council for a nominal sum. In 1977 the old back-to-back terraced houses shown in the film were demolished, replaced by modern housing; the village’s proximity to the M1 motorway meaning it is now popular with commuters.
One of the closest films to my neck of the woods, having grown up in South Darley, is 1975’s Elton-shot Derbyshire Recluse. Located roughly halfway between the market towns of Bakewell and Matlock but feeling a world away from the hustle and bustle of either, the upland village of Elton still exudes a certain air of self-contained remoteness even into the early 21st century
Derbyshire Recluse is another feature filmed by ATV and in this case presented by John Swallow, a reporter who specialised in tracking down and interviewing eccentric local characters. In this instance his subject is an elderly farmer with the magnificently Dickensian name Herlock Buxton, living and working at Elton’s Greengate Farm. This six-minute piece of archive TV is genuinely uncomfortable to watch, thanks to Swallow’s incredibly condescending interviewing style, which would unlikely be deemed suitable for broadcast in the present age. Buxton is shown working on the farm before Swallow tips a set of dominoes onto his kitchen table and kicks off the interview with the combative opening gambit, ‘Of course, a game of dominoes is about the only bit of fun you get out of life, isn’t it – has it been much of a life, Herlock?’
Herlock is mockingly quizzed on one of the few instances he ventured a significant distance out the village, when as a boy of eleven he attended the market in Derby. Having beaten Herlock at the domino match, Swallow opens up new avenues of attack: ‘What other thrills do you have in life, besides losing at dominoes?’; ‘You’ve never got married, have you? Why was that, because you’ve never looked around the world to find a pretty girl?’ Swallow may be wearing the sharper suit, but Herlock comes across as the person you would rather hang out with at the village pub, the Duke of York.
Buxton puts his lack of adventure down to always being busy on the farm: ‘There’s always a job on the farm – always.’ The philosopher Blaise Pascal pontificated back in 1654, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’, but by 1975 Herlock Buxton seemed to have cracked that particular conundrum. Were he with us today, Herlock would be coping far better with the strange new world brought about by cornonavirus than many of us - staying home wherever possible and avoiding unnecessary travel would not have affected his day-to-day existence in a significant way.
A whole county to explore...
The films highlighted in this article are just some of the author’s own personal favourites from a signifcant available archive, spanning multiple genres and times from the people and events that make up our heritage.
Many films exploring the delights of the county are available through the BFI Britain on Film map and the online content of the MACE archive – all without having to step outside the front door.
For the BFI Britain on Film map, visit player.bfi.org.uk/britain-on-film/map
The MACE archive can be accessed at www.macearchive.org