Though I personally enjoy his later works far more, Garner is perhaps best known for his first book published back in 1960. Entitled The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it 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. You can still go there any day and see families and walkers wandering around and looking for features from Garner's books as well as the myriad other legends on the Edge. Even on a busy day it still has an otherworldly feel and it is easy to see why so many curiosities and folk tales have emerged there over the centuries.
A couple of years ago I came across a reference which connected my interests in legend as well as bagpipes. I've written about this elsewhere before, but not on this blog, so I felt it was about time I did so. And if it provokes some to explore the Edge, then so much the better. I feel it is at its best in winter.
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”. I’d been aware of this already, and also that Alan Garner’s cousin Eric had described hearing music underground 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 underground, moving in a line beneath them at Stormy Point. They were terrified and ran home.
This much I had heard before, but what I hadn’t realised was that Eric had described 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 Bagpipes, 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 below 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 tunnels – 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. There are many legends from across Britain of pipers disappearing into fairy hills to play for the little people, occasionally re-appearing many years after they were last seen by friends, though to the piper only a couple of hours have passed. Many of the locations of these "fairy hills" are today identified as Bronze Age burial mounds, and there are many such burial mounds around the Edge, including one right next to the very spot where the bagpipes were heard underground.
Earlier this year, on International Bagpipe Day, a group of pipers from across Cheshire walked out to Stormy Point on the Edge, to the spot where the bagpipes were heard underground so we could play some tunes to celebrate the connection between this place of mystery and our instrument. It was very cold indeed with gusts blowing our drones in all directions and we withstood this for twenty minutes or so before piping our way back to the warmth of the Wizard Inn, but feeling we had reunited music with legend.