‘I have heard one definition of haunting saying we are haunted by that which we cannot or cannot completely understand.’ These words of wisdom, spoken by England’s greatest living wizard Alan Moore open The Cult of Water, a dreamy, hypnotic sonic production by David Bramwell and Oddfellows Casino.
Six years in the making the album combines spoken word, field recordings, pastoral electronica and nostalgic psych-folk that will delight fans of The Haunted Generation.
Donald Pleasance’s scary voiceover from the 1973 public information film The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Waters neatly evoke David’s fear of being dragged deep beneath the surface by the river goddess, a theme that recurs throughout this watery odyssey.
This project first took form in 2017 as Dead Flows the Don, an episode in the BBC Radio 3’s experimental series Between The Ears. Itpremiered in the following year on stage as a candlelit performance at Brighton Festival mixing music, archive film, narration, ritual and animation.
David then embarked on a theatre and festival tour that included dates in Sheffield and Doncaster (Roman danum) both towns that grew alongside the mighty river Don.
Haunted by his 1970s childhood in Doncaster, David takes listeners on a journey to its source deep in the Pennine hills, in search of the pre-Christian goddess danu. For our ancestors, rivers were supernatural in origin and to cross or enter a river was to enter a portal to another world where the flow of time behaves differently. In Celtic Britain rivers formed boundaries between tribal territories and offerings of coins, swords and shields were cast into the waters to appease the spirits that, on occasions, dragged unwary trespassers to their deaths.
From the 19th century the Don was subjugated to serve the industrial revolution and in Sheffield the city’s steel industry adopted Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, to represent power over the forces of nature as personified in the river. On occasions the Don has usurped itself, most recently in 2007 when the river overwhelmed the city centre and much like other vengeful river deities in folklore ‘the shelving slimy river Don’ was once believed, every year to take ‘a daughter or a son’.
Indeed, Sheffield-born musician Jarvis Cocker and his Pulp bandmate Russell Senior have spoken of occasions when they tossed coins into the Don to appease the spirit of dark and lonely waters that haunted the childhood imaginations of their generation.
David Bramwell’s time-travelling trip upstream that forms the centrepiece of The Cult of Water is book-ended by a startling incident that leaves both narrator and listener questioning the nature of memory and its interaction with the ebb and flow of time. It centres upon a childhood memory of a church spire peeking out from the depths of a Derbyshire reservoir.
At the height of the heatwave and drought of 1976, eight year old David joined a family excursion to the Ladybower Reservoir, a popular tourist attraction in the Peak District National Park, to see the drowned church and its tower.
A huge artificial dam was constructed here before the Second World War to provide drinking water for Sheffield and the surrounding towns. Derwent’s parish church held its last service in 1943 before parishioners were evacuated and the upper valley was flooded with millions of gallons of water. But the church’s distinctive pointy spire was left standing. At times of drought, it would slowly emerge from the waters that surrounded it. For years the isolated spire drew huge crowds of sight-seers, some of whom were keen to explore it when droughts allowed access. A news account from 1947 describes how ‘this year’s drought left it high and dry and thousands of people climbed the wooden staircase inside’.
Derwent Church’s distinctive spire haunt the photos and artwork for the booklet that accompanies the album illustrated by Pete Fowler, best known for his work with Super Furry Animals. The penultimate track follows David as he returns to the valley in search of the iconic spire that haunted his childhood. He cannot find it because there was no spire peeking above the surface of Ladybower in 1976.
A book by local historian Vic Hallam, Silent Valley, reveals how, three decades earlier, in December 1947, the Derwent Valley Water Board demolished the church tower using explosives.
‘When I mention this to my family at first there is silence,’ says David. ‘Then my dad says firmly: I remember. And we all do…We’re not alone; others saw it too’.
Among them are the family of Hilary Mantel, author of the Booker prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies. Mantel was born in Derbyshire in 1952 and family members lived in the area when the reservoirs were built.
Unknown to David, Mantel also recalled being told in her childhood that ‘when the water was low they had seen the spire rising above the waters’ until she realised this could not be true.
In a BBC 4 interview from March 2020 Mantel cites the story as ‘very thought provoking’ in her own journey as a writer and truth-seeker.
‘I had believed implicitly that they were seeing what they said they were seeing,’ she said, adding: ‘Each individual acted in perfect good faith and yet passed on an accumulated untruth’.
This increased her skepticism, ‘especially of those things that we instinctively move towards and want to believe’. It also made her reflect – much like David Bramwell – on different layers of reality, the nature of time and how fact, history and myth can merge into one.
What did all these people, including David and his family see in 1976 and on other occasions? Was it some form of mirage, a shared vision or mass hallucination? Or is this another example of a false memory of the type identified by psychologists in many other perplexing incidences, such as those accounts of missing time that have often become transformed by the media into stories of abduction by aliens.
When I first heard David’s account of the missing church spire and compared it with that of Hilary Mantel it also reminded me of the phantom houses that are said to materialise on rare occasions before incredulous witnesses. Possibly the best known is the so-called Rougham mirage that has haunted a stretch of road in Suffolk for 150 years. On occasions passers-by have been stunned to see a red-brick Georgian mansion-house, complete with elaborate gardens, that vanishes on close inspection. The Fortean literature records examples of other phantom dwellings.
Alongside sightings of the phantom spire of Ladybower others have reported strange occurrences in the Derwent valley that are often described as time-slips. These include the sound of eerie church bells and organ music ‘coming from beneath the water’ where the village of Derwent once stood. According to author Wayne Boylan the sound is ‘sad and lonesome…and only snatches can be heard drifting across the still waters’.
The valley is also haunted by a phantom Lancaster bomber of WW2 vintage that has regularly been seen skimming the surface of the water on moonlit nights. The Howden dam and reservoir further north were used by the RAF’s famous 617 Squadron, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, as target practice during the secret development of the ‘bouncing bomb’ that was used in the attack on the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany during 1943.
Since the mid-1980s reports began to reach local media from visitors who are convinced they have seen a prop-driven RAF Lancaster aircraft skimming low above the reservoir complex. On occasions these sightings have been so circumstantial that inquiries have been made with the operators of the single operational Lancaster, based at an aviation museum in Lincolnshire, always without result. Some witnesses have claimed the vintage plane they saw was so low they instinctively felt the urge to ‘duck’ their heads as it passed overhead. Their descriptions do not match those of the giant RAF Hercules transports that sometimes hedge-hop along the valley that I have seen on several occasions.
One couple who saw the ‘phantom bomber’ from a layby on the Ladybower reservoir on an October night in 1982 initially thought the object was a hang glider. Then a burst of moonlight revealed the distinctive outline of the wartime RAF Lancaster. Unlike a real Lancaster, however, the phantom version was uncannily silent and ‘continued flying over the reservoir…and then, quite suddenly, vanished before our eyes, leaving us stunned’.
Others have reported their sightings to the emergency services fearing the pilot had crashed into the steep hills of the Peak District. Sightings of phantom planes are well known from other locations in the UK and abroad and are often associated with a tragic loss of life but although there have been up to fifty air-crashes in the Peak since WW2 none have involved Lancasters. Since WW2 operational vintage aircraft have visited the valley regularly to take part in well-advertised anniversary fly-overs. The first of these was during the filming of the movie The Dam Busters, released in 1955 staring Richard Todd as Gibson and Michael Redgrave as Dr Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bouncing bomb.
Is it possible more recent visits, including the one in 1993 to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing raid, have triggered an existing folk memory to produce vivid experiences of the type reported by visitors to Ladybower?
The process whereby tradition, belief, suggestion, imagination and memory interact with objects in the landscape in an ongoing, dynamic process that produces accounts of mysterious ‘timeslips’. David Bramwell’s journey ultimately leads him to the conclusion that the most powerful force in his landscape and the most powerful forces on Earth are represented by the waters that consumed Derbyshire’s answer to Atlantis.