As a musician, how would you describe yourself?
I’m a singer – I sing with my fiddle, and I love to write music and lyrics – often about places in the Peak District or inspired by its folklore.
Bella won BBC Radio 2 Folk singer of the Year in 2014, and previously won Best Original Song in 2012 for The Herring Girl.
How has growing up in the heart of the Peak District National Park affected you and your music?
That’s easiest to see in my song writing – it crops up all the time. It might be the mention of a hill or a place name. I had a song from Castleton called Down in Yon Forest on my first album Night Visiting (2007), and I wrote one about the side of a hill in Edale – Broadlee Bank – which is on my second album In the Shadow of Mountains (2009) – I was literally brought up in the shadow of Kinder Scout, and the album The Dark Peak and the White (2012) is entirely inspired by the Peak District, and I had a grant for this from the National Park’s Sustainable Development Fund to help produce it. But the Peak District is there in the music itself, in the feeling of the music – an atmosphere of moodiness that creeps in that always makes me think of peat bogs and the tops of moors – it’s in the space between and the sounds.
For The Dark Peak and the White album, I spent a lot of time in the locations I was writing about. For the song The Drunken Butcher of Tideswell I followed his route down to the pub – I drove it and stopped and walked and had my fiddle in the car – so for all these songs I went on field trips with my fiddle to make sure the atmosphere of the place was in the music, not in a very literal way – I wasn‘t listening to birdsong and putting that in, I was trying to feel the place and bring that feeling into the music. Fin Cop is on that album and hearing it again makes me think of its position near Monsal Head and that valley – it’s in the fiddle plucks and the harmonium, which is like a little church organ but it’s a reed instrument actually and sounds very moody. It was the archaeological dig at Fin Cop that started me on the path to write the song – my former biology teacher Ann Hall was on the dig and I was friends with her daughter who told me about it and that’s how I discovered the story of Fin Cop and the giant.
Why is the Peak District National Park special to you?
The whole National Park is very special but Edale is the heart of it for me as it’s where I’m from. Edale is a valley so it’s bordered on every side, there’s only one road in and one road out so it feels isolated like an island – especially in winter when there’s heavy snow. Growing up here was great as you have the best of a lot of worlds – there’s that feeling that you are cut off from the rest of the world, it’s very intimate – it feels like you are being held here in the landscape, strongly connected to it, you are entirely in your own world, like being on your own little island; but then you’ve got the train line going through with Manchester at one end and Sheffield at the other – so you’re handily connected! As soon as you are a teenager you have these escape routes. There’s something rather storybook like about this element about this kind of heartland and these ways to get out but also to return home again.
The Peak District and Edale are part of who I am because I’ve been here my whole life. I can’t really imagine not being here. Even when I was away at university or working I have always come back once a month – it’s inevitable I would return to live here – there’s no escape for me!
How does spending time in the National Park benefit you?
There’s something about giant forces of nature and your proximity to them. I know a lot of people feel it too – you could be standing by the sea or have a mountain in front of you – there’s a great power to it and it almost puts you in your place, and those great worries of everyday life like emails and admins and the little things that can take over your brain, you suddenly feel insignificant but in a wonderful way.
Sometimes feeling insignificant can be perfect because it just makes everything easier and puts you into harmony with something bigger. Mountains have the same affect – whenever I’m on top of Kinder or Mam Tor looking at this great expanse of nature really does make you feel that nothing really matters anymore – you’re reminded that nature will always win, trees will grow back through tarmac car parks – we can do a lot of damage to the environment but nature wins in the end. You feel that here in Edale.
We try not to do damage and locally on our moorlands it’s great to see the effects that the Moors for the Future Partnership is having in undoing a lot of damage that was inadvertently caused by industrial pollution in the 19th and 20th centuries.
There’s certainly something about being here and being connected to the ground, to the Earth, which feels good and makes you want to protect it from any harm that could be done to it in the future.
I tend to feel more lonely when I’m in cities than when I’m surrounded by the hills – you know that the walkers you see out on the hills are feeling the same kind of connection.
What do you like to do best here?
I like to stand outside – literally in a field!
I can get back from a tour, put on a coat and go stand in a field. Sometimes I put my head phones on and listen to some moody music, sometimes I go without music. Sometimes I go for a walk up a hill but sometimes you don’t even need to do that, just be outside.
I like to be out at twilight – it’s my favourite part of the day – just when everyone has gone away from their walks and either gone home or they are on the train heading home or sheltering somewhere – it’s just that bit quieter and everyone’s packing away. That’s when you can go out and hear that the owls are out and everything’s rustling in the hedges. The moon takes over and the moon shadows are amazing. The trees silhouette themselves. There’s something about when the dark comes down and you recognise everything in a different way – the outlines of trees and hills – that is all so etched on my brain; I find it very familiar and it’s like being with old friends.
Where is your favourite place?
Edale. The exact spot is Broadlee Bank which is between Upper Booth and Grindsbrook Booth – we call it ‘The Bumps’ in my family and it’s great for sledging down, but from there you can see the whole valley, and it’s easy to get to so you don’t have to dedicate a lot of time to get there. It features on my second album In the Shadow of Mountains (2009).
How important is the sense of place in what you do?
It’s as important as water is to fish. Being from the Dark Peak is part of who I am and it creeps into everything whether it’s lines in lyrics – ‘the skyline in my heart’ is obviously Edale – or in the mood of the music, or the way I play my fiddle, or where I was when I wrote something – the sense of place is all over my work, even when it’s not obvious.
How do you relate to the different areas of the Peak District National Park: the Dark Peak, White Peak and South West Peak?
I’m definitely a Dark Peak girl. It’s interesting that me and friends, who went to Hope Valley College, feel we are gritstone girls. I’m more of a fan of the White Peak now as an adult but growing up I didn’t want to live in the White Peak – it was tribal almost. I’ve always loved the gritstone, the colour, the miserable browny-green of winter – I love it! It’s what I’m used to. I’ve spent time away in places that are spectacular and beautiful but I always come home. When I was in Tennessee, recording and working on a ranch to pay my way, the summer was so hot and I just longed for a damp, drizzly day in Edale!
When I was young I associated the White Peak with quarries so I thought it was dusty but now I associate it with wildflowers and walking. I have started to learn the names of wildflowers there.
I don’t know the South West Peak very well as it’s not a place I go to very often. It almost represents holidays to me as we’d often drive that way when we’re going over to Wales or Alton Towers – so it always feels like a bit of an adventure going over there. I read Alan Garner’s books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath when I was a child and they are set over in that sort of area so it’s got a mysterious appeal.
Does the way you relate to landscape influence you?
I have a thing called ‘silver thread theory’ which is this idea I picture in my head that wherever you’ve gone there’s a silver line left behind and if you were to look at your life from space there’d be a planet of silver from everybody leaving silver trails. I picture mine in Edale being like one giant knot with all these places joined together. So, maybe my music is a bit like that, a thread here and a strand there and a bit of a knot. I don’t want it to be regulated or systematic or that the heart has been ripped out of it.
The songs do feel like they’ve got lives of their own and should be allowed to be their own thing – and they have heart beats, musical beats, like we have natural body rhythms that mean we fall into patterns.
I love to compose for instruments and spend a lot of time on arrangements and put things together in unusual ways that even musicians will find unusual. I come from a traditional folk background so I’ve used to there being no time signatures and musical formulas, but it’s different if you come at from say a country music background which has its own traditions.
I’ve never wanted to make my music easy just for the listener which hasn’t always been easy for an industry that wants familiarity or easy sells – if you try something in a funny mode of seventeen different weirdnesses it’s not going to be easy, but that’s what interests me. I’ve always wanted to make music that speaks in a different way to people and is honest. I wouldn’t enjoy it if I didn’t believe in it.
Where do you find your inspiration in the Peak District National Park?
Inspiration is everywhere – it jumps out and hits me in the face all the time! It’s almost a bit much sometimes.
I’m a habitual notetaker so I end up with pages and pages and books of notes. I find sources of local history in old ballad books and in folk stories. I talk to people and find out about the stories from their area. When I was writing The Dark Peak and The White I wanted to find old local songs but none existed for me to discover, apart from village carols, so I decided to create some. I could have taken a more singer-songwriter approach by singing about places and putting myself in the songs but I like traditional music and I like stories and folklore so I wrote new folk songs with the traditional feel to them. I’ve always enjoyed new and old music, songs and stories, so I ‘smush’ them all together.
For the song Bradwell’s Daughter, I found out about her from speaking to people in Bradwell and heard about the ghost bird that flies over the village. I’ve knocked on people’s doors and asked them about local folk stories.
Is it easy to be a musician in the Peak District National Park?
You’ll have to ask me that in a year’s time as I’ve only just moved back to the Peak District after 8 years away – although I came back once a month. I’ve been making my living as a professional musician so I’m setting up song workshops, teaching private lessons, composing, developing project ideas and applying for funding.
It has its downside for self-employed creatives as it’s not a cheap place to live, but I have the advantage of knowing a lot of people here so I can spread the word and connect up with people in and around the Peak District.
It’s a great area to experience music in with amazing venues on the doorstep. As well as all the community choirs, school groups and open mic events that are around, we’ve got Bamford Community Arts, Buxton Opera House, Springbank Arts Centre at New Mills, concerts in Manchester and Sheffield are in easy reach by train, and lots more.
Any advice for aspiring musicians and composers?
Wherever you are you’ve got to get out and experience things. People can be full of ideas of what they want to do but there’s something missing in the middle of it all and that’s experience. I’m very grateful for having had the opportunity to travel, stay in different places and experience different things. I’ve been broke for a lot of it and that’s actually been quite a good thing as it means I’ve stayed in hostels rather than hotels and worked when I’ve travelled which gives you plenty of experiences.
If you want to write music or lyrics about the Peak District you’ve got to experience it – go out and stand in a field or on top of a hill, go out at night when you can only hear what’s in front of you rather than see. Listen to other people’s music and let that inspire you. Talk to people about local history and tales.
And let other people hear your music. Perform at open mics and sessions. Go out and play!
Any advice for families on how to enjoy the Peak District National Park?
Get muddy! Jump in a peat bog and have fun! Don’t be afraid to get covered in mud – bring a change of clothes. And don’t give kids a choice about walking to the tops of hills – they have to get there to appreciate it!
Bella Hardy was talking to Alison Riley, summer 2018.