Village pubs in Yorkshire are packed with locals giving new life to traditional yuletide songs spurned by the Victorian church
Sunday 14 December 2014 14.23 EST
Shortly before 8.30pm, as the Sportsman Inn at Lodge Moor on the western edge of Sheffield is beginning to fill up with animated winter drinkers, someone arrives with a small electronic keyboard and sets it on a table near the bay window.
“What’s that strange contraption?” jokes one of the regulars near the front. Don’t worry, he is reassured, no one’s going to play it – it’s just to give the first note if it’s needed. “Oh good, you had me worried there.”
The carols in Lodge Moor are unaccompanied; everybody knows that. They might use an organ in Dungworth, a few miles away across the Rivelin valley. Other pubs a little further afield might have occasional brass or even string accompaniment. But here, in a handful of villages across a tiny stretch of countryside west of Sheffield, the festive carolling, fuelled by pints of ale, is to the sound of the human voice alone.
“Right, Back Lane,” says someone, and 35 or so voices break into the unlikeliest of pub songs, identified by the name of its melody. “Behold, the grace appears! The promise is fulfilled; Mary, the wondrous virgin bears, and Jesus is the child.”
Ian Russell, known as the foremost authority on the area’s village carols and also an enthusiastic regular at the Lodge Moor “sings”, says: “This is a carolling tradition that has existed in many different forms in thousands of villages up and down the country, no question. Of course, most of those villages don’t sing now but there are places where these carols are still hugely important.”
The Sportsman is a welcoming and enviably located pub where the Peak District meets what is now the very fringe of the Sheffield suburbs. Between Armistice day and Christmas it is home to one of the least known of British festive traditions: the local pub carol sing.
Here and in a few dozen pubs in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, villagers meet for full-throated renditions of songs that have largely been forgotten from the wider Christmas canon but which have been cherished and sung here for generations.
Despite their religious themes it is a long time since these songs have had much to do with a church. Most of the carols that are sung in the Sportsman originated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when they were performed in the west galleries of village churches by local musicians.
As the Victorians tidied up church worship, however, the folksy hymns, some with questionable doctrine or disconcertingly exuberant choruses, were pushed out into the pubs and homes of the local people who, canonical or no, still loved to sing them.
Most remarkable of all, perhaps to those with an expert ear, there are very distinct differences between the carols sung from village to village, and even from pub to pub. “The differences are in the style of singing as well as the way they are struck up, the speed they are sung at, the pitch they are sung at,” says Russell. “And people have been quite fervent at keeping the differences – ‘oh, we don’t sing that one like that here.’”
This evening’s repertoire ranges from a song about the angels, composed by a local steelworker in 1910, and a spirited romp about Kris Kringle and his Christmas Tree, to no fewer than five different renditions of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (the only carol permitted by the Anglican church during much of the 18th century), including one to which is appended a joyful chorus about chiming Christmas bells.
That carol is sung locally to as many as 25 different tunes, says Russell. “There are stories of people sitting down and singing While Shepherds all night, and they are true. I’ve done it.”
One singer, Roger Hinchliffe, says his father and grandfather sang at the Sportsman, which is about half a mile from their family farm. He remembers, as a small boy, his extended family gathering at the farm to sing the local carols while his aunt played the piano. He has been coming to the pub sings at the Sportsman since he was a teenager; he is now 64. His son James, who is 38, is also here.
Increased mobility of the village populations inevitably means that some of the distinctions of the songs sung in the various local pubs have been lost, admits Russell, but he says he is confident in the future of the tradition.
Though a majority, if not all, of those in the Sportsman are aged over 50, “there are a good few younger people who sing, I’m sure it’s got a good future”, he says.
At certain pubs, indeed, queues at Sunday lunchtimes begin before the pubs open, and hundreds of people can cram into a few small rooms to sing.
“It’s just ordinary people making music that is really very special,” Russell says, “not having to worry about being musically literate or having beautiful voices – just ordinary people making music, and remarkable music as well.”