Castle Carols

In many of the pubs around the edge of Sheffield there are the most amazing singing sessions at Christmas time. The repertoire is essentially what was being sung in country churches up till the middle of the nineteenth century – sometimes referred to these days as West Gallery music. When the Victorian Church slung out the old village bands and choirs, and with them their often locally-composed hymns, carols and anthems, and imposed the uniformity of Hymns Ancient and Modern, played by a well-trained organist, the old singers and musicians took their songs, their music and their business into the pubs, and carried on singing the old favourites there.

Nearly two hundred years later this repertoire and style is still very much alive, usually supported by a piano bashing out the accompaniment and providing the charming ‘symphonies’ that keep the rhythm going and give the singers breathing space between the verses. In fact the Sheffield Carols, now usually referred to under the broader banner of the Village Carols, are more popular than ever. You need to get to the singing pubs well before opening time if you’re to stand a chance of getting in.

And what a glorious wall of sound greets you once you’re inside! This isn’t a well-trained choir singing delicately and precisely through their pieces – this is the sound of a community singing it’s heart out, neighbour with neighbour, friend with friend. And with a pint in your hand and a few more inside you, there’s no need to hold back! The wonderful fugueing harmonies and interweaving lines, in up to four parts, are all learned by ear by people who’ve known them ever since they had to stand outside the pub door as children, and listen to the grown-ups belting them out, until they themselves were old enough to step inside and add their voices to the family chorus.


And what, you may ask, has any of this to do with Bishops Castle? Well,  a session along these lines was started in the town for Christmas 2018. The venue was be the top room of The Three Tuns Inn at the top of the town in Salop Street. As there was no firm local tradition for this kind of thing, we had to start from scratch.

Local folk singer John Kirkpatrick selected hymns, carols and anthems from the vast Village Carol repertoire, as well as including a good number of similar tunes with a Shropshire connection. John prepared recordings of the carols, with the piano accompaniment, and highlighted each harmony line in turn so that all the parts could be heard and participants could work out how they fitted together, and decide which one suited them best.

One of the basic premises of Castle Carols is that we want to try and replicate the old way of learning the songs, just like those kids standing outside the pub, listening, from about the age of five, so that by the time they were a stroppy teenagers they knew all the words, parts and tunes, even if by then wouldn’t have been seen dead with their parents!

Obviously its a bit late for most of us to take that approach so we just have to play and listen to the tracks recorded by John, download the words, have a look and a listen to some of the videos on here and on our Facebook page and then top it all up with a bit of tuition and practice at our regular Sunday evening sessions.

We haven’t published scores for any of the carols, apart from the two new ones for 2020, and that ties in with what we’ve described above.

It is open to anybody of any age and of any experience who simply enjoys singing. The aim isn’t to form a choir, or to be in any sense a performing group. We aren’t singing for people to listen to us, we’re singing so they have no choice but to want to join in! The aim is to have a good old sing, as best we can, with people who live near to where we live, exploring together a style and repertoire that is probably unfamiliar to most of us. We sing as high or low as we liked – male and female voices are mixed in any of the parts so that the sound is completely different from that generated by the usual strict division of labour in a conventional choir.

Most of the material originates in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when belief in God was unquestioned. The Christmas story fills these carols with wonderfully archaic language, occasionally incomprehensible, but sometimes with stunningly beautiful turns of phrase. And the twists and turns of the determinedly antique music were guaranteed to sweep up even the most committed non-believer along the Road to Glory!!