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The Castleton Curfew
Ringing the curfew bell The curfew bell is an old tradition which still takes place in just one Peakland village.

The bell used to be rung from the parish church to guide wayfarers safely towards a town or village as darkness fell, or when bad weather made it difficult to follow trackways.

Originally though, the curfew was a signal to people to extinguish their lights and fires at the end of the day. This was a safety measure to prevent accidental fires, dating from early medieval times when most buildings were made from timber. Until the year 1100 it was against the law to burn any lights after the ringing of the curfew bell. The actual word curfew comes from the French 'couvre-feu' the name of a cover which was used to smother a fire by cutting off the air.

In The Matlocks and Bakewell, published in 1893 (reprinted by the Arkwright Society in 1983), one writer noted that the curfew bell, 'introduced by William the Conqueror' was still heard at Bakewell. A reference from Bakewell parish records of 1682 names William Downes as the ringer of the curfew and the 'Plowbell'.

At the start of the 20th century the curfew still tolled in several Peak villages throughout the winter months. The following description is taken from Memorials of Old Derbyshire, as told in 1901: 'At Castleton the curfew bell is known as the "curfer" bell, the accent falling on the first syllable. It is said to have been rung as a warning to people coming over the moors. It begins to ring on the 29th of September, and ends on Shrove Tuesday. On the 29th of September it rings at seven in the evening, and on the following nights at eight o'clock. It does not ring on Sundays, or between Shrove Tuesday and September 29th. Mr. Samuel Marrison, of Castleton, aged 88, said to me that "people found their way across the hills by the sound of the bells. There were no walls, and the sound of the bells was a guide". An old man in Castleton told me that "they ring curfer because a man was lost on the hills. The parish clerk rings it on one bell". I was surprised to find how many people in Castleton knew the exact times at which this bell is rung.'

The disruptions of the First World War probably brought about the end of the curfew in Winster, where throughout November, December, January and February the 4th bell was rung at 8 o'clock every workday evening, except on Saturdays, when the hour was 7 pm.

A curfew bell was recorded in 1922 at Ashford in the Water, Chapel en le Frith and Eyam. Eleven years later it was in use at Eyam and Castleton. In 1930 the Castleton 'curfer bell' saved the life of a motorist and his companion who had lost their bearings in a ferocious blizzard. On hearing the lone bell they headed in the direction of the sound and reached Castleton in safety.

Castleton is now the only place in the Peak where you can still hear the curfew bell. For almost 20 years it has been rung by Miss Josephine Barnes, every Saturday night from 29 September at 7 o'clock. The tradition closes down for the year on Shrove Tuesday with an 11 am Pancake Bell. The Pancake Bell is another old custom; it usually heralded a half-day school holiday and is said to have served as a signal to housewives to mix their batter.

In order to ring the Castleton curfew, Miss Barnes climbs 11 steps to the bell-ringing room in the belfry of St Edmund's parish church, where she rings the number 5 (medium tone) bell for about 8 minutes, then changes to the deeper number 7 bell to toll the day's date, i.e. between 1 and 31.

So if you are within earshot of Castleton on a Saturday night between the end of September and Pancake Day, keep your ears peeled for this last link with a time when there were no motor cars, tarmac, street lights or mobile phones.


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