How Berwick St John’s 1,000 Year History Was Brought To Life In 45 Minutes

In October, locals filled Berwick St John’s church to hear what sounded like a radio play starring one-third of villagers. The ‘soundscape’ recounted the village’s rich history. ThisIsAlfred discovered that the project leader’s story is as fascinating as Berwick’s.

As a professional sound designer, John Del’ Nero has decades of experience in creating powerful and often moving experiences through his considered use of music, sound and the placement of speakers. Much of John’s career has been with West End theatre. He has arranged event-enhancing soundtracks for some of Britain’s biggest spectacles. “I was appointed sound designer for the Golden Jubilee celebrations throughout London. I was overall in charge,” he said.

John Del’ Nero

John’s work is renowned in the Scottish capital too. “I did 24 years of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which I thoroughly enjoyed. I adore hearing 300 pipes walking through the drawbridge on the evening. It’s an amazing sound and the acoustic in that place is exceptional,” said John.

A sound designer is certainly an unusual, seemingly one-off, occupation. I had never met one before. John explained that a random act of kindness set him on his path to this profession. It was the early 1970s and 22-year-old John had just quit his engineering job to try and get a foothold in the more exciting world of recording studios. Driving home through South London, he stopped his car to help a driver sitting inside a broken-down Fiat.

“The middle-aged woman of about fifty had a burnt-out clutch in a brand-new car. I took her back to my flat and said that I would phone the AA. I made her a cup of tea and she said that her husband was a director of EMI. The husband phoned me up that night and said, ‘You have an interview at Marble Arch Studios. Be there at 9 o’clock tomorrow’.”

John was promised a job, but it wouldn’t be available for six months. He was advised to talk his way into a recording studio for practical experience in the meantime. He left a message for a studio manager, pretending to be a client. The boss called back and was so impressed by John’s cheek, he offered him a van driver position, ferrying tapes between recording studios. Crucially, it allowed John to observe the recording and sound mixing process after hours and his sound career was born.

It was John’s work, arranging sound for an event at Salisbury Cathedral, which helped him discover the Shaftesbury area. He moved to Alvediston, and later moved down the road to Berwick. The idea of creating a village history soundscape came when John’s visual, rather than audio skills, were put to use in Berwick’s church.

“I do lots of conferences, gala dinners and cabaret. Quite often there will be amazing flower arrangements and I adore them. Somebody asked if anybody would be interested in doing flowers for the church. My wife is not interested in that sort of thing, but I was. I said I would give it a go. I started doing it twice a year, coming up with outrageous ideas. I’ve had great fun doing it,” said John.

Berwick St John Church

He says he is a non-believer, but he values the village church as a community centre that supplements the village hall. “I love the architecture and the spiritualism that it evokes. I don’t think the place has been used enough, so I came up with an idea of doing a soundscape.”

As the church filled up, some residents will have noticed the strategically placed loudspeakers dotted around the nave and transept, as they took their pew seats. After a brief welcome, the lights dimmed and over 45 minutes, the congregation was transported through time. Together we travelled through one thousand years of Berwick’s history, brought to life through powerful audio imagery.

“I wanted to create many different atmospheres. One moment you would feel that you were in a hall in the 16th century, when some knights were talking to each other,” said John. The polished, Radio 4-like sound recording and performance was the result of John’s technical precision. “You get voices and you add some echo, taking into consideration the echo the building already has. You might want to create a situation where you are capturing a farmer standing in the field, looking up at Winklebury Hill above our village,” said John.

The placement of speakers around the church meant that the voices and sounds appeared to be coming from different points of the building. There was narrative about people travelling above the village on the Ox Drove and stealing livestock. At that point pigs grunted. A young lad sitting on the front pew turned around to see where they were coming from.

“I don’t know if you noticed the horses galloping down through the centre of the church,” said John. “I had eight loudspeakers under the grating on the floor which allowed me to move sound through the church.

If you have a tweeting bird, one bird comes from one area and a different bird comes from another. You feel there are two tweeting birds up in trees and are not all coming from the same loudspeaker,” John explained, as he revealed how his expertise had created a magical experience.

He had brought to life the script crafted by villager Margaret Montgomery. “I used to be a professional writer,” said Margaret. “We have lived in Berwick since 1992. Having lived here for almost thirty years, we’re almost accepted,” she added with a smile.

She owns the former home of the family who dominated local life from the 13th century, and that connection and the view from her window inspired Margaret’s creativity. Her research and record checking was extensive. “It took me around eighteen months because I wanted to keep the historical authenticity. There are a lot of people who know Berwick better than I do. There are four generations of people here. If you get something wrong, you get told,” said Margaret, who picked out key moments from Berwick’s timeline for John to recreate using sound effects and voices.

Margaret Montgomery

The audio chronology took in the Black Death, the English Civil War and the Siege of Wardour Castle. “Wardour is the closest place that was attacked during the Civil War,” said John. “I think Margaret cleverly captured that by having one of the farmers walk up onto the Downs. I could do sound effects, but they didn’t have to be huge because the castle was at a distance,” said John.

Some of the sounds used were recorded in and around Berwick. Margaret weaved the traditional sounding of an 8pm curfew bell into the soundscape script. A traveller traversing the Ox Drove from Shaftesbury once became lost as the fog thickened. He was able to follow the tolling bell toward the safety of the village below. John employed technical wizardry to his recorded church bell to give the impression of the tolling. “You only have to record the bell hitting once and then you can edit that and copy it in many times.”

The opening of the village school in 1835 provided a great opportunity for capturing more local voices. A choir of residents was recorded, and their performance was used to subtly enhance the rich sound of that part of Berwick’s story. “There were sixty different people in the choir, and some kids did come from outside. It was brilliant to see them doing the singing for us,” said John.

There were nods and smiles from members of the audience as they recognised friends and relatives’ brief singing or speaking parts. Margaret sat at the back of the church, watching pews full of people sitting quietly listening to her words come to life. “It’s actually quite exciting and very moving. If people don’t shuffle, they are obviously enjoying it and the whole point of writing it was to involve all the village. John and I were very keen to involve as many villagers as possible with the authentic voices of people who actually live here,” she explained.

Villagers gather for the ‘soundscape’ performance

This short but epic production was the result of two years of hard work. It became clear that each second of the soundscape featured multiple layers of overlaid recordings. John says that arranging recordings for the 45-minute piece was a major piece of work in itself.

“If you’re trying to record fifty-odd people, just trying to get them in the right place at the right time and to say their piece takes an enormous amount of organisation. My wife is a production manager and without her making the telephone calls and arranging people’s diaries, I don’t think we would have got it done.”

John has resisted calls to make the recording available online. His complex recording carefully positioned the appearance of each sound on a different speaker and the piece was designed for playback in the church. “It is a site-specific work. If you took that to somebody’s house, it doesn’t work,” he said.

But for those who missed it, the soundscape will be repeated again soon. “Either next year or the following year, on a special occasion, the whole thing will be rigged up and replayed,” said John.

He’s pleased that the soundscape has been so well received. “I think they have thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of them have said that they have learnt more in that hour about the village than they have in the whole lifetime of living there.” John has, arguably, created his own milestone event to add to the Berwick’s timeline.

The soundscape was a true community effort, engaging at least one-quarter of Berwick’s 200 residents. The village came together to create something special that participants will never forget. Thank goodness a 22-year-old John Del’ Nero stopped to assist that broken-down Fiat.