20 Feb

This is a second and revised edition of the original print version written by Alan Roberts. I did toy with changing the title to something catchier. I was thinking “Britain’s Area 51” to maximise sales, but I think that such a title might have left hundreds of conspiracy theorists a little disappointed. So I stuck with the original title. I am not sure, if the Happenings at Harpur Hill were exactly strange, but they are certainly interesting and little known. 

The book covers three main areas activity at Harpur Hill. The use of the Frith Artillery Range during the First World War and particularly its importance in the development of the mortars which proved a vital new weapon in that War. The use of the site foe Health and Safety Research from its earliest incarnation as a research Establishment of the Safety in Mines Bard up to the present day. Finally, the use of the site by RAF Maintenance Junit 28, including the storage of what might euphemistically be described as “Special Weapons”. 

The earlier versions of this book have now gone out of print, so my father asked me to publish it in e-book format. 


Of course, I took the opportunity to digress down various avenues of interest. I added to the sections on Britain’s Chemical Warfare Program ( I really didn’t know that we still had so many in the Second World War or what we proposed to do with them. I also added some longer observations on the 1972/73/74 Buxton Rock Festivals ( sorry I don’t think that father had previously heard of Uriah Heap or Medicine Head). The rest is my father’s original work, barring one or two stylistic flourishes. Safety in Mines or SMRE (later to become the Health and Safety Laboratories) was and still is  a major employer in Buxton . It is surprising to learn that so was the Royal Air Force. When I was living in Buxton, the RAF has already gone and the other major local employers were ICI and Ferodo. ICI has long been broken up into many different units, but the quarries which it owned are still there, if run by different operating companies. The HSL and the Education Sector are now probably the biggest employers left.  SMRE was a strange place on the outside of town, I am not sure that apart from those who worked there many people knew what they did up there. I always told people, that father was a scientist who blew things up “. I remember they had good firework displays based on samples they were testing.

 It is also worth bearing in mind, that the original aim of the Safety in Mines was to save lives, while certain smug newspaper columnists, get clicks and pay for their Florida condos by whining on about “Elf ‘n Safety culture”. Health and Safety is a serious business- especially I would imagine to some retired miners who probably lived a longer life because of Safety in Mines. The original director of research, Professor RV Wheeler was known as “the miners’ greatest friend since Sir Humphry Davy” for his work on Mine Safety. I was surprised to learn that hundreds of miners used to come down from the colliery areas on Sunday trips to Buxton to visit the Mines Research facilities and that their opinions were actually listened to. Buxton was also the site of the “First International Conference on Mine Safety”, where delegates from the major European Coal producing nations; the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and the United States took a break from fighting each other and started working together on Mine Safety. 

Unfortunately, the peaceful period of international cooperation did not last long and the site at Harpur Hill took on a new wartime role. The wartime activities are interesting, I wonder how many Buxtonians realised that in 1940, they were sitting around a mile away from several tons of volatile Mustard Gas, not to mention a large quantity of High Explosive more than sufficient to blow up a medium sized city.  Fortunately, we never used the Gas or Special Weapons as they were called, but it was there and was potentially ready to be dumped on Southern beaches should the Germans have made the foolhardy trip across the channel. The book mentions the disastrous explosion at Fauld, and when you read about the rather slipshod processes for handling dangerous materials it is fortunate the same was not visited on the inhabitants of Buxton.

 I could not resist adding a few paragraphs about the Buxton Rock Festival. I once worked with a a slightly older Welshman, who said he had been to the Buxton Rock Festival. Now hundreds of people claim to have seen the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, without ever having been there, but I don’t think anybody claimed to have been at the Buxton Rock Festival who wasn’t there, Booth Farm might not have been Worthy Farm, but possibly the only similarities between the Buxton Festivals and Woodstock were the mud and being in the back of beyond. Apparently in a Woodstock touch, Rod Stewart arrived in Buxton by helicopter and the town was full of uncomfortable looking officers from Derbyshire’s Drug Squad, posing as Festival goers. I wonder if Rod looks fondly back on Harpur Hill from his California home. The main thing everybody else seems to remember is the cold weather ( even in July). Perhaps Northern England at an altitude of over 1,000 ft was not the best place to have a Rock Festival. 

It is not a long book, but there care some tasty morsels for anybody interested in local history;  First World War Mortars; Chemical Weapons; Mine Safety; Mountain Rescue ( and Rock Festivals) , with some helpful tips for further reading.  If you are visiting Buxton, it’s worth reading to get a different perspective on a part of the town far removed from the Spa, the Georgian crescent and the Opera Festival.

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