Emily Oldfield speaks to Dark Alchemy – the independent event series bringing alternative artistry to crypts, churches and a range of historic Bristol venues.

Be immersed in an evening of dark ambient music in a ceremonial space right here in Bristol thanks to Dark Alchemy events. Established in 2017, their format involves creating a unique ritual atmosphere involving live musical elements and carefully chosen aesthetics, taking the audience on a transformative journey in a range of historic venues.

Each event creates an enchanting sound world, a dark and creative feast for the senses, with a carefully planned selection of bands and artists on the line-up every time. Co-curated by Ellen Southern and Tom Bush from Dead Space Chamber Music, along with Tommy Creep – known for his work on modular synth – Dark Alchemy developed as a concept in partnership with The Churches Conservation Trust. This is an organisation raising awareness and support for the maintenance of these historic buildings. In turn, this has seen Dark Alchemy take place in some of Bristol’s most atmospheric locations, as well as raising funds for the Trust that maintains them – especially significant given that The Churches Conservation Trust turned 50 last year.

Venues that have featured so far include the Church of St John on the Wall and the Church of St Thomas the Martyr. In the case of St John on the Wall, the unusual naming derives from the fact that the church was built into the Bristol city walls during the 14th century. It is thought this location was intended as a place where travellers could stop and pray during a journey to or from the city. Constructed next to the Gothic city gate, it is a striking building, with a perpendicular church spire and a vaulted crypt – both locations where immersive Dark Alchemy events have taken place.

Dead Space Chamber Music in the crypt of St John on the Wall - Katie Murt Photography

Image credit: Katie Murt Photography

Their next event returns to St John on the Wall – and its impressive crypt – on Saturday 22 February from 8pm onwards (event link here), with three unique musical artists ready to plunge the setting into a stunning sonic experience. These will be Empty Chalice from Italy, making his UK debut, and Bristol-based spiritual industrial performer BURL, as well as a dark ambient collaboration between Dark Alchemy’s founders Dead Space Chamber Music and Tommy Creep. As ever, the evening will be raising funds for The Churches Conservation Trust.

Haunt Bristol’s Emily Oldfield talked to the co-founders of Dark Alchemy to discover more about this intriguing event series…

Hello! What was the inspiration behind Dark Alchemy Bristol – and how was the concept received when you first started out?

“It started in 2017 when we, as Dead Space Chamber Music, were starting to get gigs in independent grassroots venues in Bristol – places we know and love. While we do still actively support this aspect of the scene – playing and supporting other bands at small venues – our vision for the direction of Dead Space Chamber Music had other leanings too.

“As it turns out, from an initial one-off hire of the crypt below St John on the Wall – which raised funds for the Churches Conservation Trust who care for that and many other sacred spaces – a relationship blossomed. They liked how we were approaching things, and so we can honestly say that the development of the Dark Alchemy event series and the development of our band…well, we can’t imagine one without the other! After a year or so, Tommy joined us, as the success of the events meant that we could start to think more elaborately, and it’s kept growing from there!”

What does the format of the night tend to be like?

“There’s usually a hush as people enter and absorb the space. The spaces we use can disorient people as they are ‘hidden in plain sight’ in the city centre – concealed by concrete buildings all around them, hemming them in and hiding their actual size or shape. In the case of the crypt, it’s half subterranean! So, there’s usually a period of adjustment, of breathing in the incense and… just anticipation! Then without announcement, the first sounds ring out. For us, this is where the event takes on a life of its own, becomes its own animal.”

Dark Alchemy at the Church of St Thomas the Martyr-Katie Murt Photography

Image credit: Katie Murt Photography

The event series often uses unique and historic spaces such as crypts and churches. Some people may feel hesitant attending a non-religious event in a religious space… was this a concern? And how does Dark Alchemy work to celebrate those spaces?

“It is a concern, but a greater concern would be the related one that we want people to know that we are aware of the historical importance of these buildings and that we treat them with respect. We want to be sure that attendees of our events understand this, so we hand out programmes to them on entry which include a note to be mindful of the space.

“We also monitor the events while they are taking place. So far there has been no problem – the audiences who have attended have been focused on listening and we have (thankfully) been successful in creating a ceremonial atmosphere. This is intentional and in-keeping with one of the original purposes for which these buildings were built. Sacred music was written to be performed in these spaces with the purpose of assisting those listening to transcend worldly concerns. This is something we are aiming for with these events.”

Can you tell us a bit more then about your choice of venues in Bristol and some of your historic favourites?

“We are vocal in our support of an independent scene and grassroots venues in Bristol, and we hope that Dark Alchemy contributes to the array of nights on offer. Any favourite venues? Hard to say! The Gryphon, The Exchange, The Old England, The Cube, The Crofters Rights, the Thekla…there are many, but unfortunately many remain under threat to various extents, and several have already been lost (The Brunswick Club, The Surrey Vaults). So, supporting live music and all the people who work so tirelessly to create Bristol’s nightlife is really important to us.”

Why do you think Bristol as a city is so well suited to your type of events? Do you think it could be seen as somewhat of a Gothic city?

“From the reception we have received, we think it is! We host artists from Bristol, the rest of the UK and now abroad, and in turn our audience is growing. We definitely have a core Bristol audience, without whom it never would have come this far. And we love how the word seems to be spreading and people are coming from out of town now… that’s amazing! We have started to see it as a way to share something special with visitors to Bristol – certainly not your average visitor encounter.

“For us, Bristol is a multifaceted city – just walking around you see layers of fascinating history and hidden gems. There certainly are plenty of gothic elements to keep the likes of us happy! Apart from St John on the Wall and St Thomas the Martyr, we love being in Arnos Vale, a garden cemetery just off the Bath Road, a place where you can really lose yourself!”

Abattoir Satori in St John on the Wall - Ailura Photography

Image credit: Ailura Photography

The co-curation of Dark Alchemy involves Ellen and Tom from Dead Space Chamber music – incorporating dark neoclassical and ritual elements – as well as Tommy Creep on modular synth. Why does this type of music matter to you, and how has it shaped the kind of event you offer?

“The first part of this question is difficult to answer. Music matters to almost everyone – exactly what they are drawn to happens on an instinctive basis and is often hard to put into words. But the central issue will be one of communication – they hear in the music something they feel needs to be said, and the same force motivates us to do what we do. On a more practical level though, we have eclectic tastes and when these are combined with our abilities as writers/performers, the easiest way to ‘tag’ it (according to our internet overlords) is ‘dark neoclassical’, ‘ritual’, etc. It shapes our events simply because we wanted to create events that we would ourselves like to attend.

“We focus on music that compliments the historic nature of the spaces and we choose artists who understand the importance of the atmosphere we aim to create. So overall, it’s about summoning a feeling that works particularly in the spaces. That’s what we think distinguishes Dark Alchemy events. We love creating special limited-edition merch items also; zines, collaborative music releases, framed art, even an elixir! Things that are hand-made or assembled or have been created in a bespoke way referencing the spaces themselves.

“All of this contributes to the sense of being within in an immersive artwork, something shared and multi-sensory. So, rather than just listening to a type of music in a place, it’s the whole experience – the loud ritual droning and otherworldly textures in combination with medieval settings – which creates an almost hypnotic atmosphere and stirs up feelings in the audience, placing them as participants rather than merely observers.”

To find out more about Dark Alchemy, they are also on Facebook.

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Haunt Bristol: Discovering local legends with Haunted and Hidden Tour

Emily Oldfield meets the man behind Bristol’s Haunted and Hidden tours, John Hughes...

Bristol is buzzing with hidden histories, local legends and strange stories just below the surface. Here to reveal all things spooky and secretive about the area is John Hughes, who has been running Bristol’s Haunted and Hidden Tour for an impressive 15 years. The walk typically takes place every Friday night, departing from outside Bristol Cathedral at 8pm, at a price of just £5/£4 (NUS). 

Have you seen the city’s haunted cinema or heard about Clifton’s ghostly highwayman? John certainly is no stranger to delving into the darker side of Bristol’s history – and his 75-minute walking tour – awarded the 2017 Trip Advisor ‘Certificate of Excellence’ – takes in plenty of historical sites as well as a number of TV and film locations. Combining historical fact along with entertaining film and TV trivia is John’s signature skill, ensuring that the tour is an entertaining as well as eye-opening experience.

Haunted and Hidden Bristol

Prepare to see a whole new side to the city as the tour involves everything from a visit to a 16th century haunted house (with seven ‘haunted’ buildings on the walk in total), to being able to see where Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses fell through the bar! Bristol is one of the most popular filming locations in the UK after all, something taken well into account during John’s tour… and he’ll even share some tips on the top celebrity haunts in the city!

The Haunted and Hidden Tour is packed with information and stories that will interest audiences old and young. Whether you want to learn about some of the most haunted buildings in Bristol or see where some of your favourite shows were filmed – there is something for everyone. Little wonder then that it was voted No.1 on GWR FM'S ‘Top 20 Things to do in Bristol’ – and John also offers private walking tours, which can be arranged by contacting him directly.

Bristol Cathedral’s College Green certainly offers a stunning starting point for the walking tour, right beneath the Grade I listed building – itself consecrated in 1148 and containing a number of Decorated Gothic style features, including the magnificent windows.

So what are you waiting for? Advanced booking is required.

Haunted and Hidden Bristol

Here at Haunt Bristol, we spoke to John himself to find out more… 

Hello John. Bristol’s Haunted and Hidden tour has been running for 15 years! What inspired you to set it up in the first place?

“I did a tour of New York with an amazing guy called King Michael - instead of doing the obvious places he took us to quirky TV locations, celebrity hang-outs and just made it a more personable tour. I knew a few of the haunted Bristol places but not enough for a walk, so I spent 6 months researching the route to create the walk.”       

The tour involves a variety of content – from haunted buildings and strange sites to film locations and celebrity tales. Can you tell us a bit more about the style of the walk?

“The walk is a combination of haunted spots (of which there are 7 on the route) with the TV/film locations just to make it more interesting, especially as Bristol is growing as a major location for film and television. I also add some Bristol history and humour to make it a fun and informative night out.” 

Tell us about some of your favourite spots on the tour…

“The Odeon Cinema is iconic as the ghost there dates back to a murder in the late 1940s when the Manager was shot dead in his office… the new Screen 3 is situated where the office used to be, and his ghost has been seen in the third row!

“We also take in the haunted Rummer Hotel in the Old City, formerly a coaching Inn and a stop-off for Cromwell in the Civil War. A figure has been seen walking through the wall next to the new fireplace (in the same area as where the entrance to the stables were!) The Rummer has also featured in the TV shows Skins and Being Human.”

Haunted and Hidden Bristol

Largely exploring Bristol’s Old City, the tour incorporates plenty of historical context too. Can you shed some light on the long history of this area?

“The Old City dates back to the 1740s and St Nicholas Market has run there daily since 1743. It’s my favourite area as it was pretty much untouched 
during the Blitz, and has some amazing buildings… like the Corn Exchange where The Who, Walker Brothers, Rolling Stones etc. once played. The Corn Exchange Clock has three hands on it, as Bristol - up until the 1850s - had its own time zone: being 11 minutes behind London time with the City being west of the Greenwich Meridian!” 

Have you seen ghosts yourself in Bristol – and has there ever been a ‘supernatural’ experience on one of the tours?

“Around 10 years ago we had a legal firm sitting in the Rummer Hotel in front of the fire… and you could make out the top part of person behind them where the old stable door once was!  

“During one tour years ago in the Old City we bumped into Aidan Turner who was filming Being Human in the Old City (he played the Vampire John Mitchell).”

How often are the tours and how can people keep updated?

“The walks run most Fridays year round plus we also do private walks for groups/schools etc. on a date to suit people, all the info and contacts are at hauntedandhiddenbristol.co.uk” 

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St John on the Wall
St John on the Wall interior

The only surviving church founded by Walter Frampton and built on Bristol's saxon inner town wall during the 12th century

Church of St Thomas the Martyr
St Thomas Church

A fine Classical church building dating back to 1792-93, which was designed by James Allen to retain features of older churches

Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust
Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust

Step into a secret world and discover 45 green acres where the history of Bristol is told in a leafy and tranquil setting.