Residents reckon life is being ruined by a constant whirring sound – but it places them on front line of puzzling modern phenomenon
At the height of her torment last summer, Yvonne Conner would get out of bed each night, climb into her car and drive the streets searching for the mysterious noise that had woken her.
“Two in the morning, three, four,” the 50-year-old says today. “Driving, stopping, listening. My partner would come with me but he couldn’t hear it. He thought I was going crazy. So did I.”
She was, it would transpire, not alone in her suffering.
Residents – or, at least, those who can hear it – have complained of a continuous washing-machine-like whirring and birring reverberating into their homes. They say it wakes them up at night and goes on through the day. Some have started suffering migraines and fear longer term health issues. One is thought to have sold up and moved away in a bid to escape the drone. A petition demanding action has been signed by almost 500 people.
Yet, 18 months after the sound was first heard here in Holmfield, its exact source remains an enigma.
While theories abound that a nearby industrial park is to blame, an investigation by the local Calderdale Council has failed to draw firm conclusions. Some in the village remain sceptical there is even a noise at all. Others are concerned that by associating local factories – which employ hundreds of people – with such disruption, good jobs could be lost. A schism appears to be slowly forming in this close-knit community.
“It’s dividing people,” says Nikki Kelly, a Conservative council candidate for the ward. “But those residents who can hear it are at their wits’ end. I had one woman talking about suicide. We need a solution.”
This is not, it’s perhaps worth saying, a unique situation. Rather the village – 850 homes, two pubs, one chippy – appears to be the newest front in an increasingly bothersome modern phenomenon: the Hum.
Dozens of communities across the planet, from rural Ontario in Canada to central Sydney in Australia, have reported similar unidentified low-frequency throbbing over the last 30 years. An online map tracks them all. In the UK, the most famous case, the Bristol Hum of the Seventies, got so bad it was blamed for causing nosebleeds. Yet there, as elsewhere, two vital questions always remained unanswered: what is that and how do we stop it?
‘Something happened during lockdown’
Standing in the living room of Conner’s 19th century terrace house on a breezy West Yorkshire morning, there is much background sound but the Hum doesn’t seem to be making much of an appearance.
“There!” she says at one point. “There! The wind’s drowning it out a bit today.”
The scientific consensus is that these sounds are generally the result of ever-growing urbanisation: heating systems, engines, gas pipes and electrical lines. Yet narrowing specific cases down to specific sources – and, thus, being able to mitigate them – has proven fiendishly difficult. In Bristol, the phenomenon was blamed on a particular factory 10 miles away in Avonmouth. Except when the facility was demolised, the whirring remained.
Conner – a dog-walker by profession – tells of a torrid time since first hearing the Holmfield Hum while lying in bed one Sunday last April.
“My first thought was next door must have had a new washing machine,” she says. “But it never went off.”
Over a period of weeks, it drove her to increasing distraction. At one point she shut down the electricity and sat in every room concentrating. “I went down to the cellar, up to the loft,” says the mother-of-one. “I had my ear against every surface.”
She went to various neighbours and asked them to shut down their power too. Still the hum came. Eventually, she posted a desperate note on Facebook asking if anyone else was hearing it. About two dozen residents from Holmfield and neigbouring Bradshaw got in touch to say they were.
Together, this new group swapped war-tales. They talked of playing the radio all day to drown out the sound, or of having Alexa on at night to help them sleep. One woman was said to have triple-glazed her windows – only to find it made no difference. Conner, herself, had started taking caravan holidays every three months. “Just so I could have a cup of tea in peace,” she says.
Crucially, they also started investigating – something which led them to the sprawling Holmfield Industrial Estate down in the valley, about a mile and half from Conner’s front door.
“What I understand is there’s been a hum there for decades,” says Simon Speechley a 43-year-old catering company director who talks of loosing sleep and suffering headaches. “But I’m convinced something happened during lockdown to make it far more pervasive.”
When we visit the site later – think metal fabricators, glass engineers, furniture makers – the noise is loud but not overwhelming. Could that really stretch all the way to his home?
Yes, reckons father-of-four. “It’s travelling through the ground and reverberating up into people’s houses,” he suggests. “That’s why you close your windows and it makes no difference. It’s inside already.”
The solution, as far as the group are concerned, is simple: find out the specific bit of equipment causing the issue – and stop it.
Except Calderdale Council is less convinced it is quite so clear cut.
For starters, unless a certain decibel limit is being broken – and the hum comes nowhere close – there are no statutory leavers to force any factory to take action.
More pertinently, despite investigating for the best part of a year, the authority has been unable to link the sound to one specific source. Recordings have been taken and triangulation surveys carried out, according to Scott Patient, cabinet member for climate change and resilience. All to no avail.
“It’s probably a number of sounds,” he says. “There’s loads of industry round there… As a council, we have identified a couple of places and they have mitigated their systems, and people can still hear something. So it may be a patchwork of issues.”
He says officers are still looking into it but there is a sense of impasse. “I’ve been in rooms with families where one person is claiming it’s driving them to ruin and everyone else is saying they can’t hear anything,” he says. “So, it’s an unusual one… But we can’t go shutting businesses down for that.”
‘Let the hum flow past you’
It is a sentiment that, 215 miles away in Surrey, Dr Geoff Leventhall, has some sympathy with.
He’s spent half a century researching this phenomenon after becoming intrigued by it while running an acousticslab at the University of London: he estimates about two per cent of those living in a Hum area hear the sound, with those aged between 55 and 70 disproportionately effected.
Today, the 92-year-old remains unsure of the root cause (“I should imagine a lot of localised cases will be fans, diesel engines, compressors, things like that,” he says) but, ultimately, his lwork has led him to the conclusion that the only way to really solve it is for those suffering to learn to tune out.
“The advice I’ve been giving people for years is to sit back, relax and try and let the hum flow past you,” he says. “If that requires [cognitive therapy], they should consider it. These sounds do exist in the world. There needs to be some co-existing with them.”