There are sounds that, annoyingly, once you hear them, you can’t unhear. And then there is noise that’s a perpetual annoyance.
For some British towns, it’s just in the air.
Since lockdown in 2020, Holmfield, a village near the town of Halifax in West Yorkshire, has been subject to a mysterious humming sound around the area.
Those who can hear it say it’s reminiscent of a washing-machine-like whirring reverberating into their homes. The persistent hum has left some people with migraines, while related health conditions have forced others to move out.
It’s not just in the north that people are living with hum. HuffPost UK’s Matthew Bagwell says he’s also heard humming from his home on the south coast.
“I live in Brighton and I first noticed this very low, vibrating hum earlier this year and honestly thought I was going mad – as did anyone I told about it,” he says.
“But I soon found a local online forum full of people like me all over Brighton who were having trouble sleeping because of it. Thankfully I haven’t heard the hum for a few months, but it’s happened before, so I’m dreading it returning.”
The community in Holmfield has set up a petition, Stop the Holmfield Hum, calling on the council to get to the root cause of the noise and sort it out.
“This is having an impact on people’s mental health as well as causing a lack of sleep, headaches and pressure to the front of the head, foggy brain, painful ears, stress and anxiety, which has lead to me having a case of shingles,” wrote petition founder, Yvonne Conner.
“Residents have been unable to relax in their own home for nearly a year. The noise is continuous day and night. It has impacted on people’s ability to maintain their working hours due to the constant lack of rest and relaxation. Some have had to cut their working hours and others have had to leave their home and book into a hotel for the weekend just so they can get some respite.
“This issue needs addressing so people can get back to living a peaceful life in their own home.”
One person who sympathises with the folk of Holmfield is Dr Geoff Leventhall, who has studied ‘hum’ for more than 50 years, first becoming curious about it while running an acoustics lab at the University of London.
The 92-year-old from Surrey found that about 2% of people can actually hear the sound, with those aged 55-70 disproportionately affected.
“Potential cause of the hum? Nobody knows,” he tells HuffPost UK. “There is lots of speculation. Large fans, compressors, diesel engines and similar are prominent in this, as single sources affecting a wide area. Also, small fans, such as in ventilation units, can affect a local area.”
In Holmfield, the local council has investigated the situation using a decibel meter, but weren’t able to pinpoint the cause of the noise pollution. Residents are still calling the council to carry out low frequency noise measurements in and outside factory buildings to detect the source.
Industrial or urban hum is a growing issue globally, according to Dr Leventhall. “The hum is widespread, particularly in western countries,” he says – adding that it’s been reported across towns and cities in the UK, including Bristol, Hounslow, Sheffield, Grimsby, Leeds and the Scottish town of Largs.
“It could also be tinnitus, this is always a possibility,” he concedes – referencing the medical label for hearing noises that aren’t caused by sounds coming from the outside world. But the residents of Holmfield might argue otherwise.
Whatever the cause, it’s detrimental to quality of life and wellbeing. “When people first hear the hum they try to locate it,” says Dr Leventhall. “This can involve wandering the local streets at night, but generally to no avail. But they concentrate more and more on their problem, search the internet and so on.
“However, the more you concentrate on a problem, the worse it becomes. If a source can’t be found, then you have to try and desensitise yourself from the hum, so that even though it is still there, it does not bother you so much. We have found that a way to do that is through cognitive behavioural therapy.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is already a common treatment for tinnitus, when the source of the sound or sounds someone hears can’t be traced.
According to the NHS, talking therapies for tinnitus range from counselling to help you learn about the condition and ways of coping; retraining therapy, which uses sound therapy to retrain the brain to tune the sounds out; and CBT, which aims to change the way you think about your tinnitus and reduce anxiety.
Tinnitus can manifest in different qualities of noise, listed on the NHS website as ringing, buzzing, whooshing, hissing, throbbing, music, and – yes – humming.
But rather than treatment, the people of Holmfield are seeking meaningful action – and respite. “I’d like to say it’s fine and sorted but it’s not!,” wrote Yvonne Conner in an update on the petition a month ago. “It’s still going strong and still impacting on people’s mental and physical health.”