On Wednesday the 2nd December 2015, I joined Chris Watson, award-winning sound artist and sound recordist for a walk on the tidal island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. We met at the Barn at Beal, overlooking the causeway and had a coffee whilst Chris talked me through the map and route he had drawn for our walk.
I love coming here it’s one of my favourite places and when we talked about walking… I’ve been coming here for over 20 years recording and I usually go somewhere and stop and spend 4/5 hrs being quiet, listening, in one place, recording and listening.
We will walk anti-clockwise around Lindisfarne… an exciting prospect… a great opportunity for me… this is my studio, being outside and I prefer being outside. I normally walk as a means to get somewhere… apart from when I am doing sound walks, for example, as part of the AV festival.
An ambient soundwalk
We are looking at my impression of the shape of Lindisfarne which of course has changed a lot over the years… When I did the IAS residency I talked to archaeologist Dr. David Petts who explained that the island has changed shape over the centuries, significantly, and so what it was like in Cuthbert’s time in the 7th century is very different to what we see today… it is roughly this shape and as a tidal island its shape changes twice a day… which is quite remarkable and so I have done a very simple aerial view and have outlined the walk in blue… we will drive across the causeway and walk through the village, which is a good introduction to the walk.
We are walking the boundary of the island, the boundary between sea and land or mud and water, depending on the state of the tide.
The walk would take around three hours. We drove across the causeway and parked on the edge of the village in the car park. At the start of the walk, Chris spoke about why he chose the island to share a walk with me on borders, risk and belonging, the importance of ‘quiet’ in our daily lives and ‘tuning in’ to the sounds of Lindisfarne, the sea, birds and wildlife.
On borders, risk, belonging and time
In terms of borders, here is no man’s land… neither land nor sea washed by the sea twice a day, cut off from the rest of the world. I like the fact it is on this border, with the migration patterns of birds in summer this island is filled up with African migrants and birds come here from South Africa from the banks of the great greasy Limpopo, swallows come and nest here, there is a population of arctic terns, a remarkable migration, the furthest migration of any birds and they nest around these latitudes and migrate back to the Antarctic. At this time of year they see more daylight than any other animal on earth… their borders are around the island and they fish off shore… it’s an area of great transition and I find this exciting.
Whatever the season I can be drawn here to sound record the birds. In terms of what we regard as this beautiful landscape, they risk their lives on a daily basis… they are on the edge of an existence that we can’t even imagine… in summer it can be a survival environment, in this temperature it can be hostile environment, the mortality is very high so 60-80% most don’t survive, it’s just we rarely see the results of that. This roots me back in the everyday patterns that we are excluded from in our air conditioned centrally heated environments.
So, as a wild life sound recordist, for me it is always interesting to come to places like this and soak up some of these sounds… this is a relatively noise free environment, most of our lives we are surrounded by noise pollution. One of the reasons I enjoy coming to a tidal island such as Lindisfarne is because you can escape.
So this is the village on Lindisfarne… what is all around us at the moment are house sparrows… there is a good resident population here… its just a reminder of that sense of time and what has happened here in 1300 years is nothing in evolutionary times for birds and other animals.
Standing under a tree at the edge of the village as we set off on the walk from the car park, Chris helped me ‘tune in’ to the ‘signature sound’ of a leafless tree…
it is almost like a roar when the wind catches the canopy. The leafless trees have a very particular signature sound I think, it’s one of the great sounds of winter. There… it’s almost beautiful.
We are looking south and straight across to Lindisfarne castle and off to the right is Bamburgh castle
…built on the edge of the great Whin Sill (dolerite)…We can see the Farne islands and the white glow from the light house… St Cuthbert went out to the Inner Farne and made a hermitage there. I am hoping today we get to see the eider duck… which famously nested around Cuthbert when he was on the Inner Farne… and he declared… the first example in history… that none should harm the eider duck… they nest in profusion around the Farne Islands, I’m hoping we see a few today. This is a great view… seeing into the distance across the sea to Farne… It’s a very simple thing, how the sounds change… we are away from the trees, in a flat exposed area of grass looking out at the sea, the wind blowing from the west and all we can hear are the sound of waves and nothing else…
Walking and signature sounds: a place to rest your thoughts
As we walked anti-clockwise around Lindisfarne we passed by Lindisfarne castle on our right and the Gertrude Jekyll garden on our left we headed towards the shoreline. Speaking on the importance of walking, sound and motion Chris described how whilst he was producing the CD St Cuthberts Time and at the same time working on the BBC programme In Britten’s Footsteps for Britten’s centenary he interviewed Rita Thompson who was Benjamin Britten’s nurse in his final years:
she was telling me how important ambient sound was to Britten, every day he would walk, he would work on his music in the morning; he had a very strict regime, dress for dinner, a jacket and tie sit down at 1 pm for lunch then go and get changed, put his outdoor things on and go for a walk. This was a central part of his compositional process and in his head he would edit his mornings work and then revise it… he needed to go outside where he wasn’t distracted so he took all the green lanes and bye roads behind Aldeburgh… and these were focused periods of walking on his own… and this was part of his creative process, that I found fascinating.
So Britten would revise his work during his walk, and so it was essential for him, he was not distracted but he needed something to rest his thoughts on… I have real empathy with that, I can understand that and something I use when I am out, when I am walking and thinking… a sound to rest your thoughts on and that inspired me to do the piece on St Cuthbert’s time.
Chris spoke about how, drawing upon the work of Dr David Petts and Dr Fiona Gameson, the gospels would have been illustrated here on this island in daylight, as candles were expensive to produce, and in the days preceding stone buildings the gospel would have been produced in a wooden ‘lean-to’, exposed to the weather and the sounds of the island.
And, because of what is illustrated in the gospels I was convinced that Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne was influenced by the sounds around him.
I was intrigued by the concept of a ‘signature sound’ as well as having a ‘sound to rest your thoughts on’ and having commissioned Chris to lead a Slow sound walk at two seminars on the idea of the Slow University, I had experienced, thanks to Chris, the signature sound of Palace Green, Durham. I suggested that for me the ‘signature sound’ of Lindisfarne included the wind, the sound of the sea/waves, the birds, but also the colour, the muted yellows and grasses blowing in the wind. I suggested that movement/motion is important too in relation to helping to perculate, process or think through whilst resting one’s thoughts on the signature sound.
Yes, It’s not soporific, that sense of motion is important for me and then having discovered people like Britten and considering what happened here with regard to illustrating the Lindisfarne Gospel, I find that really inspiring… and so much of the seasonal aspect too. I love to come to places like this and engage… come out and experiencing the elements. In a moment we are going to be shielded by this great lump of rock on our right hand side and the wind is going to drop and we will be in a different place.
The wind has dropped listen to that sound… a softer rush through the grass and vegetation… and we are going over to a much more exposed part. It is interesting to see people building with stones over there… good building material and stones are few and far between on the island mostly it is sand… it looks like a strange film set..they look like little shrines… there is going to be a big sound change from turf to stone…
It was interesting to see this human trace in what is otherwise a stark landscape devoid of people (we were tuned in to the sounds of the wind, sea and birds) and as we moved closer towards the stones and sea the group of people walked slowly away from us.
Remarkable conical mounds
The wind has dropped and even though we are on the south westerly tip of Lindisfarne on this remarkable pebble bank the tide has withdrawn to 100 metres away… and there are these remarkable conical mounds built by lots of people over many years. I love that distant horizon of Farne and Bamburgh. I love the wedge shape of the island… the block shape right on the tip, the white and red hoops of the long stone lighthouse the most easterly point… I can image a 7th century St Cuthbert saying ‘you know it’s just not remote enough here I’m going out there to Inner Farne to live on my own.’
We stop for a while looking at the oyster catchers and underneath them the redshanks feeding in the sea weed and pools left by the retreating tide. Chris tells me the redshanks have a strident call and are “often called the sentinel of the marshes..wading birds, long legs long beaks… they are lit beautifully, the colour contrasting with the colour of the stones… when you glance you can see very few but when you look there are many feeding in the seaweed.” Tuning in my eyes get acclimatised to the rock and then the birds… it is very special.
Chris tells me
“what we are seeing and hearing has not changed in hundreds and hundreds of years.. and because we have the wind to our backs we can’t hear the water so much…”
We follow the route with the sea to our right walking in light rain towards the bird hide and freshwater pool, protected from the rain by waterproof clothing and I think of Eadfrith and Cuthbert working on the Lindisfarne manuscript exposed to the elements and the remarkable sounds of the island.
In the bird hide: Shovellers, Teals and Mallards
In the hide, we stop protected from the rain for a bite to eat and look out at the pool
On the far side is a large bird a single shoveler has dropped in here for a few days, a bird of passage… a beautiful dark bill… its beak digs up it scours the water… when you first glance it seems there is little here but when you look you can see…
I asked Chris what first brought him to Lindisfarne
Well I first came here in the 1980s, I was interested by the wildlife, the place where Christianity first emerged in England, a powerful internationally known place for its history and culture, but also a fantastic place for wildlife… and so the history and the ancient history was fascinating and its place in the North East and the Viking raids, exciting and tragic. In the 7th century they arrived took everything killed a lot of people but nevertheless made it notorious and so all in all a magical sounding place. I came here on the bus first of all before I had a car, to hang out and explore and then realised it’s a fantastic place and a great recording opportunity. So I got transport and explored the area the North East coast Bamburgh, Budle Bay, wonderful places and great seasonal environments.
Chris remarked on the change in our view of the freshwater pool in just twenty minutes.
We stopped talking to listen to the call of a bird..”a teal… you can hear that piping double notes of a teal…” Chris talked about this as an area of international importance for geese, ducks and wader birds whilst we watch a group of 5 mallards. Chris laughed as he told me about applying for a permit to record here in the late 80’s to the guy who administered the coastal environment for this part of reserve… Chris Shaw, a Mr C Shaw.
Leaving the hide we walked forward towards the dunes, the links and the snook where Chris thought we might see some Roe deer.
Walking in the dunes
The undulating trackless dunes and the place called the snook a remote part, properly wild and you get a totally different view of the island from here, you can easily see the longstone from here.
We walked through a group of cows, along the side of the dunes and Chris talked about some of his current commissions, his radio work, especially in Ireland for RTE and his work on light houses. We shared an interest in the Skelligs islands in County Kerry and Chris had stayed on Skellig Michael in the lighthouse; on the most remote Skellig rock. He spoke about being given space and time to tell a story and to be creative and how he values this.
Walking into the dunes to take a last look at the sea Chris spotted a beautiful young roe deer on an adjacent dune standing looking at us and with a quick close up using Chris’s binoculars we came face to face and in an instant it was gone.
Walking on inland towards the causeway and car park Chris pointed out a pair of mute swans flying left to right over the island, another resident wild bird. He then spotted a group of roe deer, magnificant and fleetingly, the white kidney shapes flashing on their rears as they darted towards the dunes.
I’ve certainly been told this about certain african mammals, that the flashing white rump shows a predator ‘I am really fit and active’ and they bounce around to deter predators from chasing after them, flashing the white rump is a signal.
I asked Chris about his introduction to sound recording. It was through a gift of a sound recorder when he was a child.
A biography in sound
I think I was 11 or 12 and it was a present a portable reel to reel tape recorder a 1/4 inch tape, about 1963 or 1964. It had a microphone on about a metres worth of cable and I was delighted by this and I went around recording everything in the house squeaking doors, bathroom and kitchen and I was exploring sounds and I was fascinated by playing back, slowing it down, speeding it up, what I now call time shifting.
In Sheffield where Chris lived
We had a bird table in back garden and mum and dad had a new double glazed window put in the kitchen and this gave a cinematic view of the bird table, framed by the window but I could not hear. So I took it outside put bird seed and bread on the table and taped it to the table and took 8 minutes of tape. The birds returned and I could see the wheels going round on the recorder and I like to think I remember the moment of playing it back and accessing this other world that we are excluded from as our presence would radically alter it and I was amazed that I could do this and hear the detail and fascinating variety of calls and communication what otherwise would be a silent world viewed through a window.
Chris discovered the taperecorder was a much more creative instrument, that he could document and manipulate sound and when he discovered French composer Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer and musique concrète he further explored the creative potential and got involved in experimental music, founding Cabaret Voltaire whilst at Sheffield University and he began composing music from sounds recordings.
Gradually I became more interested in what I was recording and hearing outside rather than what we were creating in studio. I became fascinated by wildlife recording outside and if I was going to do anything with that I needed skills and knowledge to work creatively. I was interested in film sounds and so the best place was Newcastle so I started working at Tyne Tees television in the sound dept. It was a flourishing company employing 900 people and was a remarkable creative environment and I got really good training, everything from being sent on location to the miners’ strike, to working on films, documentaries and music programmes. I liked it that channel 4 had started and the tube was commissioned. I knew loads of people in industry and so I have had this remarkable experience of working across all these areas and was involved in post production too. Eventually when I saw a post advertised in RSPB in Bedfordshire for a sound recordist for the first time to record and to establish a sound library Tyne Tees gave me a 2 year sabbatical to work with this charity the RSPB.
We stopped to at the edge of the causeway by the poles marking the line of the St Cuthbert’s pilgrims walk to the mainland and Chris spotted a couple of grey seals out in the water…
They have hauled out on the last remaining piece of land, listen… they are Brent geese… they have come from the arctic… white rumps, thats great and curlews… Well we have seen a couple of seals, a large flock of Brent geese and there are curlews calling we can’t see them but we can hear them and we are starting to lose the light, its 3:40pm and will be dark in half an hour. Its great the wind has really dropped. The headlights of cars can be seen streaking over the causeway. There are lots of birds on the thin line, the border between the mud and the water, lots of small wading birds in advance of the incoming tide…
And continuing his story, Chris told me how he returned to Northumberland with his wife and new baby after the two years were up with the RSPB and
we re-established ourselves in the industry… but television had changed, the broadcasting act had happened and they had had this ludicrous lottery for independent television stations and Yorkshire and Tyne Tees combined and had to pay 52 million pounds a year to the treasury; before they made any money they had to pay 1million pounds per week for the right to broadcast. Central television based in Birmingham had sorted their franchise very cleverly and got the same licence for 2000 pounds. So you saw the collapse of independent television as independent local stations and this brilliant North East franchise disappeared and so we lost it, it all went up in the air and some friends of mine started an independent company Hoi Polloi film and video, just the three of them and they invited me to join which I did and so I joined the partnership and we are still going, hough I do lot of independent work, a lot of my radio commissions I do independently and that’s it really.
I remarked on the wide ranging experience and expertise including the Mexican train journey –El Tren Fantasma (the ghost train) – the residency at the Institute of Advanced Studies Durham, creating the recent work on lighthouses and the work for RTE Ireland that really does span such a huge range art, music, the environment, wildlife, birds and composition.
Yes I really enjoy this work, like this walk today, and recently I was working for the Guardian recording the forest fable podcasts and also with SigurRós to supply the sounds of Iceland for a video project they are working on. I did a similar thing for Bjork earlier this year for her Icelandic airwaves exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art she used quite a few of my Icelandic sounds, she wanted to create an Icelandic landscape which was great..
It’s never been work you can go and achieve, that sounds really glib, but its great and I am fortunate to have lots of opportunities… I like the varied aspects of sound design, recently a guy got in touch asking me to do some sounds for a song he is writing and he wants some animal sounds; its the guy who did Bob the Builder and he wants some animal tracks.
By now we had reached the car park and the light was falling. I thanked Chris and we said our goodbyes..
Thank you so much Chris it’s been a fabulous day,
Thank you Maggie it was great to have a walk with you.
Following Chris out of the car park I stopped at the first roadside cafe on the drive south to have a coffee and space to think and make some notes on the experience of walking the border between Lindisfarne and the mud flats, sand, stones and sea.