Not urban, not rural, but a scruffy and intriguing tangle of the two. That's what you'll find if you take the time to wander south from Willesden Junction.
If you're Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey, you'll take a sound recorder or two. He and Helen Frosi of SoundFjord did exactly that one May weekend while they talked about standing stock still and listening to the city.
RECORDINGS - Ian Rawes
Wormwood Scrubs park is lively on a Saturday morning. Joggers file by with rhythmical breaths, owners call to their dogs with shouts and whistles, and the music of bird song is melodious and rich. In the distance, there's the rumble of industry and the screech of train lines.
Amongst the hubbub and activity of weekend London life, Ian Rawes stands motionless behind a hawthorn on Old Oak Common. He is wearing a shoulder bag connected to wires that in turn attach to a curious headset. The headset resembles a pair of furry animals, one worn at each temple. In his hand is a discrete device for measuring time.
When not giving lectures on the old sounds of London or delivering packages across Cambridgeshire, Rawes is a field recordist. He maps the everyday sounds of public life throughout London on the London Sound Survey, a comprehensive online collection of sound recordings and texts.
The 'creatures' secured to his head are the technology he uses to make those recordings: binaural microphones encased within a wind-shield made of fake fur. Bought from a haberdashery, the fur makes a good DIY alternative to professional wind-proofing materials. “I use DPA mics. They’re largish mics to bung on your head, about the size of a lipstick or slightly fatter underneath the fur and foam to give them some protection from the wind. It might look stupid, but there are not a whole lot of people around to notice.”
On this occasion, the work has brought him out to West London in search of sounds new and unusual, specifically the peri-urban surroundings of Willesden Junction station and the Scrubs.
“I’ve been drawn to these places ever since I can remember. As a kid I used to draw things like that. I even recall reading with great pleasure Isaac Asimov’s book Foundation as a kid. The home planet in which it is set is described as being completely built up, a huge city and there is no respite from that. Now this seems a horrifying prospect – no greenery, no parks, no nature. At that age it was thrilling. I had urbanism in my chromosomes.”
Having lived in Holborn and then Hammersmith as a young child, Rawes suggested that his upbringing had a profound impact on his sensory preferences: “Where you spend your formative years must leave an impression.” But sound wasn’t something that struck him any more than anyone else, until he began working with archival sound recordings at the British Library Sound Archive.
“It provided a focus, some idea of exploring the city, which I’d wanted to do for a while. I wanted to do something about London that would present those aspects of the city that were overlooked, not appreciated, or seemed to be in the process of disappearing: greasy spoon cafes, street markets, derelict buildings, junk shops. Remnants of the scruffier city that I had begun to explore as a teenager and which had always intrigued me, and in which I had always felt at home. Obviously nothing stays the same, so having lived away from London for about 10 years and having returned in the late 90s I could see a lot had changed in that time. There was some desire to come to terms with that. Perhaps there it was even nostalgia, or an attempt to remake the city in my imagination in ways that I liked.”
At the start of the day, huddled over steaming mugs of milky tea at a nearby cafe, Rawes and I discussed a walking route from Willesden Junction down to Wormwood Scrubs park, looping up along Scrubs Lane and back to the Grand Union Canal. He hoped for some rich and sonorous pickings from the start: “From Willesden Junction, there is a very curious route. You go over a massive bridge that spans umpteen railway lines. It would be wonderful to get into this great wasteland of sidings and sheds. It’s very appealing that kind of railway hinterland where you see huge cable bobbins strewn around, weird little brick huts, the whole impedimenta of railways going back well over a hundred years.”
One frustration for any sound recordist is that a great deal of land in the UK is private, so entry arrangements must be organised with the companies concerned prior to a visit. Rawes generally finds the press offices not forthcoming: “It’s easier for them to say no, health and safety...” Hence the railway sidings, warehouses and industrial units surrounding the Overground network at Old Oak Common were inaccessible to us, and it seemed apt that the London A-Z showed the area as a mysteriously blank zone, criss-crossed with transport and distribution lines.
In contrast, sounds are indifferent to human-made borders. Beyond the metal fencing and barbed wire separating industry from scrubland, there is a prevailing industrial hum colouring the birdsong and rustling trees. Striding into the parkland, Rawes remarks on the already distinct shift in soundscape, “Birdsong is taking over. Not long now for a general atmospheric recording.”
Adjusting his equipment, Ian explains how he stands as a 'human statue' to prevent sound from body movements making an audible presence on his recordings. Of all the sounds he collects, he is particularly averse to the sound he might make – handling noise, breathing, stomach rumbling. Those are akin to “the pink smudge of a fingertip on a photograph.”
The irksome sound of wind noise is also a constant battle for the field recordist. “The wind itself, if you are near any kind of vegetation – trees, bushes and the like – makes a rustling noise, or a hissing, susurrating noise that becomes monotonous over time. It tends to mask out other sounds in the environment. It might also be that windy weather itself somehow suppresses activity. Birds don’t sing as much and insects seek shelter, don’t fly around as much. It also has an effect on people too. If it’s a windy day, people aren’t going to be lying around in the park, sunning themselves, taking it easy. So good weather for recordists, though not necessarily hot, will tend to be fairly still.”
Rawes opens his bag to reveal a Sound Devices preamp, which produces a defined tone (-12dB) with the press of a button. He uses this to set the levels on his sound recorder. Thinking back to the early recording set-ups of Ludwig Koch from the first half of the 20th century that incorporated numerous cables, heavy reels of tape and cumbersome recorders, he is positively a one-man-band.
Encouraged by the recordings made on Old Oak Common we circle round, listening to Saturday football and a softball tournament with food stalls and officials holding court. To the south of the common, at the Linford Christie Stadium, an announcer apologises for the portable sound system they are using. It crackles and fizzes as youngsters limber up for a hurdles race. Peering down, crows seem curious, commentating sarcastically with their rattles and caws.
Drawn to a stand of overgrown field maple, hazel and craggy hawthorn, Rawes takes another recording as the sky threatens rain. Playing at stone sculptures, we meld into the sonic background. Blackbirds sing again having initially been alarmed by our presence, the trees creak and rustle as the wind whips up and eddies. After the recording is made, I remark on how contemplative it is to focus one’s full attention on listening, although not without effort. Rawes agrees that over time the field recordist, or active listener, acquires an 'attentional' frame of mind, which is easier to activate with practice: “When I first set out it wasn’t always as easy as you’d like to think. The mind is always distracted by internal thoughts. If you pay attention to that, it distracts from listening to the external world so you have to be able to let go of all that kind of thing. It’s a meditative practice.”
After the verdant green of the Scrubs and its rich sonic environment, we encounter a dearth in activity: the sedate life of the Grand Union Canal's Paddington Branch. Accessing it by Hythe Road, we find a distinct hush. Narrow boats rise with the water’s flow, their keels gently swaying with the current. Coots pluck at algae-coated weed undulating under the surface. Now and again, the quiet is punctuated by the cheeping of energetic cootlings and the hiss and whoosh of bike wheels on gravel.
Walking along its green waters, the canal leads us past junkyards with tyre castles and overgrown gardens with tumbledown boathouses. At Scrubs Lane bridge, decorated with weathered murals of flighty cormorants and lurking pike, our ears navigate us to the ravenous sounds of a waste depot. Crashing, snarling, and tinkling with glottal abandon, the ragged netted-off site is a dusty arena of noise. Gleefully, Rawes records, and afterwards describes the musicality of the immediate soundfield: “It’s like a mad improvised percussion solo on old bottles and jerry cans played by Animal from The Muppet Show with a hammer in each hand.”
We leave the would-be jug band behind and, rejoining the canal, a cool breeze and the whisper of poplars denotes that we are parallel to Kensal Green Cemetery. Then, having passed the disused gasometers close to Ladbroke Grove, we are interrupted by a rain shower that curtails our sonic odyssey. Rawes is nevertheless content with his recordings. We agree that time out of doors wandering around is never time wasted. He reiterates that even if, after an outing, the recordist doesn’t come back with any useful recording, “You’ve still been there, know what it’s like now, have gained some nugget of information.”
Take the walk yourself:
1. From Willesden Junction walk south-west along Old Oak Lane to the Old Oak Common Lane. Stop off at the Old Oak Café for tea.
2. Carry on along the lane to Wormwood Scrubs Park. Enter at its west side.
3. Explore the park taking in its central wooded area. To the east lies a football ground. To the south is both HM Wormwood Scrubs and the Linford Christie Stadium.
4. Exit to the south-east of the park, past the Pony Centre, then take a bus back to Willesden Junction station via Scrubs Lane.
5. At the station, walk along the path to the right of the railway sidings, and out over the footbridge leading to an overgrown footpath. You will exit by a bridge at the corner of Hythe Road.
6. From the pathway, turn right under the bridge onto Hythe Road, walk past the café and car garages, then turn left and walk ahead past Lloyds Motor Spares until you reach the cut-through onto the canal.
7. Over the bridge, turn left onto the towpath and walk in the direction of Ladbroke Grove.
8. As the canal intersects with Scrubs Lane (note the weather-beaten bridge faded to salmon pink and deep blue) you will note the waste disposal site to the left. Walk parallel to Kensal Green Cemetery. The journey concludes as the canal reaches Ladbroke Grove.
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