Mapping the sounds of London’s canals

Meet Ian Rawes, an archivist who has created an acoustic map of our capital’s waterways

Matt Brown

 

“London’s waterways are audibly part of a different, parallel city,” sound archivist Ian Rawes tells me. “It’s as if you’ve woken one morning to find 90% of the population have decided to go off on holiday.” Ian spends many hours recording the sounds of London’s canals and rivers – and it’s here you’ll often find him, crouching beside a lock gate or weir with his microphone aimed towards the water.

His website, London Sound Survey, presents hundreds of historic and contemporary recordings – from town criers and donkey parades to children’s schoolyard songs. For me, however, the most striking section of his archive captures the ambient sounds of the waterways. It is presented in the style of a Tube map showing the city’s aqueous routes, from artificial channels such as Regent’s Canal to more meandering watercourses like north London’s Dollis Brook.

Click a ‘station’ on the map and you will hear a recording from that location: bird song, the splashing of water, chance voices and distant sounds. The accompanying descriptions read like poetry: “Echoing sounds inside the barge shed, with calls of ducklings, a plop as the mother duck dives underwater, aircraft drone, hammering in distance.”

This acoustic map won’t help much with navigation, but it will reveal another side to London’s waterways; the rich world of sound that is often ignored. Every section of river or canal has its own aural environment.

“Some locations were chosen according to a plan while others were found through aimless wandering,” Ian explains. “The general idea was to get away from traffic noise, because that tends to suppress everything else going on around it. The waterways are usually more peaceful and atmospheric, and this reflects how they’re still in transition from their use as an industrial resource towards residential and recreational use.”

Not every location is monopolised by the sounds of wildlife and some recordings that picked up man made noises were rather unexpected. While making a riverside recording in 2010, Ian’s microphone picked up an intermittent siren from a nearby power station. A short investigation revealed that the industrial complex was hooting its alarm to imitate the vuvuzela, as England played Germany in the World Cup.

Ian has been in the business of sound for many years. He worked for a while as a storeman at the British Library Sound Archive and soon became familiar with that institution’s rich holdings. This work inspired him to set up the London Sound Survey in 2009, to collect both historic recordings and his own samples from around town. He has acquired material from many different environments, but he finds the waterways most rewarding. “The Wandle is my favourite,” he says of the south London river that gave its name to Wandsworth. “The drop in gradient is more pronounced than on other rivers, so the sound of running water is all the stronger.”

His website is partly a reflective space for modern Londoners to appreciate the sounds of the city, but it also has potential merit for historians. “As a collection, my humdrum recordings might one day be useful for historical research,” he tells me. “It’s hard to guess what future generations might judge to be important or not, so it’s probably best to archive as much as possible and let posterity decide. For me, the most important and urgent sounds to record are the vocalisations of endangered species and human languages threatened with extinction.”

Ian talks about the BBC archives, which hold a rich library of historic audio material but are almost bereft of waterway sounds. One exception is a 1933 recording from a boat on the Thames. “You can hear how lively the river sounded then with ships’ hooters and dockers shouting,” says Ian. This paucity of historical material encouraged him to capture the sounds of today’s canals and rivers for the benefit of posterity. In fact, the waterways have evolved even in the short time that Ian has been sampling them. “You can definitely hear a difference in the sounds of some rivers compared to a few years ago,” he says, pointing again to the River Wandle. “Conservation efforts and the so-called rewilding of these environments have had an enormous effect. The increased birdsong is most noticeable, but also the sounds of fish breaking the water surface and the stridulation of insects rubbing their legs together.”

What can we learn about London’s canals and rivers from such recordings? “I hope listeners will recognise their relative quiet and understand waterways as essentially slow places to be appreciated and preserved,” he says. Ian’s recordings are also finding surprising audiences. He makes them available under the Creative Commons licence, meaning that others can readily collate, adapt or analyse the sounds. “Recently, an organisation called Sound and Music curated some of the site’s recordings and used them in educational packs sent out to schools. It’s for a teaching program called A Minute of Listening, where young kids have to attend to and think about sounds.”

Ian is a big advocate of taking the time to stop and listen. “You have to put yourself in the right frame of mind,” he says. “It’s no good trying to do this while worrying about the bills.” Making field recordings is also a great way to learn the different bird calls you’ll find along the canal. If you can’t identify a call while out walking, you can compare your sample to readily available birdsong archives online once you get back home.

Digital technology has transformed field recording in recent years. Modern equipment is highly portable, can hold several hours of material, and the resulting files are easy to edit and manipulate. “It’s similar to the impact of digital photography,” says Ian. Most of the recordings on London Sound Survey are taken with professional stereo equipment, which is far better at giving the listener a sense of space than smartphone mono-recordings. Still, to borrow the old photographer’s adage, the best recorder is the one you’ve got on you at the time. Almost everyone has the technology in their pocket to make a sound survey of a canal or river. And if you happen to record something unusual or interesting along the waterways, Ian would be very happy to hear from you.

London Sound Survey is freely accessible online at http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/