Test Strips: Glasson Dock

Pause for a moment and immerse yourself in an ambient sound portrait by Rob St John, captured at Glasson Dock.

On the Lune Estuary Glasson Dock

Words, artwork and soundscape by Rob St John

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Finally, for what seems like the first time in weeks, it stopped raining. Driving through salt marshes on the way to Glasson Dock, the landscape is a wash of glistening primary colours, the wet fields rippling with light. Located on the southern shore of the Lune Estuary on the Lancashire coast, the dock was once the largest port in North West England and a key point on British Empire trade routes stretching out across the Atlantic.

Opened in 1787, Glasson Dock is no longer home to the tall ocean-going sailing ships of centuries past, but it remains a working port. Arriving in bright, clear sunlight, the sound of the moored boats whips across the dock’s inner basin on a westerly wind in off the Irish Sea: sails flapping, bells ringing, taut ropes whistling. Waves race to the shore; a pike fisherman struggles to cast his lure any distance at all.

Today, the only constant is the wind: it is nearly impossible to record anything else, the task instead is to tune in to how it animates the landscape. The birds bobbing on the basin surface – coot, moorhen, tufted duck, drake goldeneye – are seen rather than heard. Colour washes over water, land and buildings as the moving clouds frame the searchlight sun.

I look for shelter, wandering between the harbour warehouses, and finding a back eddy of quiet tucked away from the main wind currents. Sea kale grows out of a pile of rubble; small stones tumble down its slope and scatter away like a riverbed over the tarmac road. A song thrush sings boldly through the clatter of the dry-dock sails.

After a few minutes walking along the coast from the harbour, I arrive at Bodie Hill where the views reach out over Lancashire, Cumbria and the Isle of Man. Over the grey storm waters of the Lune, I can see the low Georgian buildings of the Sunderland Point peninsula, which itself hosted a busy port until the construction of Glasson Dock. The Lakeland hills line the northern horizon over the Heysham Power Station. To the south, the Portland stone dome of the Ashton Memorial in Lancaster is framed by the Bowland fells.

Flocks of goldfinches and linnets billow up from the teasels on the rough ground above the tideline. A blackbird sings, tucked into a palisade of blackthorn. A mini murmuration of starlings ebbs over the tidal flats. A flock of oystercatchers flicker in black and white, their peeping calls sounding out the bay through the white noise of wind and tide.

The tideline is a spongy stratum of wood, vegetation and assorted objects: plastic toys, an oil drum, mermaid’s purses, a fire extinguisher, Chinese crockery, a black laptop bag, a shell-shape of polystyrene, a ball of empty whelk eggs. Under the shivering skin of a tidal pool, insects click and pop. The barbed wire fence sings in the wind, rattling over the lichen-flecked shell of an abandoned boat.

We’re losing the light already; snow-light clouds gather overhead. I walk back to the basin and follow a path to the mouth of the Lancaster Canal. The first drops of rain turn into sleet and then into snow. The village empties out. In the hedgerow, a group of sparrows chatter and a song thrush trills through the thick, wet air.

Field notes on recording locations
Glasson Dock boats.
Contact microphones on tideline wire fence and boat hull.
Hydrophones in salt marsh pool.
Glasson Dock hedgerow.

Test Strips is a series of ‘place portraits’ of sites managed by the Canal & River Trust, using sound recording, text and long-exposure film photography.

Rob St John is an artist and writer based in Bowland, Lancashire. Focusing on the blurrings of nature and culture in contemporary landscapes, his work has been seen or heard at Tate Modern and the V&A, London, amongst many others, and in numerous artistic and academic publications.
Listen to Rob’s previous soundscapes recorded at the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct , Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the northern reaches of the Lancaster Canal.

Plan your own visit to Glasson Dock

Posted on 13/03/2020