Test Strips: The Leeds & Liverpool Canal

Immerse yourself in an ambient sound portrait by Rob St John, captured between Burnley and Barrowford on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

Words, artwork and soundscape: Rob St John

Posted on 27/09/2019

Email to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

This sound walk begins at the Weaver’s Wharf on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Burnley, Lancashire. Formerly the centre of the town’s cotton industry, this is a stretch of canal in transition, where the deep blue hoardings of waterside construction sites mirror the silver-green sheen of the water. Sound echoes around the now-empty wharf: ducks puttering through blankets of neon duckweed; sirens rising from the surrounding town; children’s footsteps on a rust-red footbridge; pigeons fluttering from abandoned factory roofs.

Beneath the water’s surface there is an equally lively soundscape. Lowering a pair of underwater microphones – or hydrophones – through the duckweed reveals a new sound world. Insects flit between submerged plant stems, many making sounds through rubbing their legs together rapidly in a process called stridulation. These soundings can be both percussive and melodic: a range of scrapes, burrs, whirrs and thuds.

It’s not only aquatic insects that are detected by hydrophones: we can also hear the sound of oxygenating plants like pondweed photosynthesising. Photosynthesis is the process by which oxygenating plants take in carbon dioxide from the water column and release oxygen. This vital ecological process – which allows aquatic food webs to flourish – releases endless streams of tiny air bubbles. When these bubbles hit the hydrophones, they click and pop. Listening underwater thus allows us to tune in to otherwise off-limits ecological processes in seemingly featureless patches of water, which become alive and rhythmic. The patterns of these rhythms are composed by sunlight, and shift with the time of day and the movement of shadows across the water’s surface.

Hydrophones also allow us to hear the ways in which human-generated noises permeate underwater worlds. The rumble of traffic, the peep of car horns and the drone of industrial extractor fans seep through this submerged sound world, whilst the engine of a passing canal boat or the opening of a lock gate are almost deafening.

The sound walk follows a route north-east from the Weaver’s Wharf through Burnley and Nelson and out onto the open countryside at Barrowford. The canal is raised high up over Burnley by an aqueduct (known as the ‘culvert’) originally constructed in 1797. Walking its course, you can look north over the terraces and chimney pots to Pendle Hill, and south towards the spine of the Pennines over Turf Moor football ground and the Singing Ringing Tree sound sculpture. This is where the long-exposure photographs used to create the accompanying artwork were taken, as stone, sky, water and vegetation blur. Here, I am reminded that the open moortop is not far from the streets below, and that the canal is another line of transport and exchange between the town and the country.

The walk took place on a still and sunny Sunday in September: the towpath busy with runners, cyclists and children playing. The sound piece dips above and below water. A couple fish under a willow tree on the culvert, watched by a ginger tabby cat. A man casts tiny silver lures in between reed beds for striped jack pike – the water shattering like glass when a fish strikes. The smell of balsam and buddleia is sickly sweet in the air; white seed-head spindles on bank-side rosebay willowherb catch in the breeze. A kingfisher streaks past as we walk above Thompson Park, with the River Brun flowing below. As we move out into the countryside, the hum of the town and M65 recedes, and we walk past a series of locks at Barrowford where crows croak in swaying oaks, and flocks of Canada geese rest on bright fields. We keep walking, out towards the hills.

Field notes on hydrophone locations

The Culvert, Burnley. Pondweed photosynthesising.

Barden Marina, Burnley. Insects and passing canal boat.

Thompson Park, Burnley. Pondweed photosynthesising and insects stridulating.

Brierfield. Pondweed photosynthesising.

Barrowford Locks. Below a lock outflow.

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 soundscape, captured one sunny afternoon on the remote upper stretches of the Lancaster Canal,

Plan your own walk along the Burnley Trail