Caught by the River

A Sound Walk on the Tyne

Chris Watson | 2nd September 2012

Iam Noredindian joins Chris Watson for a sound walk along the river Tyne:

The wonderfully named Lemington Gut is a Brownfield area lying just beyond the west end of Scotswood Road; a road famous, at least to natives of the area, for being the thoroughfare along which the ‘lads n lasses’ would ‘gan’ before crossing the River Tyne en route to The Blaydon Races. The gut is reached by a bridge called Kingfisher Boulevard, and just off the boulevard branches Goldcrest Way, a road skirting around a new office development. Here stand neatly and squarely built office blocks with tinted glass frontages looking south over the river toward Blaydon Haughs. On closer inspection some of these blocks have man-made ponds and lillied areas, an obvious attempt to sweeten the feel and placate those who might oppose the adoption of this land for commercial use.

Out of shirted office hours, this area has a more comfortable feel. As dusk begins to fall, the city is still visible but the distant traffic noise and occasional sirens seem far less invasive, strangely acceptable even. At this hour it is the occasional whirring of bicycle wheels that can be heard on the tarmac pathway hidden by shrubs planted between the offices and the river bank. Evenings here are when dogs are strolled, or where joggers gently pound their nightly beat.

The dozen or so in our assembled group are greeted by our guide, Chris Watson. Chris has recently been making sound recordings of the main River Tyne from both its North Tyne and South Tyne sources, and the group were here as part of an evening walk to experience some of the sights and sounds which inspired Chris, and to learn firsthand about his project.

I had never fully considered how extensive a part this river had played in my own life until the walk with Chris. Just as it has been important for the growth and sustenance of Newcastle and the surrounding area, it had been for me. I was born in Newcastle, and I live a few miles down the river at the mouth of the Tyne in North Shields. I work daily within sight of the river, and I never tire of seeing the ferry’s or the navy and merchant vessels slowly coming and going, but still it seems I have taken it for granted. I have a vivid memory of being caught as a child going within the river’s grasp on the murky fish quay – ‘woe betide you if I ever catch you down there!‘ was the constant warning. One day I was caught, and thrashed as a result. Yet my family holidayed at Fourstones in Northumberland in late 60’s and early 70’s, a village lying adjacent to the South Tyne. Here we were encouraged to play and swim in its fresh and shallower waters. So to me this river not only gives a warm feeling of home as I pass over one of its bridges into Newcastle, but it seems now that the River Tyne is also a part of my psyche. It has brought me work, danger and pain, but also fun and relaxation, and now it brings deeper thoughts.

The River Tyne has been the lifeblood of a community, and as it breathes via tides with the land it divides, its people breathe with it.
At Goldcrest Way, the group was led by Chris to the top of the bank overlooking the river. From this vantage point, we saw an evolving riverside, a hybrid of heavier industry and clean call-centre commerce. The remains of old staithes were visible in the low tide, and gulls laughed and wheeled overhead as the soft breeze rustled the leaves around us. At that point the thought crossed my mind that man imitates the tides, fetching and carrying, giving and taking.

Chris explained a little about the project, the various locations along the river where he has made recordings, and the equipment used. Behind him a pair of rowers skimmed a narrow skull over the top of the glistening river heading east toward the city. Catching sight of this, Chris explained how he had also made some recordings with the local Tyne Rowing Club, mic’ing up the steersman in order to capture the sound of movement and continuity upon the river. Opposite us on the south side of the river, the dipping sun gleamed off the mangled steel piled high in a scrapyard. This too had been part of Chris’s recordings – “The scrapyard created a wonderful symphony of industrial sound” said Chris, as he assembled a parabolic reflector to allow us to hear distant sounds over the river. He spoke eagerly in soft tones which drew the listener in. Personifying the belief that it is less about the volume, and more about the listening and the content.

We left the industrial estate and made our way over an open meadow area listening for grasshoppers and crickets. Pied wagtails undulated overhead, and as we walked on we flushed a small flock of curlew, their white wedged arses pointing them skyward as their increasingly frantic call filled the air.

As the light was fading and we ambled quietly along the top of the riverbank, one of the group suddenly froze in his tracks, hunched down, pointed through the hedgerow. There were audible gasps as each of the group caught sight of a beautiful Roe Deer feeding quietly among shrubs not 20 yards from us. A moment or two later it sensed us and was off in the opposite direction. Nods and smiles among the group confirmed that we had all felt quite privileged to have seen this, especially in these relatively urban surroundings.

Further along the path we stopped at a break in the trees where we had superb views of birds on the south side mud exposed by the low tide. A Heron stood in the shallows, poised, rigid. There were Oystercatcher, Redshank, Lapwing and various gulls, the Black-Headed Gulls now showing winter plumage, with the summer hood replaced by a small black half-moon. It turned out that Chris had earlier placed another microphone down the bottom of the bank right at the river’s edge. He had hidden the lead in the bushes at the bank top, which he retrieved and hooked up to some headphones for each of us to have a listen. Placing the headphones on, I heard a gentle cadence of gurgling water. I could still hear distant city sounds, but I became more aware of the tranquility occurring right among the birds I had been watching moments earlier. There was a shuffling of leaves and the ‘chak!’ of a Magpie. Another high pitched call and moments later the clammy wet sound of something being prized from the mud by what I imagined to be the beak of a wader. Such evocative and natural sounds not normally heard at such quarters gave a feeling of total escapism and otherworldliness. Once again being privy to things which give a deeper feeling of understanding to what we take for granted when merely seen.

The group spoke of birdsong and calls, and Chris explained how at one time he had slowed down the trill call of a wren to five or six times its normal speed, and that the continuous trill sound when slowed, was in fact a number of individual notes strung together at an extremely fast rate by the male wren, who was claiming his territory and displaying both his beauty to jenny, and his masculinity to other males. Chris spoke of an idea that had been borne which indicated that birds may well have the temporal resolution, the ability to decipher, this communication at quite unimaginable speeds. Couple this with the fact that they move and accelerate infinitely quicker than we do, and are able to traverse continents under their own steam; then there is a train of thought which indicates birds could indeed be existing in a different time dimension to us. Likewise if we consider the birds on the river, and the fact that they would be drawn to feed upon the mud at low tides, then they were perhaps also governed by gravity. The irrelevance of time had never seemed so clear to me, this was enlightening stuff.

As we spoke a small black clumsy shadow fluttered and dipped between us. Chris immediately took a device from his pocket and switched it on. ‘Bat!’ he whispered. He tuned his bat detector to a frequency which would allow the echolocation signals emitted by the creature to be detected by the device and converted to a frequency audible to the human ear. Chris whispered keenly about bats and their habits, talking about the ‘feeding buzz’ which the bat uses as it homes in on its prey. He was telling us that the common Pipistrelle bat was more than likely the bat we were encountering and that a good frequency to capture the sound of the Pipistrelle was around 45-50 kHz. As he spoke the device began to slowly click. Then the clicking noise increased to a squall of clicks and another bat flew right among us, perfectly on cue.

The sun had now set, and as I was looking along the river towards the illuminated city, a whole new world was coming to life. A world of frequencies and communication techniques we are not normally able to appreciate, but with the extensive knowledge, quiet passion and genuine enthusiasm of Chris Watson, one cannot help but be inspired and thrilled by the invisible.

Chris Watson presents ‘Going With The Flow’ at Sage Gateshead on Wednesday 5th September at 7.45pm. Buy tickets here.

Chris Watson.