Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Chris Watson

Chris Watson | 1st January 2017

…In which, as we enter a new year, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

Väinämöinen’s Wakes

In the early 1980’s whilst I was exploring Northumberland for recording locations I discovered a book by Alfred Watkins, first published in 1925. The Old Straight Track, together with the collected works of Tom Lethbridge, gradually illuminated a pathway for me through the Borders landscape as I discovered for myself that intangible sense of spirit and place.

Stonehaugh on the South East corner of Kielder Forest in Northumberland is one of my favourite woodlands throughout all seasons. Take the trail upstream, meandering within earshot of the Warks Burn where the path rises and then, under a stand of Scots pines, descends into a hollow. Here, the acoustics soften, the burn fades and you are surrounded by sound.

At 0400h in late April this year I fixed a microphone array in the hollow and cabled 60m back to a favourite tree which I could lean against, blending into the woodland unseen whilst recording the slowly emerging chorus; Tawny owl, song thrush, robin, common toad, blackbird, willow warbler, wren, roe deer, chiffchaff, wood pigeon, raven, green woodpecker, siskin and coal tit. It’s wild, glorious and still dark under the canopy when I’m reminded of Simon Puxley’s liner notes for Roxy Music’s first album in 1972, which concludes; “Oh notes cannot spell out the score”.


Last year I was commissioned by the National Gallery, along with five other artists, to create a soundtrack for a chosen painting. I picked ‘Lake Keitele’ created by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela in 1905. I had never been to Finland, however the image of a lake within a forest reminded me of Kielder forest and reservoir, a similar habitat with similar species. There are traces through the water across the lake in the painting and curator Minna Moore Ede explained that their significance was due to the artist’s fascination with the Kalevala, an epic poem from the 19th century and a powerful work which helped form the cultural identity of Finland. Within the Kalevala, Väinämöinen is a god of water, chants, songs and poetry who sails by boat across the Finnish lakes. Gallen-Kallela imagined Väinämöinen’s boat crossing Lake Kietele, but only the wake of this spectral vessel is visible.

Väinämöinen also had a magical voice; I had to go to Finland.

The Finnish lake district is on an epic scale. Travel guides describe the area as “the land of a thousand lakes”, but this is something of an underestimation as there’s actually over 185,000 out there. In late May of this year I was standing by the shores of one of them and listening. I’d chosen Lake Suvasvesi to avoid the jet skis and power boats that now inhabit Lake Keitele. In the burnt orange glow of an almost midnight sun, the stillness was a potent force. Several kilometres down the lake to the south, a bittern’s boom rolled across the surface. Cuckoos and tawny owls sang unseen in the forest, and out on the water a Black throated diver wailed. I couldn’t see the bird on its solo passage across the darkened surface, but it left a wake. A slow ripple that never reached the shore.


During the Autumn migration, millions of birds travel south from northern Scandinavia and the Arctic regions to over winter in less hostile environments. The north east coast of Northumberland around the island of Lindisfarne is one such favoured destination and so marks this as another of my favourite locations. There is also an ancient history here, coloured by a powerful sense of place. The causeway across to the island is washed by the tides twice each day, actions which also cover the wide expanses of inter-tidal mud. Curlew, redshank, dunlin, turnstone and knot are pushed off their feeding grounds and forced to roost inland by the advancing waters. My recording technique is to rig microphones just above the strand line and wait for the birds to be pushed towards them by the tide. On the highest Spring tides the wildfowl are also obliged to move and the waders are joined overhead by Pink footed geese, wigeon, Brent geese and the welcome voices of Whooper swans, Väinämöinen’s companions and the Finnish national bird, here for the winter after an epic voyage across the sea.


Chris Watson on Caught by the River / on Twitter