It doesn’t take much to make a familiar place unfamiliar. A change in the weather – rain, bright sunshine, or more dramatically, snowfall or fog can all do it. Smells too – who hasn’t found themselves aware of sniffing more consciously than normal when drains are blocked, or there’s a whiff of barbecue, bonfire or worse in the air?
At least twice a week I walk the same route, through the same side streets to the same train station – Tulse Hill. I recently began wondering whether this always sounded the same as well and then set out in an attempt to record everything that I heard on the way.
It quickly became clear that this would be an impossible task – so many layers of sound are out there, so many almost imperceptible noises being made and transmitted that no individual could hope to catch them all (and even if a team of listeners and recorders were out there capturing these ambient sounds of the city – would we be hearing the same things anyway?)
However this exercise did have the effect of transforming my walk, simply making the effort to listen and notice enabled or triggered a kind of sensory tuning in to the world, rather than the more commonplace (for me) closing off and turning inwards during this most typical of journeys.
It made me realise that this regular, short walk of mine has become so routine, that I barely give it a second thought. And yet, until I looked at a map just now I couldn’t have said how many different roads or streets are involved – it’s 14 – or even what most of them are called.
In a literal street map sense the walk goes: Gipsy Road, St Gothard Road, St Cloud Road, Vale Street, Tritton Road (barely), Martell Road, Park Hall Road, Chancellor Grove, Idmiston Road, Tulsemere Road, Lancaster Avenue, South Circular, Elmcourt Road, Maley Avenue, Tulse Hill Station. But to me and I guess for most of us we don’t tend to think of this kind of journey in that way. For me rather than thinking about street names, it’s more like Home, The Estate with all the Scaffolding, the Former Pub, the Local Dump by the Cemetery, the Rat Run, The Street with that Garden filled with Lavender and Bowles Mauve, the Massive Buddleia bush, the Rushing Prep School Parents hit and drop zone, the Race Track, the Secondary School and Lime Tree Street, the Quiet Road Leading to the station Tunnel…
In failing to note all I heard down, I was at first annoyed with myself, but on reflection actually quite pleased to be reminded that even in those places we think that we know best, we can sometimes, with a little effort, walk like strangers.
Here’s my attempt to transcribe the sound of my walk:
A gentle thud, as one door closes.
Rubber soled trainers hitting concrete, mix with general South East London ambience (heard throughout alongside all other sounds below)
Creak of metal gate swinging open, gentle snick of iron on wooden post
Goldfinches’ mewing/tinkling unexpectedly in ash trees on railway embankment
Bus engine idles
Before white noise/Pfft pfft of three sets of tyres on tarmac
Give way to the distant supersonic exhaust of a jet engine hitting the slower air of the sky around it
As sparrows chatter in a high hedge
Mingling with the sigh of a woman with a pram at a request bus stop
Edged out by the soft pad of someone else’s shoes as they pass her by
Chinking change as legs swing into
Gust of wind and skitter of empty packaging on pavement
More Goldfinch mewing, prior to wind on plastic bag caught in a London Plane tree
Grumble of car engine as it turns a corner
Blackbird ticking/clucking in bushes of Gothic Lodge Care Home
Phut phut of two cartons of milk, held together in one woman’s hand
Keys jangling in the other hand
Clack of heel on kerb
Thud of door closing (hers?)
Sawing noise emanating from West Dulwich house attic conversion
Van door opens up a thump and click of tools in a bag being moved
By a builder, who’s booted footsteps, accompany a sharp intake of breath segues into variously pitched sighs and whooshes of tyres on the South Circular
Snick snicking and clipping a raised patch of road surface
Near two different impact sounds as a breeze hits a Forsythia hedge and a man trailing in a north westerly direction
Broadcasting hurried footsteps as another walker is overtaken
Into fading traffic sounds as steps proceed down side street
Towards a burst of song from a Robin,
A snatch of conversation from a man into a mobile “Yeah. She shouldn’t. That’s what I’m saying.”
Introduces the click of a Clipper lighter outside a tunnel into a station
Beneath the sonic whine of distant passenger plane/Bleep of ticket gate opening
Ticking spokes of a wheeled bike on concrete clicked on by trolley wheels
Station announcement on tannoy