Soundwalk 2: The Nocturnalist

So on Monday night I walked the entire length of my A4074 route overnight.

Sandford-on-Thames, around 8.30pm

Including the journeys to and from the station at each end, and the long wander at either end of the trip to the start and from the finish of the actual walk, I reckon all in the entire distance is around 35 miles.

Sunset near Nuneham Courtenay

It was the most amazing experience. When you come across those lists to the effect of ‘things to do before you die,’ be sure to add ‘walk along a route you regularly commute along through the course of a night,’ because doing this changes everything about the way you then know that route. My night-long walk made me think that the nocturnal life of places has a secret, mysterious quality, because at night-time, the landscape belongs to many of the animals who hide from us during the day.

Marsh Baldon, just after sunset

As the sun set, I found myself holding my breath at the base of a tree, listening to the otherworldly hissing sounds of a Barn Owl perched in the branches above me. I did not see the Barn Owl, but I was able to identify it by the sounds it was making. This is because only a few days ago, I was listening to this recording of a Barn Owl, which you too can hear, on the British Library’s amazing sound archive.

Berinsfield, around 11pm

I found the walk to be deeply moving and quite challenging – both physically and mentally. The walk through Berinsfield was unsettling and strange. I alway feel out of place in densely populated areas after dark when all the decent folk are settled into bed. I was quizzed by local teenage boys in the park, and felt too self-conscious to divulge my night-long walking plans to them. Instead I lied and said I was headed for Dorchester – an assertion which won me no favours at all, as the youths disparagingly said ‘bit POSH isn’t it, Dorchester?’ – to which I agreed (it is!) before hastily continuing on my way. I am wary of gangs of teenage boys who are all taller than me and who have the solidarity of their group when I am alone and clearly doing something odd, but this bunch were OK, mainly keeping a territorial eye on their turf and wondering about who was passing through it.

The next stretch of the walk was along a tight pathway that runs directly beside the A4074. All there is to separate one from the road is a thin band of trees to one side. There a fence on the other side. The resultant tunnel was thick with spindly threads of spiderwebs and the heady scent of Elderflowers. Coupled with the almost total darkness and my foolish paranoia that the Berinsfield boys may be following me, I found this section grim and claustrophobic. I walked as silently as I could without my torch, listening intently, recording nothing, and quietening my mind by mentally reciting the names of all the villages left on the route as I went. Dorchester was incredibly quiet around midnight and I sat in the Graveyard around the Abbey, wondering if the bells would chime out the hour but they did not and so I left after a long, quiet wait. Dorchester was strange to walk through; no questions from the locals, but every other house positively buzzes with security fences and alarm systems, and I found myself staying as far from any buildings as I could, lest I spook myself or the residents by triggering the automatic floodlighting that goes with such systems.

I also found myself getting the chills through using my recorder. Listening to the sounds of the natural world AMPLIFIED through microphones adds a cinematic quality to the night-time which has only ever – in my mind at least – been used in movies to evoke fear. It is inevitable that years of watching movies informs the way we read the soundscape when we are out in it – especially when that soundscape is somehow amplified (and therefore more like a soundtrack.) Thus a twig snapping becomes the cue for us to envisage a waiting assailant, and the sound of rustling leaves is somehow evidence of a lurking, malignant presence.

Luckily I was able to talk myself out of these Hollywood-induced interpretations of the soundscape by remembering that although many things are watching us in the forest at night, all of them are more afraid of us than we are of them, and most of the things that rustle and move about in the dark are tiny and cute. Picturing the large, watching eyes of a doormouse in the wheat or the careful movements of a deer or a fox took all the fear out of any rustling sounds, and I found myself listening happily to the nocturnal world of woodlands and fields and rivers at many points. What I wished for most of all was to be as quiet in myself, as possible, and to move soundlessly and stealthily through the landscape. To this end I found I did not want to use my torch at all and so I mostly relied on night-vision for seeing (not so hard during the long daylight hours of the Summer Solstice!) and many sections of the walk were unrecorded.

Benson garage, after midnight

I got really frightened around the Benson R.A.F. airfield. I have realised that no amount of dedicatedly loving and studying sounds can endear me to the menacing thrum of helicopter engines. Although the sound of helicopters in itself is quite amazing (and very LOUD) there was something deeply intimidating about their presence above me after midnight as I made my way across the bleak, flat fields between Dorchester and Benson. I had to talk myself out of the idea that I was being hunted by the helicopters or surveyed in some way. I think there are very deep survival instincts that kick in after dark – ancient neural pathways to do with hunting and being hunted – which the helicopter more than any other sound awakens. Helicopters conjure images of violence more than any amount of leafy rustling or snapping twigs do, and I felt vulnerable and tiny as they trawled the sky above me endlessly, the grim drone of propellors and engines churning up the still night air.

There were many times when I did not want to hear the soundscape through earphones, but instead to listen with my naked ears to the sounds of walking in the dark. As daybreak began, the air slowly started to fill with glorious birdsong and I have to say, I was glad of the light when it started to come.

Daybreak, near Sheepcote farm, just before 3am

In my car I have only ever seen dead badgers at the side of the A4074. However just after the first light started to come, standing on the dirt track through a field, one scurried past me (clearly terrified and bewildered by my human presence there at that hour!) not a metre from my feet. I’ve never been so close to a living badger and it was amazing to see one at such close quarters. They are wide and heavy and low to the ground. And they move with purpose, but not elegance. This is what I was trying to photograph when I heard the tiny sound that alerted me to the presence of the badger.

It is very dark and the photo doesn’t do justice to the sight at all, but that is a whole field of opium poppies, all lilac-pale and mysterious, filling this field from side to side so that it looks like it has been given a dusting with pale stardust.

Please to forgive the terrible flash/night-time camera settings. It was 3am and I’d had no sleep.

I love the moment right before a poppy opens up, when it is curled like paper in its furry casing.

The light comes up so fast that by the time I had taken a million photos, gotten over the wonderful shock of my badger sighting and walked across the field, everything was lighter and the chorus of birdsong was growing steadily.

Drunken Bottom, Ipsden, 3.30am

The walk across Drunken Bottom to Ipsden was spectacular, accompanied by the loud baaing of sheep, and stunning views across the lovely golden barley to the gentle hills of South Stoke.

I saw Barn Owls soundlessly winging their way home across the skies, and – just after sunrise – this Hare.

Hammond’s Wood, just after 5am

Sunrise in Hammond’s Wood was a true thing of joy. I saw a Tawny Owl and a frog, I heard Woodpeckers, Kites, Pigeons, Blackbirds and Tits of all varieties trilling up in the branches, and the light was glorious, and hot.

Looking across to Cross Lane Farm and Orchards just before 7am

Just after I took this photo and descended into the wooded path that leads up to Cross Lanes Farm, I startled a mother and baby Muntjac deer, grazing in the woods. They bounded off ahead of me.

The path up towards Caversham Heath golf course was as inviting on the way home as it had been on the way to Oxford, and I gladly climbed it, knowing the end of my walk was not too far now.

The path from Pithouse Farm, after 7am

I made it back to Caversham and the official start of the A4074 in Reading, for around 8am. My legs hurt, and I was getting dazzled by the powerful morning sun, but town was a welcome sight because it indicated that BED would soon be mine!

I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I feel very lucky that I have the sort of partner who says ‘that sounds amazing, you simply must do it’ when I suggest walking overnight, alone, and not ‘well it sounds a bit dangerous, you really shouldn’t do it.’ Mark has been singularly supportive and amazing about this crazy idea and it has made me think a lot about the myths that surround women’s freedom to roam at night and the liberating idea that I really can go wherever I want, whenever I want.

I have been afraid of walking alone at night for several years now and it felt important in the run up to my 31st birthday to broach this fear and discover – afresh – the rich, nocturnal life of the landscape outlying the A4074. Having walked here in the dark, I feel my knowledge of these pathways is now deeper and more intimate. I feel my ears have listened harder and my eyes have searched more carefully among the shapes and noises of this landscape.

All the recordings will be included in the forthcoming podcast, and the experience has inspired me so much that I am considering leading a nocturnal version of my proposed soundwalk for anyone who wants to explore the lovely frisson of listening at night.

15 Responses to Soundwalk 2: The Nocturnalist

  1. Liz T. says:

    What an amazing experience! – thank you for writing about it in such detail. I’d love to come on a nocturnal version of the soundwalk with you.

  2. Wendolene says:

    I completely would have chickened out on that one. Good for you, and what a reward you got for pushing on! The sunrise alone looks like it was magnificent to experience!

  3. Fi says:

    That was fascinating…

    I agree about the helicopters, I said to my husband the other day “that’s a sound you expect to see coming over the trees and pointing a gun at you…” (we live very near Abingdon airfield/Dalton barracks which a lot of military flying machines go in and out of) they make me quake.

  4. jeannette says:

    this is really moving and inspiring. the lights in my neighborhood went out last night just before sunset, so it was early to bed in an entire dark neighborhood. the wind was high (one of the reasons for the outage) and watching the trees toss in the dark, to which your eyes really do become accustomed, brought many things — including ghosts and the wild things — to mind. it is very very interesting to be in such — unmediated? — space. i hope you will write more about this. thank you very much.

  5. Kate says:

    This is truly magical! The landscape transformed in so many ways…the silent, night-time, creatures, the crazy poppies at dawn….I love this midsummer time of year in the UK and your post and photos really capture how special it is. Also, this takes reclaim the night to another dimension! Hurrah for women walking alone . . though i also enjoyed your writing about the margins of fear here (the Berinsfield boys, the helicopter). Night-time is just *strange*, as you say. What an amazing, wondrous project this is turning out to be.

  6. caro says:

    What a fantastic walk Felix, and a fantastic post about it. Well done for getting through the fear and doing it. It sounds like a totally amazing experience – certainly in the “things to do before you die” list.
    xxxx

  7. knit nurse says:

    Travelling in the dark, alone, and in unfamiliar places is a terrifying, exhilarating and character-forming experience. I clearly remember a pre-dawn cycle ride of more than an hour along South Uist to reach an early ferry at Lochboisdale. It was just me, the road and the sheep, and my bike lights barely lit a few metres ahead. I was frightened to death and yet every part of me felt more alive than ever. Afterwards I knew I’d really pushed myself to overcome my paranoia and fear of the dark, and I’ve been able to draw on that ever since. Well done for completing such a challenge.

  8. JoannaD says:

    This is amazing. My heart is still beating faster than usual after such a tense and intense read. Hats off to you for walking through your fear. You challenge us to go beyond our usual, self-imposed boundaries, whether that’s our habit of privileging the visual or our reluctance to venture out in the dark. And in doing so you offer the opportunity for richer experiences, for feeling what is all around us in new and deeper ways. I wish I could come on your nocturnal walk.

  9. colleen says:

    Sometimes I save your posts to read late at night on my own when it’s quiet because they can be so very rich – like this one I am full of admiration for your overcoming your fear and exhaustion and for describing so well the intensity of your perception of the landscape through sound. And, blimey, 35 miles is a long old haul at any time of day. I thought I was doing well to manage Southwark to Mile End in the night on my own not so long ago…

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  14. jeannette says:

    i have linked to this on fb, and think of it often.

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