'Walking Borders: borders, risk and belonging' is funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Walk 1: Walking on Lindisfarne with sound artist Chris Watson


On Wednesday the 2nd December 2015 I joined Chris Watson, award winning sound artist and sound recordist for a walk on the tidal island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. We met at the Barn at Beal, overlooking the causeway and had a coffee whilst Chris talked me through the map and route he had drawn for our walk.


I love coming here it’s one of my favourite places and when we talked about walking.. I’ve been coming here for over 20 years recording and I usually go somewhere  and stop and spend 4/5 hrs being quiet, listening,  in one place,  recording and listening.

We will walk anti-clockwise around Lindisfarne.. an exciting prospect .. a great opportunity for me..this is my studio, being outside and I prefer being outside..I normally walk as a means to get somewhere.. apart  from when I am doing sound walks, for example, as part of the AV festival.

An ambient soundwalk

chris map 2nd dec 2015 Lindisfarne


We are looking at my impression of the shape of Lindisfarne which of course has changed a lot over the years..When I did the IAS residency I talked to  archaeologist Dr. David Petts who explained that the island has changed shape over the centuries,  significantly,  and so what it was like in Cuthbert’s time in the 7th century is very different to what we see today.. it is roughly this shape and as a tidal island  its shape changes twice a day..which is quite remarkable and so I have done a very simple aerial view and have outlined the walk in blue.. we will drive across the causeway  and walk through the village, which is a good introduction to the walk.

We are walking the boundary of the island, the boundary between sea and land or mud and water, depending on the state of the tide.

The walk would take around three hours. We drove across the causeway and parked on the edge of the village in the car park. At the start of the walk, Chris spoke about why he chose the island to share a walk with me on borders, risk and belonging, the importance of ‘quiet’ in our daily lives and ‘tuning in’ to the sounds of Lindisfarne, the sea, birds and wildlife.

On borders, risk, belonging and time

In terms of  borders, here is  no man’s land..neither land nor sea washed by the sea twice a day, cut off from the rest of the world. I like the fact  it is  on this border, with the  migration patterns of birds in summer this island is filled up with African migrants and birds come here from South Africa from the banks of the great greasy Limpopo, swallows come and nest here, there is a population of arctic terns , a remarkable migration, the  furthest migration of any birds and they nest around these latitudes and migrate back to the Antarctic. At this time of year they see more daylight than any other animal on earth.. their borders are around the island and they fish off shore.. it’s an area of great transition and I find this exciting.

Whatever the season I can be drawn here to sound record the birds. In terms of what we regard as this beautiful landscape, they risk their lives on a daily basis …they are on the edge of an existence that we can’t even imagine..in summer it can be a survival environment, in this temperature it can be hostile environment, the mortality is very high so 60-80% most don’t survive, it’s just we rarely see the results of that. This  roots me back in the everyday patterns that we are excluded from in our air conditioned centrally heated environments.

So, as a wild life sound recordist, for me  it is  always interesting to come to places like this and soak up some of  these sounds..this is a relatively noise free environment, most of  our lives we are surrounded by noise pollution. One of the reasons I enjoy coming to a tidal  island such as Lindisfarne is because you can escape.

So this is the village on Lindisfarne..what is all around us at the moment are  house sparrows..there is a good resident population here..its just a reminder of  that sense of time and what has happened here in 1300 years is nothing in evolutionary times for birds and other animals.


Standing under a tree at the edge of the village as we set off on the walk from the car park, Chris helped me ‘tune in’ to the ‘signature sound’ of a leafless tree…

it is almost like a roar when the wind catches the canopy. The leafless trees have a very particular signature sound I think, it’s one of the great sounds of winter. There..it’s  almost beautiful.

We are looking south and straight across to Lindisfarne castle and off to the right is Bamburgh castle

…built on the edge of the great Whin Sill (dolerite)..We can see the Farne islands and the white glow from the light house.. St Cuthbert went out to the Inner Farne and made a hermitage there. I am hoping today we get to see the eider duck..which famously nested around Cuthbert when he was on the Inner Farne.. and he declared..the first example in history..that none should harm the eider duck..they nest in profusion around the Farne Islands, I’m hoping we see a few today.

This is a great view…seeing into the distance across the sea to Farne…


Its a very simple thing,  how the sounds change..we are away from the trees,  in a flat exposed area of grass looking out at the sea, the wind blowing from the west and all we can hear are the sound of waves and nothing else..

Walking and signature sounds: a place to rest your thoughts

As we walked aniti clockwise around lindisfarne we passed by  Lindisfarne  castle  on our right  and the Gertrude Jekyll garden on our left we headed ftowards the shoreline. Speaking on the importance of walking, sound and motion Chris described how whilst he was producing the CD St Cuthberts Time  and at the same time working on the BBC programme  In Britten’s Footsteps  for Britten’s  centenary he  interviewed Rita  Thompson who was  Benjamin Britten’s nurse in his final years:

she was telling me how important ambient sound was to Britten,  every day he would walk, he would work on his music in the morning; he had a very strict regime, dress for dinner, a jacket and tie sit down at 1pm for lunch then go and get changed,  put his outdoor o things  on and go for a walk.  This was  a central part of his compositional process and in his head he would edit his mornings  work and then revise it..he needed to go outside where  he wasn’t distracted so he took all the green lanes and bye roads behind Aldeburgh.. and these were focused periods of walking on his own..and this was  part of his creative process, that I found fascinating.

So  Britten  would  revise his work during his walk, and  so it was essential for him,  he was not distracted but he needed something to rest his thoughts on..I have real empathy with that, I can understand that and something  I use when I am out, when I am walking and thinking..a sound to rest your thoughts on and that inspired me to do the piece on St Cuthbert’s time.

Chris spoke about how, drawing upon the work of Dr David Petts and Dr Fiona Gameson,  the gospels would have been illustrated here on this island in daylight, as candles were expensive to produce,  and in the days preceding stone buildings the gospel would have been produced in a  wooden ‘lean to’, exposed to the weather and the sounds of the island.

And, because of what is illustrated in the gospels I  was convinced  that  Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne was influenced by the sounds around him.

I was intrigued by the concept of a ‘signature sound’ as well as having a ‘sound to rest your thoughts on’ and having commissioned Chris to lead a Slow sound walk at two seminars on the idea of the Slow University,  I had experienced, thanks to Chris, the signature sound of Palace  Green, Durham.  I  suggested that for me the ‘signature sound’ of Lindisfarne included  the wind, the sound  of the sea/waves, the birds, but also the colour,  the muted yellows and grasses blowing in the wind.  I suggested that  movement/motion is  important too in relation to helping to perculate, process or think through whilst resting ones thoughts on the signature sound.

Yes, It’s not soporific ,  that sense of motion is important  for me and then having discovered people like Britten and considering what happened here with regard to illustrating the Lindisfarne Gospel,  I find that really inspiring…and  so much of the seasonal aspect too. I love to come to places like this and engage..come out and experiencing the elements. In a moment we are going to be shielded by this great lump of rock on our right hand side and the wind is going to drop and we will be in a different place.


The wind has dropped  listen to that sound ..a softer rush through the grass and vegetation.. and we are going over to a much more exposed part.  It is  interesting to see people building with stones over there.. good building material and stones are  few and far between on the island mostly it is sand..it looks like a strange film set..they look like little shrines..there is going to be a big sound change from turf to stone..

It was  interesting to see this human trace in what is otherwise a stark landscape devoid of people (we were tuned in to the sounds of the wind, sea and birds)  and as we moved closer towards the stones and sea the group of people walked slowly away from us.

Remarkable conical mounds


The wind has dropped and even though we are on the south westerly tip of Lindisfarne on this remarkable pebble bank the tide has withdrawn  to 100 metres away.. and  there are these remarkable conical mounds built by lots of people over many years. I love that distant horizon of Farne and Bamburgh. I love the wedge shape of the island..the block shape right on the tip, the white and red hoops of the long stone lighthouse the most easterly point..I can image a 7th century St Cuthbert saying ‘you know it’s just not remote enough here  I’m going out there to Inner Farne to live on my own.’


We stop for a while looking at the  oyster catchers and underneath them the redshanks feeding in the sea weed and pools left by the retreating tide. Chris tells me the redshanks have a strident call and are “often called the sentinel of the marshes..wading birds, long legs long beaks..they are lit beautifully, the colour contrasting with the colour of the stones..when you glance you can  see very few but when you look there are many feeding in the seaweed.”  Tuning in my eyes get acclimatised to the rock and then the birds..it is very special.

Chris tells me

“what we are seeing and hearing has not changed in hundreds and hundreds of years.. and because we have the wind to our backs we can’t hear the water so much..”

We follow the route with the sea to our right walking in light rain  towards the bird hide and freshwater  pool, protected from the  rain by waterproof clothing and I think of  Eadfrith and Cuthbert working on the Lindisfarne manuscript exposed to the elements and the remarkable sounds of the island.

In the bird hide: Shovellers, Teals and Mallards

In the hide, we stop protected from the rain for a bite to eat and look out at the poolIMG_0231

On the far side is  a large bird a single  shoveler has dropped in here for a few days, a bird of passage..a beautiful dark bill..its beak digs up  it scours the water..when you  first glance it seems there is little here but when you look you can see ..

I asked Chris what first brought him to Lindisfarne

Well I first came here  in the  1980s, I was  interested by the wildlife, the place where Christianity first emerged in England, a powerful internationally known place for its history and culture, but also a fantastic place for wildlife.. and so the history and the ancient  history was fascinating and its place in  the North East and the  Viking  raids, exciting and tragic.  In the 7th century they arrived took everything killed a lot of people but nevertheless  made it notorious and so all in all  a magical sounding place. I came here on the bus first of all before  I had a car, to hang out and explore and then realised it’s a fantastic place and a great recording opportunity. So I got transport  and explored the area the North East  coast Bamburgh, Budle Bay, wonderful places and great seasonal environments.

Chris remarked on the change in our view of the freshwater pool in just twenty minutes.

IMG_0226.JPGWe stopped talking to listen to the call of a bird..”a teal.. you can hear that piping double notes of a teal..” Chris talked about this as an area of international importance for geese, ducks and wader birds whilst we watch a group of  5 mallards. Chris laughed as he told me about applying for a permit to record here  in the late 80’s to the guy who administered the coastal environment for this part of reserve .. Chris Shaw, a  Mr C Shaw.


Leaving the hide we  walked  forward towards the dunes,  the links and the snook where Chris thought we might see some Roe deer.

Walking in the dunes

the  undulating trackless dunes and the place called the snook a remote part, properly wild and you get a totally different view of the island from here, you can easily see the longstone from here.


We walked through a group of cows, along the side of the dunes and Chris talked about some of his current commissions,  his radio work,  especially  in Ireland for  RTE and  his work on light houses.   We shared an interest in the Skelligs islands in County Kerry  and Chris had stayed on Skellig Michael  in the lighthouse;  on the most remote Skellig rock.   He spoke about being given space and time to tell a story and to  be creative and how he values this.

Walking into the dunes to take a last look at the sea  Chris spotted a beautiful young roe deer on an adjacent dune standing looking at us and with a quick close up using Chris’s binoculars we came face to face and  in an instant it was gone.

Walking on inland towards the causeway  and car park Chris pointed out a pair of mute swans flying left to right over the island,  another resident wild bird. He then spotted a group of roe deer, magnificant and fleetingly, the  white kidney shapes  flashing on their rears as they darted towards  the dunes.

I’ve certainly been told this about certain  african mammals, that the flashing white rump shows a predator ‘ I am really fit  and active’ and  they bounce around to deter predators from chasing after  them,  flashing  the white rump is a signal.

I asked Chris about his introduction to sound recording.  It was through a gift  of a sound recorder  when he was a child.

A biography in sound

I think I was 11 or 12  and it was a present a portable reel to reel tape recorder a 1/4 inch tape, about 1963 or 1964.   It had a microphone on about a metres worth of cable and I was delighted by this and I went around recording everything in the house squeaking doors, bathroom and  kitchen and I was exploring sounds and I was fascinated by playing back, slowing  it down, speeding  it up, what I now call time shifting.  

In Sheffield where Chris lived

We had a bird table in back garden and mum and dad had a new double glazed window put in the kitchen and this gave  a cinematic view of the bird table, framed by the window but  I could not hear. So I took it outside put bird seed and bread on the table and taped it to the table and took 8 minutes of tape. The birds returned and I could see the wheels going round on the recorder and I like to think I remember the moment of playing it back and accessing this other world that we are excluded from as our presence would radically alter it  it and I was amazed that  I could do this and hear the detail and fascinating variety of calls and communication what otherwise would be a silent world viewed through a window.

Chris  discovered the taperecorder  was a much more creative instrument, that he could document and manipulate sound  and  when he discovered French  composer  Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer and musique concrète he further  explored the creative potential and got involved in experimental music, founding Cabaret Voltaire whilst at Sheffield University and he began composing music from sounds recordings.

Gradually I became more interested in what I was recording and hearing outside rather than what we were creating in studio.  I became fascinated by wildlife recording outside and if I was going to do anything with that I needed skills and knowledge to work creatively. I was interested in film sounds and so the best place was Newcastle so  I started working at Tyne Tees television in the sound dept. It was a flourishing company employing 900 people  and was a remarkable creative environment and  I got really good training everything from being sent on location to the miners’ strike, to working on films,  documentaries and music programmes. I liked it that channel 4 had started and the tube was commissioned.  I knew loads of people in industry and so I have had this remarkable experience of working  across all these areas and was involved in post production too. Eventually when I saw a post advertised in RSPB in Bedfordshire for  a sound recordist for the first time to record and  to establish a sound library Tyne T ees gave me a  2 yr. sabbatical to work with this charity the RSPB.


We stopped to at the edge of the causeway  by the poles marking the line of  the St Cuthbert’s pilgrims walk to the mainland and Chris spotted a couple of grey seals out in the water..


They have hauled out on the last remaining piece of land, listen…..they are Brent geese..they have come from the arctic..white rumps, thats great and  curlews..Well we have seen a couple of seals, a large flock of Brent geese and there are curlews  calling we can’t see them but we can hear them and we are starting to lose the light, its 340pm and will be dark in half an hour. Its  great the wind has really dropped. The headlights of cars  can be seen streaking over the causeway. There are lots of birds on the thin line, the border between the mud and the water, lots of small wading birds in advance of the incoming tide..



And continuing his story, Chris told me how he returned  to Northumberland with his wife and new baby after the two years were up with the RSPB  and

we re-established ourselves in the industry..but television had changed, the broadcasting act had happened and they had had this ludicrous lottery for independent television stations and  Yorkshire and Tyne tees combined and had to pay 52 million pounds a year  to the treasury;   before they made any  money they had to pay 1million pounds per week  for the right to broadcast. Central television  based in Birmingham had sorted their franchise very cleverly and got the same licence for 2000 pounds. So you saw the collapse of independent television as independent  local stations.and this brilliant north east  franchise disappeared and so we lost it,  it all went up in the air and some friends of mine started an independent company Hoi Polloi  film and video,  just the three of them and they  invited me to join which I did  and so I joined the partnership and we are  still going,  though I do lot of independent work,  a lot of my radio commissions I do independently  and that’s it really.

I remarked on the wide ranging experience and expertise including  the Mexican train journey –El Tren Fantasma (the ghost train) – the residency at the Institute of Advanced Studies Durham,  creating the recent  work on lighthouses and the work for RTE Ireland that  really does span such a huge range art, music, the environment, wildlife, birds and composition.

Yes I really enjoy this work,  like this walk today,   and recently I was working for the Guardian recording the forest fable podcasts and  also with SigurRós  to supply the sounds of Iceland for a video project they are working on. I  did a similar thing for Bjork earlier this year for  her Icelandic airwaves exhition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art she used quite a few of my Icelandic sounds, she wanted to  create an Icelandic landscape which was great..

It’s never been work you can go and achieve, that sounds really glib,  but its great and I am fortunate to have lots of opportunities.. I like the varied aspects of sound design,  recently a guy got in touch  asking me to  do some  sounds for a  song he is writing and he wants some animal sounds; its the  guy who did bob the builder and he wants some animal tracks.

By now we had reached the car park and the light was falling. I thanked Chris and we said our goodbyes..

Thank you  so much Chris  it’s been a fabulous day,

Thankyou Maggie it was great to have a walk with you.

Following Chris out of the car park I  stopped at the first roadside cafe on the drive south to have a coffee and  space to think and make some notes on the experience of walking the border between Lindisfarne and the mud flats, sand, stones and sea.

One comment on “Walk 1: Walking on Lindisfarne with sound artist Chris Watson

  1. Pingback: Walk 1: Walking on Lindisfarne with sound artist Chris Watson | walkingborders

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