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Sunderland Marina – Contrasting Sounds

IN THIS, THE LAST of my pieces coming out of my recent short trip to the north east of England, I want to present two sounds – the first I find quite comforting and the second, much less so.

Situated at the mouth of the River Wear, Sunderland’s North Dock, built by Brunel in 1837, has been completely renovated and today is home to Sunderland Marina.  As well as providing berths for leisure craft it’s also home to working fishing boats including the flat-bottomed, high-bowed, coble.

The coble is a traditional fishing boat, native to these parts. It’s designed to cope with the grey, unpredictable and often treacherous waters of this north eastern stretch of North Sea coastline.

A coble safely home:

This particular coble hove into view bringing with it the distinctive chugging of its diesel engine together with the equally distinctive Sunderland accent of its crew. I find something quite comforting about the purr of this diesel engine … and something quite mysterious about the Sunderland accent.

Looking out over the outer part of the marina, little sailing boats bob up and down in the evening sunlight. At first sight, a tranquil scene but the ripples on the water and the sounds tell a different story.

Wind in the masts:

The wind, coming in from right to left, sometimes blowing gently and then, in the blink of an eye, screeching through the masts of the boats gives a completely different atmosphere to the marina and a reminder of how quickly and dramatically conditions can change on this treacherous coastline.


Beautiful Objects – Creaking Sounds

IN APRIL I MADE a blog piece about the Musée Carnavalet in which I featured the sound of its creaking wooden floor.  Echoes of that piece returned recently when I went to the Musée National de Céramique at Sèvres, a suburb of Paris.

The Musée National de Céramique is one of two national treasures on this site. Hidden from view behind the museum is the other, the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres – the still very active Sèvres porcelain factory.

Production of Sèvres porcelain began on this site in 1756 after the original factory, founded in 1738 in the Chateau de Vincennes, ran into financial trouble and had to be bailed out by its biggest customer, Louis XV. Louis stepped in and secured the factory as Royal property and it has remained Royal and, from the time of the Revolution, national property ever since.

Louis XV bestowed the name Manufacture Royale de la Porcelaine de France on the factory and introduced the famous double L monogram as the factory mark. It was with this Royal connection that Sèvres porcelain became the French porcelain of royalty and the royal porcelain of France.

The Sèvres factory’s early work was made from soft paste porcelain, a material notoriously tricky to work with and more expensive than the other competing hard paste porcelains of Germany and England. In 1768, deposits of kaolin, the white clay essential in making hard paste porcelain, were discovered in Limoge. With this vital ingredient the Sèvres factory was able to produce hard paste porcelain as well and compete with factories like Meissen on equal terms.

Sèvres porcelain is renowned for its exceptional glazes and deep background colours – royal blue (bleu de roi), turquoise (bleu celeste), pea green, and pink (rose Pompadour).

The sounds inside the museum:

Alexandre Brongniart was responsible for creating the Musée National de Céramique. He became the director of the Sèvres factory in 1800 and for the next forty-seven years the factory continued to evolve and prosper under his guidance. His idea was to create a museum to collect and study all fine ceramics not just those from the Sèvres factory. Today, the museum has a collection of around 50,000 objects from around the world about 5,000 of which were manufactured at Sèvres.

Walking round this museum is an absolute delight; some of the objects on display are just breathtaking. There is a small charge to get in (it’s closed on Tuesdays), but it’s well worth a visit – you get to see some of the finest ceramics in the world and, as a bonus, you get to hear the wonderful sounds of the creaking wooden floor.

How to get there:

On the Transilien:

The nearest Transilien station is Sèvres – Rive Gauche then it’s a five-minute walk to the museum.

On the Metro:

The nearest Metro station is Pont de Sèvres on Line 9 and then it’s a five-minute walk to the museum.


Pigeons Beware!

RECENTLY, I RECEIVED a mail from Adam, who writes the fascinating Invisible Paris blog.  This is what he said:

“Each time I’m at the Gare d’Austerlitz I think about your blog, and keep meaning to tell you about the sound recording opportunity that is there.

As with most similar large spaces, I imagine that they have big problems with pigeons, and the solution that they seem to have found is to play a recording of some kind of bird of prey. You just need to stand in the main station concourse and you’ll hear the sound very regularly, and very clearly too!”

For some reason, the Gare d’Austerlitz is the only one of the main stations in Paris that I haven’t visited since I’ve been here so I went to check it out.

And Adam’s right, there are pigeons in the Gare d’Austerlitz and they do play the sounds of predatory birds over the public address system in the station.

Pigeons Beware:

Undoubtedly, this is a novel and humane way of scaring the pigeons, although I’m not sure how effective it is.  The fact that they have to play these sounds repeatedly at regular intervals seems to suggest that the pigeons have got wise to it. Nevertheless, I applauded the station authorities for a good effort.


Beanz Meanz … ???

REMEMBER THE ADVERTISING slogan, “Beanz Meanz Heinz” ? A corruption of the English language maybe, but a classic nevertheless. In Paris though Beanz Meanz … something quite different.

Tins of Heinz baked beans stacked on shelves – and where would you expect to find them – in a supermarket?  No, these beans are to be found where you would least expect them … in a bookshop in Paris!

Established in 1903 and claiming to be the largest English bookshop in Paris, W H Smith, The English Bookshop as they style themselves, is to be found at the corner of the rue Rivoli and the rue Cambon.

The ground floor of the bookshop is much as you would expect – a wide range of books, novels ranked by author from A to Z, new releases, a travel section, a crime section as well as a wide range of magazines and English newspapers.

Climbing the wooden staircase to the first floor though brings a surprise.

The sounds inside WH Smith:

As well as selling English language books, WH Smith is capitalising on the rising demand in France for things British and particularly British food.

Fueled by expats who want food that reminds them of home and by the increasing popularity of Le Snacking, the Anglo-Saxon style snacks, fast food and sandwiches that are encroaching on the traditional French long sit-down lunches, sales of British food are booming.

On the first floor of WH Smith, bookshelves have given way to a cornucopia of British specialities – OXO cubes, Walker’s shortbread, Twining’s tea, Cadbury’s cream eggs, McVities chocolate digestives, Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Mr Kipling cakes and the ever mysterious but highly popular, Marmite – to name but a few.

They still sell books on the first floor but the space occupied by food has increased at the expense of the space occupied by books.

If the appetite for British food in Paris continues I wonder if The English Bookshop that also sells food will one day become The English Food Shop that also sells books?

Although, at first sight, it does seem a little odd to sell food alongside books, there is no doubt that it is a success and, as an English expat, I admit to more than a whiff of nostalgia as I look at the shelves.

The real question though is, when will we see the arrival in Paris of that peculiarly English curiosity fish ‘n chips? I suspect that even WH Smith will not rise to that particular challenge!



SOUND RECORDING CAN often be a solitary business – and I actually prefer it that way.

Photo courtesy of:

Standing recently on the foreshore of the Wherry and later on the Leas, a stretch of the Sunderland coastline in north east England, I had plenty of time to reflect on this whacky interest of mine – recording the everyday sounds around me. Using the minimum equipment and the maximum imagination I explore the sonic environment wherever I go.

I’m a city dweller fortunate enough to live in what is often described as the most romantic city in the world – Paris. And Paris has bounteous delights for the sound hunter but, sometimes, an escape to the country or, even better, an escape to the sea makes a refreshing change.

I specialise in recording the street sounds of Paris, the everyday sounds that we often ignore or, at best, only take a passing interest in. As a Parisian city dweller, I found the sounds of the sea on the Wherry absolutely captivating.

Sounds of the Wherry:

And that set me reflecting about sound.

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words – but what is a sound worth? How would we perceive for example da Vinci’s Last Supper or Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa if we could hear them as well as see them?

This is what the doyen of wildlife sound recordists Chris Watson hears when looking at Constable’s The Cornfield:

“I can hear birdsong billowing out from the leaf cover and a great spotted woodpecker drumming on the trunk of a skeletal tree, which temporarily distracts the Border collie from its herding duties. Unseen and almost unheard a freshwater spring bubbles into the drinking pool, a resource that is shared by animals and people alike on days such as this. Above, a gusting breeze ripples through the tree canopy and out across the open fields where ripe corn heads swish and sigh on dry stems, their slow rhythm accompanying a skylark singing from high above, a pin point of silver sound lost to all sight, in a pewter sky.

In the early 19th century Constable could not only see into the distance but also hear it. From his memory no doubt the warm song of a yellowhammer and drifting tones of the church clock would carry far in the humid air. Noise pollution was yet to reach rural Suffolk revealing a quality of sound that has, like the landscape, passed into history.”

Imagine if we could actually hear the original early nineteenth-century sounds of rural Suffolk as we look at the picture rather than relying on Chris’s imagination however beautifully expressed.

Sound gives us information but it also creates emotion. Sound lets us paint our own pictures. Every sound, whether it’s a street sound of Paris, an award-winning sound by Chris Watson or even the sound of me walking on the Wherry in Sunderland, is an important part of our environment, our culture and of our heritage.

A Walk on the Wherry:

For most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last thirty seconds or so on our historical clock that we have been able to capture and record sound. Almost all our sonic heritage has passed by unrecorded.

That is why I, and many others, are dedicated to recording and archiving the sounds around us so that future generations will have the sounds of our time to explore, to study and to enjoy.


Cité des Fleurs

HIDDEN AWAY IN THE 17th Arrondissement with the rue Guy Môquet at one end and the rue de la Jonquière at the other is the Cité des Fleurs.

A private street, three hundred and twenty metres long with iron gates at each end, the Cité des Fleurs is a beguiling village within the city.

It was created in 1847 when a parcel of land owned by Jean-Edmé Lhenry and Adolphe Bacqueville de la Vasserie was divided into equal lots.  Each lot was sold for housing but to a very strict building code.

Every detail was set out in this building code  – the alignment of the facades, the height of the buildings, the height of the walls, the details of the gardens, including at least three trees in every garden and even a specification for the ornamental vases on the gateposts and what could be planted in them.

Like so many places in Paris the Cité des Fleurs has a gruesome historical connection. A plaque on the gate of N°25 says it all.

During the second world war, N°25 was a base for network Plutus, part of the MLN, Mouvement de Libération Nationale, responsible for producing false papers for the French Résistance.  On the 18th May 1944, N°25 was raided by the Gestapo.  Colette Heilbronner, the leader of the Résistance group, was executed on the spot.  The other members of the group were deported and subsequently killed.

Sound in the Cité des Fleurs:

On a lighter note, the regulations governing the Cité des Fleurs dating from 1864 declares that public traffic on the street was tolerated but could be prohibited at any time and for as long as it was deemed to be in the interest of the community.   How enlightened was that!


Les Passages Couverts – English Style

REGULAR FOLLOWERS OF this blog will know that most of my work involves capturing the street sounds of Paris. I do though sometimes venture further afield.

I’ve just spent a long weekend in the north-east of England partly to spend valuable time with family over there, partly to recharge my batteries and partly to record the sights and sounds of that delightful part of the world.

But while I was there, echoes of Paris were never far away. Sometime ago, I wrote a blog piece about Les Passages Couverts, the wonderful early nineteenth-century Parisian arcades that first introduced the notion of primitive ‘shopping malls’ – a group of shops clustered together, inside, under cover. Delightful as these passage couverts are, they are not exclusive to Paris – they are to be found in England too.

I discovered this one, the Central Arcade, whilst visiting Newcastle-upon-Tyne the other day. It’s Edwardian, built in 1906, designed by Oswald and Son of Newcastle and I think equally as elegant as the Passage Verdeau or the Passage Jouffroy in Paris.

What made the Central Arcade particularly special was the completely unexpected surprise I came upon whilst I was exploring it. In the arcade is one the UK’s longest established and largest music stores which goes by the unlikely name of JG Windows. It’s a veritable emporium of all things musical – acoustic and digital pianos, keyboards, synthesizers, electric, acoustic and classical guitars and much, much more.

Stepping inside, I was delighted to find my sound of the day.

Inside JG Windows:

A man walked in off the street and sat down at an £8,000 digital piano. He put his briefcase down beside him, and began playing.  The lower register of the piano was transformed into a string bass for his left hand whilst his right hand caressed the piano sounds in the upper registers. I was transfixed. When he finished playing, he simply picked up his briefcase and left just as quickly as he came without speaking a word to anyone.

I couldn’t help wondering what his story was.  Was he a frustrated musician who couldn’t afford an £8,000 digital piano? Maybe he was road testing it with a view to buying it – or maybe he just needed a musical fix before heading off for his next appointment.  Who knows? Whatever his motivation the sound he made obviously pleased him … and it certainly pleased me.

I will share more sights and sounds from the north-east of England over the coming weeks.