Deep Listening Encounters around Spike Island

‘That’s a good sound, innit? The creaking of the boat…’

Chirping, chinking, creaking, clicking, ticking, clanking, banging, knocking, squawking, roaring, humming, talking, laughing.

Quiet. Waves lapping. Silence.

On a couple of summer days, we visited Spike Island and asked people to join us on a deep listening exercise. We asked them to listen to the surrounding sounds for one minute, then share with us their thoughts and feelings about the experience. The above is only a short list of sounds we heard them describe.

We talked to locals, commuters, tourists with families, tourists on their own, residents with children, sweethearts from bigger cities, visitors from spacious countryside, foreigners, explorers, ponderers, entertainers, old friends, artisans, museumgoers, passers-by.

Over a dozen volunteers took part in the exercise in roughly five acoustically different areas; together we listened to and recorded a myriad of sounds produced by objects, systems, natural and social worlds. Both days, we visited around midday; the first – in July – was a sunny, warm day with relatively small number of visitors, while the second – in August – a rather cloudy-drizzly one with a lot of tourists around. Pandemic-related changes had an impact on the city; our second day saw more people and more traffic. Some of the locations where we recorded were exposed to traffic, others shielded by buildings or near tourist attractions; some noisy, others quiet but most in-between.

What sounds did people like?

Even in locations unprotected from noise and loud sounds, the participants would often find relaxing, peaceful sounds to tune into. In most cases, it was the natural sounds that they pointed out as particularly relaxing. Sound of the wind in the trees. Birds chirping on balconies. Waves lapping against the quayside. Gentle breeze in the air. While many mentioned that the distant, muffled sound of people chattering, laughing, moving about and children playing has a comforting, reassuring effect.

Some expressed an element of surprise when becoming aware that Spike Island is in the centre of a big city. ‘Not like the very centre of a bustle-y city’ – as a couple of tourists put it; or, as one of the local residents described: ‘It’s kind of a nice little oasis in the centre of the city’. This remained true for the busier interview locations, Bristol’s friendly and, to some extent, small-city atmosphere was apparent on our visits.

Even the noisier locations would often feel peaceful, albeit in a more energising way.  Hearing people talking, running, paddle-boarding, sailing, music playing, children laughing was described as happy, vibrant, yet relaxing experiences. Or even: ‘pretty peaceful but slightly chaotic’. Both locals and tourists enjoyed many of the ubiquitous harbour sounds. The call of seagulls. Flapping sails. Boats chinking. Masts ticking in the wind.

The creaking of wood, made by The Matthew (the popular wooden-masted ship in Bristol harbour) while docking, was undoubtedly the most distinctive sound we heard during the interviews. It was noticeably energising: ‘That was pretty great! I really liked the sound of that!’ exclaimed one of the participants, a tourist visiting Bristol with a small family. Adding: ‘The creaking of the mast, the wood and rope. Bristol is probably one of the only places you would find that, here at the harbourside’.

Encountering unpleasant sounds

Pleasant sounds can often become quite uncomfortable to listen to when one hears them overtime or at a high volume. During our visit, for example, the constant screaming of seagulls or loud chatter of people was perceived as noticeably jarring and unpleasant. In addition to traffic and construction, seagulls and loud chatter were mentioned as intrusive or disruptive, however attitudes and reactions towards these were surprisingly varied and even idiosyncratic.

The seagulls’ call reminded many volunteers of the beach, holidays and good memories. Tourists, while they acknowledged how loud the birds tend to be on Spike Island, typically enjoyed hearing them. This was evident in comments like ‘I never thought I find the birds, sounds of seagulls relaxing… They are quite loud!’ or ‘even though the birds are loud, it’s comforting to hear… it’s wildlife’. Locals and regular visitors perceived it differently. One resident told us that they didn’t even notice the birds during the one-minute recording, while another who heard and ‘interacted with’ these birds on a daily basis found the sound quite annoying. ‘It got my back up’, they admitted expressively.

In popular areas like Spike Island, loud conversations are taken for granted. Although our volunteers acknowledged that the cacophony of voices, music, laughter was disrupting, there often was a positive side to how they perceived this noise.  Many took comfort in knowing that they were surrounded by other people – ‘the sound of people is quite comforting, it’s not an empty space’ -, while others found ways to ‘soak up’ the energy of vibrant, bustle-y atmosphere caused by the chattering of people. One local who would regularly visit the area near the SS Great Britain found the experience of hearing the many different languages particularly uplifting.

The restlessness of machines, traffic and construction is ubiquitous in modern big cities and Bristol is no exception. On Spike Island, we met people in places where the traffic was distant – either because our location was shielded from it or because the roads were relatively far from us – while in some other locations the noise disrupted the conversations. In some cases, we were trying to speak over the drilling, clanking, banging and the countless other sounds of a working harbour. Car alarm beeping. Generator rumbling. Metal work in the vicinity. Hammers banging. Car engine roaring on neighbouring roads. Ever-present humming of traffic in the distance.

Interestingly, only a few participants pointed out explicitly that they felt annoyed by these unpleasant sounds; one near the cranes closer to moving traffic at the time and another near the SS Great Britain which is relatively far from big roads. There was an implicit acceptance of traffic and construction noise as a normal, inseparable feature of cities: ‘That unpleasant drilling is a one-off thing, it doesn’t bother me, I mean if I was trying to sleep it might be annoying, but you accept that things gotta get done’.

The same local commuter described the area as follows: ‘What I find so peaceful in Bristol harbour is that there is almost no cars. It’s a place where you hear the sound of people talking, you might hear a boat on the river. It’s a wonderful place!’. While there might be no cars in the pedestrianised areas, Spike Island is surrounded by roads from which the traffic noise trickles in, in some places quite loudly, but it is always there at least as a background murmur.

Still, tourists from other big cities said: ‘This area, it’s quite peaceful, there aren’t major roads or anything. It isn’t overwhelming’. Whereas a local resident commented on how the area is in-between big roads, yet, it felt quiet and peaceful, and another regular visitor could only just hear the traffic: ‘it’s just lorries going up on that road’.

Some came purposely for the distracting effect of the noise: ‘There is a security about constant sound… that I’m part of a bigger picture, that I’m connecting with the rest of the world. That’s how it feels to me. I needed to re-ground myself and this is the perfect place for it.’ At the same time, tourists enjoyed all the industrial sounds because it was part of their entertainment during visiting a working harbourside with corresponding heritage.

Characters in sound

We could see three distinct characters of Spike Island emerging: the safe public space, the popular tourist attraction, and, most of all, the urban working harbour.  The seagulls, masts, sails in the wind, people on paddleboards, passengers getting on boats, the lapping of waves and trickling of water made it unavoidable to notice that we were in an urban harbour but sounds of construction and boatbuilders contributed to the recognition of being in a working harbour where people still earn a living.

The creaking of a wooden ship or clanking of metal near the cranes could be representative of the working harbour, as well, but due to Spike Island’s maritime and industrial heritage, hearing these were perceived as part of the cultural-sightseeing experience. Along with the bustling chatter of people, music from the boats, laughter of children, babel of foreign languages, sounds made by objects of interest to tourists were understood to be part of the tourist experience, as entertainment.

The sense of security, being in a safe public space was linked to hearing people and wildlife on the waterfront: ‘You’re surrounded by people but also you’re on your own, it’s quite comforting’ said a participant visiting form outside of Bristol. Even the sound of traffic and construction work in this context came across as comforting and peaceful.

All of these contributed to the character of Spike Island.  The combination of working area and waterfront sounds, maritime and industrial heritage with the buzzing and humming of people and traffic constitutes the acoustic character of this area. If we were to remove, for example, the sounds of construction, work or traffic, it would not feel like being on the Bristol harbourside. At the same time, taking away waterfront sounds would leave us with the sonic environment of a landlocked industrial town, and without the sounds of people and city traffic the harbour might as well be a commercial port.

Deep Listening reflections

Sounds in cities communicate a tremendous amount of information to our senses. Some we pick up because we pay attention, some are impossible to ignore, some remain unnoticed, some we notice without being consciously aware of. Certain sounds tell you where you are, some take you to places where you have been, and others can take you to times of history and places of imagination. They can make you feel relaxed, peaceful, energised, happy, excited, nostalgic, annoyed, alert, present, grounded, and these are just a few emotions we observed our volunteers to experience.

Even to the same or similar sounds, we witnessed a surprising array of reactions on our two visits.  Most unexpectedly, many generally unpleasant sounds were perceived as positive in more than one context. Intrusive sounds originating from traffic, construction, wildlife or people were interpreted, for example, as information about the absence of threats, signs of an economy in operation, break from isolation, promise of happy gatherings, or even a source for inspiration and escape to imagination.

Being in this soundscape required some form of engagement with uncomfortable sound from everyone; those who did not perceive it positively, had to tolerate, ignore or otherwise adapt to it. Attitudes and reactions varied based on the participants’ expectations, memories, purpose, length of exposure or familiarity with the acoustic context. This explains why the tourists who came to visit Spike Island with the purpose of entertainment, enjoyed the industrial sounds. Or, why most participants could associate hearing seagulls with happy memories, except those who were in conflict with them daily. And, why a resident described the soundscape as peaceful even while standing near a blaring construction site.

The Spike Island soundscape, an environment neither absent of nor completely dominated by loud noise, was an ideal setting to observe a range of sonic experiences. It offered glimpses into what urban living might be like with different levels of noise pollution.  The complex and deep-rooted relationship of humans and the sonic environment provides countless avenues for more learning and research; these deep listening encounters have shown us that more than just passively experience, enjoy or suffer it, people will also actively engage with and make sense of the surrounding sounds, at times in unexpected ways.


by Szabina Orosz