Walking on Lindisfarne: tuning into the sonic environment – Maggie O’Neill

three towers of stacked rocks against the backdrop of the sea
three towers of stacked rocks against the backdrop of the sea

This blog was written on the tidal island of Lindisfarne during the week of Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival in 2021 (back home and with WiFi I am now able to post this). Beltane (Lá Bealtaine in Irish and Là Bealltainn in Scots Gaelic) is situated around half-way between the spring equinox and summer solstice and marks the beginning of summer. Like many people, released from the limitations of our immediate living spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic, I longed for a trip out.

Walking on the beautiful island of Lindisfarne and experiencing that particular sonic environment and landscape was just the ticket.  I have been thinking about the impact of the Anthropocene, the importance of addressing climate change, of being ‘better ancestors’ and how crucial it is for my health and wellbeing, to be immersed in or with nature. Re-connecting with the ancient landscape was wonderful, with what sound artist Chris Watson calls the signature sounds’ of Lindisfarne ; the sound of redshanks, and other birds, the roar of the wind and sea, the changing soundscape as you move into and out of the sand dunes and if you are lucky catching sight of roe deer, a skylark and maybe whales.

On the island, my thoughts return to a walk I did as part of a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship,  with Chris Watson in December 2015. The project involved inviting artists, researchers and anyone who wanted to, to walk with me along a route of their choice, connected to the theme of borders, risk and/or belonging.  I wanted to explore border spaces and places using arts-based walking practice and biographical methods, as well as reflect upon the social justice possibilities of the collaborations, with the aim of developing trans disciplinary knowledge and understanding across the arts and sociology.

I invited Chris to walk with me and he chose to walk the boundary of the tidal island, anti-clockwise. We walked along the border between sea and land, or mud and water, depending on the state of the tide and I learnt about the migration of birds from Africa and tuned in, through Chris, to the sounds of the natural world and the fact that what we were seeing and hearing “has not changed in hundreds and hundreds of years”. We walked, talked a little, listened and looked and I leant about the birdlife, how sound travels, the different sonic environment and the magical qualities of the signature sounds of Lindisfarne.

On May 1st I retraced this walk, heading for the castle and then down to the sea.

a path with two people on it leads to a castle in the distance
two swans swim in a pool of water

Walking along the left hand side of the castle walls, what looked like freshwater pool had developed since my last trip, and a pair of swans were resting on the water, serene and beautiful.

two swans swim in a pool of water

Past the high rock on which perched the castle, we emerged into the sunshine and walked towards the sea and what looked like a wall of rocks and pebbles confront us. 

a series of rocks and pebbles mark the skyline

Built onto the long hillside of pebbles and stones were canonical monuments or structures created from the stones.

rocks and pebbles, some stacked, along a shoreline

From one angle it looked like a small army, close up they were all individually and so very carefully constructed.

three towers of stacked rocks against the backdrop of the sea

Following the coastline with the sea to our right we walked towards Emmanuelle point stopping at the freshwater Lough and bird hide.

reeds enclose a body of water

Listening to the sounds of what I think is a teal, it was so peaceful sitting there, protected from the wind and breathing in the stillness and serenity of the scene.

four sculptures of birds in flight outside

Near to the hide, we found sculptures of birds in flight, made of reeds, a creative trace of the birdlife on the island.

long grasses in a sandbank

Walking on from the hide into the sand dunes towards the snook, we experienced atmospheric and sonic changes, as we walked into the stillness of the long grasses and sand banks, into the wild.

grassy sand banks
a grassy sandbank

Following the tracks worn into the dunes, through the long grass, we emerge to an empty beach and the sound of the sea.

sand leads to the ocean

We walk slowly along the north shore, listening to the rhythmic waves, feeling the stillness and the call of the birds.  Retracing our steps through the dunes and onto the flat land we spot a roe deer and listen to the remarkable sound of a sky lark high above us, it is breath taking.

a grassy landscape with hills in the distance and white clouds in the sky above

Walking back in the direction of the village, the resonance with the sounds, stillness and wildlife I begin to reflect upon the importance of environmental movements, of actions to address climate change and climate justice.[1] One of our WalkCreate partners, Sheffield Environmental Movement, is an environmental charity founded by Maxwell Ayamba, who are active in sustainability, environmentalism and highlight the importance of walking for health and well-being. SEM work to: widen access to nature and the countryside; to challenge inequalities in access and well-being, for diverse groups; and to protect and preserve the green spaces, the ‘paths for all’.

Maxwell and two colleagues set up 100 Black Men Walking to address barriers and facilitate black men accessing and enjoying the countryside; the play “Black Men Walking” was inspired by the group. The group is now called Walk4Health, includes women and young people, and they meet on the first Saturday in every month. “We know that nature and the environment play a big part in our health and wellbeing.”  In a recent report SEM found that “those in lower socioeconomic groups can face the greatest barriers”. In addition, “ethnicity is also a predictor of low levels of use: whilst 10% of the UK population come from an ethnic minority, they represent only 1% of visits to National Parks”.

SEM are supporting our research as associate partners, ensuring we have the widest possible audience for our survey and interviews, advising on diversity and inequalities of access and the creative importance of being in the natural world.

Further information on Lindisfarne is here. Keep on walking to Walk Create.

Maggie O’Neill

[1] We are embedding the sustainable development goals in our curriculum at UCC and the University is leading on creating a sustainable future and  ranked  8th in the world for green impact.