It doesn’t look like a wild ecosystem, but point your ears at this London park and you might be surprised.
The year is 1965. You’re walking on an open green where, only ten years ago, the houses that had survived London’s wartime bombing stood amongst the rubble of their former neighbours. Not only is it beginning to look extremely different, it also sounds discomfortingly, strangely devoid of people. The housing clearances that began before the war have continued, turfing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes and in some cases creating new parks in London. Sometimes those people will be able to afford to move back in; sometimes not.
The park space is generous, taking up just over six hectares of the East End between Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. You can already spot robins, blue tits, carrion crows, chaffinches and goldfinches and maybe even the occasional song thrush in its young trees and hedges.
You can hear human voices sometimes, yelling across the football field or playing with their kids, but mostly they stroll and look around the park or gaze into the distance. If you stand near the hedgerows and copses at the park’s northern edge, you’re likely to hear birdsong above the rumble of traffic.
Actually, it depends on when, as well as where. You’ll be in a subtly different soundscape from day to day and even hour by hour. Come back at night and the traffic rumble will be slightly deeper and thicker, like a sonic winter blanket. The birds will be sleeping silently and people’s voices will be subdued and perhaps more relaxed.
Visually, London’s newest park is angular and slightly empty, with two football-pitch-sized fields intersected by long paths. It’s not exciting to look at. But stand still for a few moments near a hawthorn and you might notice the rustling, squawking, and chirping of its secret interior life.
If you keep going around the park’s edge, your soundscape changes again. The larger trees rustle with squirrels and call out with crows. You’ll also hear more of the Overground trains, but birds will still catch most of your attention, their high-pitched songs rising above the faint rumble of everything else.
Subconsciously, you might be using sound to orientate yourself. On the street you had walls to one side, traffic to the other, and only two choices of direction to take; but here, like all of the parks in London, you have sonic beacons in all directions. A rattling bicycle shows you the line of the footpath and a creaking branch sounds out the park boundary. You might be attending to something else, but these sounds are always telling who’s around you and what they’re doing.
Even at rush hour, birds and human voices will catch your ear above the city’s sounds. They’re physically closer to you and they’re somehow more urgent and more melodious. Once you hear birdsong it’s tempting to stop and try to figure out where (and whom) it’s coming from, and soon you might find your eyes and ears following a robin or a blue tit darting around, seemingly at random.
It’s not 1965 any more and in truth I have no way of knowing exactly what Weavers Fields sounded like back then, because I haven’t found a recording. It doesn’t really matter.
There is a wild ecosystem here, even if it’s bounded by busy roads, and its sound is amazingly sensitive and delicate. Just like human society and ecology writ large, it’s always changing in endless and subtle ways. It may not be unique or particularly unusual as wildlife goes, or even as London’s parks go, and perhaps most people won’t even notice it. But if you listen closely, you can hear it living.
by Jay Richardson
Thursday 30th December 2021