Sound and vision blog

22 July 2015

The Sounds of Brighton Seafront

David Hendy is a media historian and professor of Media and Communication at the University of Sussex. Formerly a radio producer for the BBC, he has a deep interest in the relationship between humans and sound, in particular how these relationships can help us understand human experiences throughout history.  In 2013, he wrote and presented the 30-part Radio 4 series ‘Noise: a Human History’.

Our relationship with the coast has certainly changed over the years, and as a historian I think that studying sound can be a really useful way of reflecting that. Places like Brighton and other south coast towns were pretty small in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period: Brighton itself was a fishing village in decline, a working environment. However, by the end of the 18th century there was a growing fashion for sea-bathing, which resulted in more and more people visiting the area, but also in new kinds of sound. On the beach here in Brighton, for example, you’d probably hear the sounds of bathing machines being dragged up and down the shingle, sometimes pulled by horses. 

This leisure industry really took off in the 19th century once you had the railways facilitating day-trippers, but also when you started to have the notion of a ‘weekend off’ from work. Londoners would come down in their thousands upon thousands, and they were in search of fun. So all these towns like Brighton and Margate had to compete with each other to attract them through entertainment. This meant piers, funfairs and penny arcades, open-air theatres, bandstands. 

Nowadays, those have been added to by things like volleyball courts, bars and nightclubs, which continue to attract so many people in the high season that one of Brighton’s alternative monikers is ‘London-by-Sea’.  But really these attractions are all just the latest modern versions of something that’s been going on for over 150 years. The sounds might have changed, but people have been coming to these places to have fun – and sometimes quite raucous fun – for generations.

Personally, it’s that whole mix of sounds that I like about the coast. If you come down to Brighton and you lie on the beach and shut your eyes, you’ll hear an incredibly rich tapestry of sounds: the waves act as a baseline, on top of which you have other natural sounds like the wind and gulls, but also that element of people enjoying themselves in the cafes or the arcade. When you visit the coast you might have a rough idea of what you’re going to hear, but it’s the way in which those ingredients vary from place to place and from time to time, season to season, which makes the coast endlessly fascinating.

 I think a big part of people’s attraction to the coast stems from the fact that most of us don’t live near the sea these days. So when we do go to the beach, what we’re really trying to experience is a different landscape – and soundscape - to the one that we have in our daily lives. When we listen we are surrounded by sound - it’s a 360 degree experience - and we feel part of the environment in a way I don’t think we do when we simply look at something. In every day life we perhaps tend to take the sounds around us for granted, and I think one of the main virtues of this sound map project is the fact that it will help draw people’s attention to the kind of sensory experiences which we might usually overlook.  It will help remind us how precious these sounds are as part of our heritage, and how much we value them.

[Adapted from interview:]


Sounds of our Shores is a three month collaborative project between the British Library, the National Trust, the National Trust for Scotland and audioBoom Ltd, running from the 21st June to 21st September. Full details on how to take part can be found here.


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