Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

15 posts categorized "Sounds of our Shores"

20 July 2020

Recording of the week: Barnacle geese at Mersehead Reserve

This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Human imagination has often shaped colourful tales. Superstitions are born from the indescribable and the unexplained. Even the call of seals has been woven into legend and folklore, transforming into sightings of mermaids, sirens and selkies.

Birds, similarly, have not escaped this fate.

For instance, consider the Barnacle Goose, a medium-sized goose with a white face, black neck and striped back. Strangely, it shares its namesake with the Goose Barnacle, an organism with which it seems to share barely anything else. How did this come to be?

Barnacle geese at Mersehead Reserve

Due to their appearance, it was once believed that these geese were born from the barnacle. The shells, discarded from the rocks after a storm, were taken as a sure sign that a goose had hatched.

Much of this myth was believed as fact – documented in studies of nature – and stemmed from confusion over what a Barnacle actually was.

For instance, rather than nests on driftwood and rocks, John Gerard’s Great Herball from the 16th Century illustrates a barnacle tree that bore geese. Gerald of Wales also described in his Bestiary how barnacle geese develop in the water and hang from trees, enclosed in their shells, until they could grow feathers and fly.

Illustration of goose barnacles
The Barnacle tree that bore Geese. From Gerald of Wales’ Bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f.36r)

Later Edward Heron-Allen’s book, Barnacles in Nature and in Myth, describes how this legend was used to the advantage of meat lovers. On fast days, meat is not usually allowed to be consumed. However, some claimed that because the goose was not born from an egg it was perfectly acceptable to be eaten during times of fasting. Many were dubious of this claim.

The real secret of the barnacle was eventually revealed by Dr. J. Vaughan Thompson through his research in the 1830s, which showed what barnacles actually were and how they develop. However it doesn’t stop this white and black striped goose from sharing its name with the barnacle.

This recording was made by Richard Beard, at Mersehead Reserve, in 2005. Discover more superstitions around the sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.


Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

01 June 2020

Recording of the week: Herrings' heads

This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Johnny Doughty was always singing songs about the sea and the shore. Born in 1903, he grew up in a fishing family in Brighton, Sussex. His grandmother took in washing, his uncle supplied the horses for the lifeboat.

Brighton Net Arches in the 1860s
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC BY-SA

The start of Johnny’s singing career was rocky, and striking a balance between the school choir and his love of the beach proved difficult. As a child, Johnny spent Sundays helping fishermen with their boating and his mother often had to fetch him in time to perform at the local church. On one occasion he forgot his boots and stockings. Although he attempted to march in with the rest of the choir in just his cassock, he got the sack instead.

Outside of school and home, he spent his time on the beach – the cockle and whelk stalls, the boats and St Margaret’s Net Arch by the Palace Pier. Here Johnny listened to the hum of songs from sailors and fishermen mending their nets.

One such song he learnt at the Arch was Herring’s Heads. A cumulative song with a simple harmony, Johnny himself describes the song as a ‘beer-shop song’. Each verse dissects the body of the fish and transforms each part into something new. First, the head is turned into ‘loaves of bread’, the eyes become ‘puddings and pies’ and the bellies ‘jams and jellies’. A version of each verse and chorus is repeated until the performers’ reach the herrings' tails.

Herring's heads (BL REF C1047/39)

Beyond the Arch, Johnny learned more songs through his time spent in both the Royal and Merchant navy and his years spent trawling the ocean for fish.

It wasn’t until he was in his early seventies that he was discovered by Mike Yates to record for Topic Records. Ever the performer, Johnny would take the time to entertain with funny asides and winks here-and-there, very often with a ‘pot’ of Guinness in one hand.

Discover more sea shanties and sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.


Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

25 May 2020

Recording of the week: Account from a Norfolk lifeboatman

This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.

Photograph of lifeboat station
Lifeboat station where Brian Pegg worked © J Gaiger / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.

Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.

Account from Norfolk lifeboatman (BL REF C900/11583)

Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.

This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Discover more sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.


Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 April 2020

Sounds of your world

During this time where we’re cooped up at home, we’ll all be missing something. The big things go without saying. Family, friends, loved ones.

But what are the small comforts that you’re finding yourself longing for? Your commute. The bustling school gates. The triumphant thumbs-up when you find a free table in a busy pub.

While our buildings have gone quiet for now, our sound archive is still open, sharing with you recordings and stories from across our audio collections. And we’ve compiled a few sounds you might be missing, to give you a taste of what our archive has for you to explore.

Beautiful birdsong

Singing wren perched on a branch.
bearacreative/iStock/Getty Images

The merry tunes of our feathered friends follow us through all seasons. Wrens are a staple of British countryside, parks and gardens, particularly in spring. Listen to the beautiful song of a wren recorded in Culver, Devon – one of thousands of birdsongs in our collection.

Relaxing waves

Sandy beach with rocks and gentle waves.
naumoid/iStock/Getty Images

For thousands of years, humans have believed in the healing, calming powers of water. Check out this recording of rolling waves on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. You can listen to more vibrant and soothing sounds of Britain’s coastline at Sounds of our shores, the first ever coastal sound map of the UK.

Sound staycation

Hammock tied between two trees near a beach on a tropical island.
Marco Ramerini/iStock/Getty Images

Cancelled trip? Our World and Traditional Music recordings bring your holiday to your home. First up, be whisked away to an island paradise by a school choir in Suva, Fiji. Where will you go next?

It’s coming home

Raised hands in a football crowd.
ALFSnaiper/iStock/Getty Images

While the Premier League, Olympics and Wimbledon are on hold, you can still experience the atmosphere of supporting your favourite players. Feel the tension rise in the crowd with this recording of a football match in 1994 – will it be a goal?

10 May 2016

Marconi and the Lizard

During the summer of 2015, the British Library, the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland invited members of the public to record and share their favourite coastal sounds. Sounds of our Shores focused on the entire coastline of the United Kingdom, from the Isles of Scilly to Orkney, and received more than 650 submissions over 3 months covering natural history, entertainment, transport and industry.

As part of the project, the National Trust commissioned musician and producer Joe Acheson to create a composition inspired by the history and nature of Cornwall's Lizard Peninsula and Guglielmo Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Station. Here Joe writes about the experience.

Lizard Point is the most southerly point of the UK mainland. In 1900 radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi built a hut there to experiment with sending radio signals over long distances. Marconi’s hut received the first ever ship-to-shore SOS signal.

Last summer I spent a week on the Lizard as part of the National Trust’s first ever sound artist residency. My new EP, Marconi and the Lizard, was the product of that summer residency.

Marconi and the Lizard

I spent a sunny day on The Lizard in June 2015, and luckily recorded a nice dawn chorus in the best season. The week when I returned in August saw almost constant heavy rain, high winds, and regular storms, with foghorns and big waves; all great sounds but they make recording outdoors difficult. Whenever there was a break in the weather I set off on a bike with a bag of microphones to find sheltered coves and fields, ducking behind stone walls and boulders to record crickets in the long grass away from the strong wind, and clambering around slippery cliffs and rocky shorelines trying to get clean recordings of birds, streams and waterfalls.

The EP features the natural sounds of the Cornish coastline - wind, sea, grass, insects, birds, rain and waves. They’re combined with man-made sounds, like the sculpting of the rare local Serpentine stone on a lathe, launching the RNLI lifeboat, weaving lobster pots, lighthouse and ship foghorns, stacking empty 'bongos' (large plastic containers for storing fish on a boat) and fishermen chatting over radio out in the bay.

Joe Acheson Credit National Trust Steven Haywood

© Steven Haywood, the National Trust.

The rest of the sounds come from inside Marconi's hut or over the airwaves - vintage spark transmitters and morse code receivers, lots of radio noises picked up through aerials on his historic sites at Lizard Point and Poldhu, and a few archive recordings from local sound and radio enthusiasts such as a radio transmission from an amateur satellite in orbit, reporting back its temperature and battery status in a robotic voice.

I have taken all these recordings and sifted through them, like searching through old records looking for a sample, waiting to hear a pitched sound I can use for harmonies and basslines, and rhythmic fragments that can be extrapolated into pulsing layers of textures and beats.

Some of the sounds on the album have recently disappeared from the Lizard, like the old lighthouse foghorn that has been replaced by a long electronic beep that bounces around the cliff-faces. I was the last to record the now-decommissioned spark transmitter in the Marconi museum.

The sounds have been minimally treated so that they mostly remain identifiable as a raven, a cricket, a spark or a gust of wind. Some sounds only reveal their musical qualities when slowed down - like the meadow stream which at half speed unveils melodic patterns of tiny pitched droplets. Despite the fact that there are no sounds created by synthesisers or computers, the music sounds quite electronic - probably because I didn't set out to make abstract soundscapes; I like finding patterns and rhythms and combining them to create music with pulse and energy.

On the Lizard I discovered that most of the natural sounds have complementary tempos and pitches, which fit together naturally at their original speed. It’s similar to how birds have evolved their unique calls to remain distinctive in the cacophony of a dawn chorus, with each species taking up their own tiny bandwidth of the frequency spectrum and using complex rhythms to further stand out in the soundscape.

Like the food philosophy 'what grows together goes together', nature has evolved its own sound mix.

Marconi and the Lizard (TruThoughts) can be downloaded in full at

21 March 2016

Sea Inside Us All: celebrating the sounds of our shores

Last year, the British Library, the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland ran a three month sound mapping project that encouraged members of the public to go out and record their favourite sounds from around the British coastline. 'Sounds of our Shores' received over 600 recordings that covered everything from waves and wildlife to amusements and industry, and helped tell the sonic story of the British coastline during the summer of 2015. At the end of the project, musician and sound artist Martyn Ware was invited to create a composition based on recordings submitted by the public. Here, Martyn speaks about his own relationship with the coast as well as the various themes represented in his specially composed piece, 'Sea Inside Us All'.

Martyn Ware Brighton beach

When Mike Collins from The National Trust asked me to create a long-form piece based on over 600 recordings from the public of the British coast, my first reaction was one of joy…a chance to create a virtually ‘symphonic’ work in the style of a ‘slow radio’ impressionistic experiential sound/dreamscape.

I love the coast of the UK – having had the good fortune to travel all over the world, I can honestly say there are very few countries that can compete with the beauty and diversity of our coastline.

Last year I was commissioned (as part of an online art project entitled One And All) to create a 3D soundscape based on sounds that I collected via a specially built beach hut (which was transported to Seaham in Co. Durham, Orford Ness in Suffolk, and Porthgain in Pembrokeshire), designed to record peoples reminiscences of the sea whilst looking out through a small square porthole to the horizon. The responses we got were incredibly varied, but one common theme emerged – that the coast is a place of contemplation and largely carefree joy – and that people are much more aware of their sonic environment in proximity to the sea.

I also created a 3D soundscape which was installed at Somerset House last year with the hypnotic visual accompaniment of Ben Wigley’s film. We even brought the bruised and battered beach hut to the Thames riverside – it has now become a kind of ‘Tardis’ and it has assumed a character of it’s own (particularly as we encouraged people who visited to graffiti the inside with drawings or comments about the sea!).

For 'Sea Inside Us All', I’ve incorporated some contemplative and gorgeous longer stretches of soundscape with no human presence – from rainscapes to foghorns, from clifftops and birds to shingle being thrown around by giant waves, fisherman’s equipment clunking around in the wind, rockpools gurgling, and simple wavescapes at night.

But the solitude and peace of the coast is counterbalanced by the joy and chaos of busy seaside towns. This is a particular passion of mine, as our only annual holiday every year when I was a child was one day on a working men’s club charabanc trip, usually to Cleethorpes, Skegness or Scarborough. That one day symbolised total freedom and joy – no worries re money – just for one day. The donkeys, the sandcastles, the football, but most of all the penny arcades and the rides, the ghost train in particular… and our one and only trip to Blackpool was like Las Vegas compared to our normal days out – the Grand National ride, and the massive pleasure park…


Another theme that emerged from the recordings was all the recreational events that happen at the seaside – coastal steam railways, morris dancing, the thrill of classic aircraft at seaside airshows, boat trips for bird watching, fishermens songs on a fishing trip, market traders selling the fish, fiddle playing on a drinking session, or simply a cup of tea and a cake out of the rain!

But the real heart and soul of the coast is embodied within the many enthusiasts whose passions are multifarious – descriptions of different seaweeds, a lifeguard describing her work in great detail, the ‘twitchers’ describing the ever-changing natural environment (rather like sentinels on behalf of us all), the clear and present love that many, many people have for the coast is completely evident in these recordings.

My son Gabriel Ware had recorded some orchestral pieces about the sea previously for a project in Liverpool entitled 'The Crossing' (a 30 minute piece about a trip to New York and back on an imaginary Cunard liner – but over 175 years also!) – so I asked him to write some music for 'Sea Inside Us All'. His compositions perfectly embody the wistful calm and serenity of the coast.

In today’s ever-increasingly time-poor world, it is also evident that trips to the coast are an opportunity for families to reconnect in a less-sensorially cluttered environment.


All these elements combine to create a beautiful and emotionally engaging piece of work, which will transport you to another world by the sea – a world of fond reminiscence and happy times, of enthusiasts, of natural sonic majesty and beauty and of simple human pleasures, but most of all children and families at peace with the world, with all their senses fully engaged. That is why we all feel so much more alive at the coast…

So put your headphones on, relax and drift way… or try listening whilst in a busy city or commuting – it works!

Martyn Ware 14th March 2016 

To whet your appetite, here is a five minute excerpt from 'Sea Inside Us All'

Sea Inside Us All excerpt_Martyn Ware

The full length version is available on audioBoom here.

08 September 2015

Waves, Skylarks and Halyards: the favourite seaside sounds of BBC coast presenters

Everybody has a favourite coastal sound. That special sound that brings a smile to the face or a warm glow to the soul. For some it is the ever present sound of the sea while for others it's the song and calls of our coastal wildlife. Whatever it may be, sound helps us form some of the strongest memories we have of our times at the coast.

A group of people who are no strangers to this are the presenters of the acclaimed BBC series Coast. We spoke to some of the presenters about what the sounds of the coast mean to them.

Nicholas Crane

Nick Crane

Favourite Coastal Sounds_Nick Crane

The Changing Sounds of the Coast_Nick Crane


Tessa Dunlop

Tessa Dunlop

The Magic of Iona_Tessa Dunlop


Mark Horton

Mark Horton

Favourite Coastal Sounds_Mark Horton

Lost Sounds of the Coast_Mark Horton


Alice Roberts

Alice on cliff

Favourite Coastal Sounds_Alice Roberts

Thinking about Sound_Alice Roberts


The UK's Favourite Coastal Sound

A few weeks ago the Sounds of our Shores team asked the public to vote for their favourite UK coastal sound. The results are in and we're delighted to announce that the sound of gentle waves breaking on a sandy beach won with flying colours.

Adam Long, a photographer based in Sheffield who recorded the winning sound, says:

“I’ve been visiting this corner of North Wales several times a year since I was a small boy, and so it feels like a home from home. The recording was made at a spot which is a favourite for an evening walk, and was made in spring before the summer crowds. The sea was almost mirror calm, and I was pleased to capture the gentle sound of the breaking waves and the fulmars on the cliff behind.”

Sounds of our Shores runs until 21st September so you still have a couple of weeks to get out there and record your favourite coastal sound! Full details on how to take part can be found here.


Many thanks to Coast co-creator Steve Evanson for providing these interviews

18 August 2015

Sounds of Steaming ‘Doon the Watter’

Steve Evanson is a Co-Creator of Coast, the hit BBC TV show that celebrates our love affair with the UK shore.  Coast has run for 10 years, becoming a global brand with Coast Australia and other spin off series.  As we pass the midway point of the Sounds of our Shores project, Steve shares a day trip down the Clyde in classic Victorian style, and reveals his favourite coastal sounds.

I was a student in Glasgow in the 1980’s, but only recently did I realise a long cherished ambition - a voyage down the Clyde on the world’s last sea going paddle steamer, the PS Waverley.   

The tradition of a trip ‘Doon the Watter’ began in 19th century when Clyde-built steamships first started to ferry Glaswegians on excursions out to the Western Isles. Stopping off at the charming resort towns like Largs and Dunoon, the Clyde then widens out to open sea as the Isle of Bute comes into view.

The majestic scenery speaks for itself, but what makes this a truly magical experience for me is the rhythmic sound of the steam driven powerplant. 

Built by Rankin & Blackmore Engineers, at their Eagle Foundry on the Clyde, the prime mover of the Waverley is a 2100 horsepower, triple expansion steam engine, gloriously open to full public view.  Crowds gather to savour the sound and smell of this wheezing beast as it effortlessly drives the massive 18-foot diameter feathering paddle wheels.  

Muscular pistons propel the ship at a surprisingly brisk top speed of around 20 mph, but that still leaves plenty of time to indulge in a ‘wee swally’ in the bars below deck. Booze has always played a part in these cruises along the Clyde. In 1853 the Forbes MacKenzie Act outlawed the opening of Scottish pubs on a Sunday. However, pleasure craft were exempt, so thirsty workers flooded onto the cruisers on their day off, and the floating bars have been busy ever since.  Heavy drinking on the steamships is said to be the origin of the phrase 'Steaming Drunk', shortened in Glasgow simply to ‘Steamin’.


After a couple of hours in the bar, Victorian drinkers disembarking on the Isle of Bute were relieved to find, right on the quayside, probably the most magnificent toilets on our coast. The majestic Public Conveniences on Rothesay seafront have been restored to their full porcelain glory. The Gents are a sight to behold - women and children are welcome to explore too for the price of ticket.  The thundering roar of ‘The Deluge’ chain flush loo now echoes around empty ornate urinals. But once the mighty whoosh of The Deluge drowned out the sighs from generations of grateful Glaswegian shipyard workers standing in stalls. 

The sounds of the working coast aren’t the beautiful calls of nature you’ll find on windswept cliff-tops or secluded beaches, but that’s why I take those noises of humanity to my heart.  They speak to me of our relationship to the sea, how we’ve made it our home and it’s nurtured us in return.


Now we’ve been given the chance to vote for our favourite sound of the coast, so please listen to the wonderful Top Ten contenders put together here.

Much as I love the melancholy call of the seals or the clattering chatter of the Kittiwakes, my vote goes to ferries on the Mersey…

The bells and horn sounding in the fog are both a warning and a comfort, a reassurance and a call to adventure.

Please vote for your own favourite from the Top Ten before 27 August 2015 … make your vote count!


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 21st June to 21st September 2015. 

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