Amble Bord Waalk: Poetry, birdsong and a soundtrack to our coast
Katrina Porteous is a renowned poet, historian and broadcaster, and is President of the Northumbrian Language Society. She has written a series of poems for the Bord Waalk trail, available on the app.
She and sound artist Geoff Sample collaborated on six podcasts called ‘The Bird Roads’, based on sites from Low Hauxley to the Warkworth estuary, each emphasising different habitats and birds, with the intention of leading listeners to connect more deeply with the landscape.
Katrina told us: “For me, writing always begins outdoors. My first inspiration was the sounds and sights I experienced along the walk.Over the Covid year I walked the route in different seasons and weathers, taking notes. I also listened intently to Geoff’s field recordings. Secondly, I read about local history, learning about Hauxley’s Bronze Age past and prehistoric human footprints, Amble’s coal mines, railways and staithes, and Warkworth’s medieval harbour. Then I used my notes as a ‘quarry’ for my poems, looking for words that have sounds in them which echo the call of a particular bird, such as a curlew or a redshank.
“Geoff and I wanted to include human voices, and especially voices from Amble. This was my third source of inspiration. Normally I would have accompanied Geoff to record these interviews; but because of the pandemic, Geoff sent me his recordings electronically. Over many telephone and email conversations, we were able to exchange ideas and put the podcasts together.
“The birds we live alongside are a window into our wider relationship with our environment. In our podcasts their migration becomes a metaphor for the interconnectedness of our planet. Against thousands of years of human history and millions of years of geology, we consider the impact of human activities: species loss, plastic pollution, our changing climate. At the same time, birds help us to articulate something almost inexpressible about the human spirit: its ability to overcome adversity in the freedom of flight, and the joy of song.”
Geoff Sample told us: “I’ve been recording the birds and soundscapes of the coast here for over 30 years now, and I’ve known Katrina for a good while, though we hadn’t really worked together on any major project. So collaborating on the series of podcast pieces for the Bord Waalk, weaving together Katrina’s poems with the birds and other voices of my home turf, was really quite cathartic. But also with a strong sense of responsibility – as we both love these places and desperately wanted to do them justice.
He added, “I hope that maybe ‘The Bird Roads’ makes people think a bit more about sound in the open environment – how rich the bird soundscapes we have here are, even the calls of the common old Canada geese heading over the town in the evening, and how easily lost to the rising tide of noise pollution.”
A listening experience on the app
Chris Watson’s field recordings have been used by documentary makers all over the world. For the Bord Waalk, he worked alongside artist Alec Finlay to record birdsong for Sea Pie and a Dokie’s Egg, which accompanies the Dokie’s Egg sculpture along the Coquet estuary.
Chris told The Ambler: “I composed the work as a response to Alec Finlay’s seasonal poems. They are a series of short sound stories featuring the wildlife sounds that can be heard along the river Coquet, around Amble and out on Coquet Island over the course of a year.
The recordings were described by Matthew Blackwell on Bandcamp: “In addition to an impressive body of solo work, Watson is sought after for nature documentaries with David Attenborough and others. Watson’s recordings of birds in and around the port of Amble, England accompany Finlay’s sculpture of a dokie’s egg commissioned for the town’s “Bord Waalk” art trail. Birds from throughout the year are represented in the recording and identified via a poem written by Finlay.
The album is a crash course in ornithology, remarkable for the clarity of the birds’ songs and calls. As a listening experience, the sheer variety of sounds, from the stonechat’s clacking to the eider’s bizarre whooping, continually surprises. Sea Pies and a Dokie’s Egg is exemplary of his abilities as a field recordist and as a wildlife expert.”
John Kefala Kerr (pictured right) has created a piece in response to his visit to Amble and espectially for the Little Shore. He told us: “My piece, Sanctuary, draws connections between the avian and the human by transforming people’s singing voices into ‘birdcalls’ and birdcalls into human-like vocalisations. The result is an audio work scored for a hybrid ensemble of singers, musical instruments, digital sounds and an unlikely chorus of people and birds.
Sanctuary offers Bord Waalk visitors the opportunity to sit at the Little Shore and reflect on the things that birds and humans share in terms of how each has a common need for a safe haven. Technically, the soundtrack employs simple digital tools to alter the pitch and duration of audio material—bringing birdcalls into the human vocal range and sending human voices up into the birdcall register. Sounds have been gathered from a variety of sources, including recordings of local people whose ‘birdified’ voices form part of the sonic texture.”