Posted 21 August, 2009 by robert jarvis
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cropredyRopes s

Cropredy, in the North of Oxfordshire, is one of a few towns in the UK that still regularly ring its curfew bell.  In the case of Cropredy, it is now rung by one of the parishoners after the eight o’ clock chimes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Bells rung by hand make a very different sound than those automatically hit by a mallet, and this difference can easily be heard on this occasion, as the preceding on-hour chimes are struck automatically (being hardwired to the church clock mechanism).  In contrast, the curfew bell is rung by pulling on the tenor bell’s bell rope, which in turn makes the bell in the tower (one of eight) swing, and it is this swinging that accounts for the main difference in the sound.

For me, there are two aspects that make this listening experience so interesting.  The first is the irregularity of the ringing – a natural byproduct of being rung by one person over a sustained length of time (around five minutes) resulting in each ring having a slightly different volume or placement in time – a welcome change to the exacting automation that we are used to these days.  And, secondly, the enharmonic build up as the bell is continually struck for the length of the curfew ringing.  (It is more common to hear a bell struck once and for its sound to die down in between each ringing).


oxford time

Posted 6 August, 2009 by robert jarvis
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19 oxford time

Great Tom Bell hangs at the top of Tom Tower in Christ Church College, and is the loudest bell in the City.  Every evening at five past nine 0’clock it rings out 101 times.  Apparently this custom dates back to the College’s earlier custom of ringing the bell once for each student in order to signal to them that it was time to return to the College before its gates were locked for the night.  The Latin inscription on the bell begins “Great Thomas the door closer of Oxford…”.

The timing of the chimes relates back to a period before the national adoption of Greenwich Meantime, when every town had its local time depending on its distance from zero degrees Longitude.  This was calculated as 4 minutes for every 1º difference, and as Oxford was calculated as being one-and-a-quarter degrees west of Greenwich, Oxford time was therefore five minutes behind London time.  Hence, Great Tom’s ringing at five-past the hour marks this historic Oxford Time at this five-past-nine slot; the rest of the time it refers to today’s accepted GMT.

going underground

Posted 27 July, 2009 by robert jarvis
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18 going underground

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is one of the oldest libraries in Europe dating back more than 400 years, and in the UK is second in size only to the British Library, in London. The majority of its books are stored below ground level underneath the New Library, which in turn is joined by an underground passageway to the older building.  The collection is housed on a series of moveable shelves, the oldest of which were manufactured by the Lucy Manufacturing Plant, now in Thame, that I had visited a few weeks previously.

When users of the library request a book, it is collected from its position on one of the moveable shelves and then taken by trolley to a dispatching room.  There, the book is put into a hard case, marked for the particular reading room it is destined to arrive at, and then put onto a conveyor system.  Whilst readers study in silence above ground then, there is a continuous industry of sound: of books being collected, the reverberant sound of trolleys being pushed along, the deep echo of the tunnels fire doors closing, and the conveyor machinery whirring as the books are delivered to their users.

three for a pound

Posted 18 July, 2009 by robert jarvis
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17 three for a pound

Many towns in Oxfordshire still have a flourishing food market, at least once a week.  My favourite ones are those where the traders call out to the public, trying to catch their attention and advertise their wares.  Better still is when traders ‘compete’ with each other by trying to out-perform their fellow market stall holders.

This humourous banter not only injects some fun into the market place, but also into the transaction itself, as one finds themselves attracted not only by the price and the quality of the goods but also of the personality of the trader as well. It adds to the shopping experience, making it an enjoyable event with each transaction not being complete until its accompanying conversation is over.  This welcome contribution to the life of the town centre helps humanise what could otherwise be an uneventful task, and offers almost the opposite of that of the depersonalised supermarket, and a welcome alternative to the drone of nearby traffic or piped muzak.


Posted 9 July, 2009 by robert jarvis
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16 engines

Time and again, the sounds of certain different engines are suggested to me as important links to Oxfordshire’s aural heritage. The ones that come up again and again are the Morris Minor, the MG and the Mini, and so I have been tracking down examples of these to record.  Both the Mini and the Morris were made in Cowley, whilst the MG was manufactured in Abingdon.  At their peak the factories employed many thousands of local people, making many cars and contributing enormously to the history of car production.  (The Mini is still made at Cowley).

The engines make for interesting listening, as one can really hear the sound of technical improvement for the cars of different ages.  More interesting, perhaps, is the sonic personality of the different engine makes, which seem to fit perfectly with the car’s visual image – from the non-assuming changeable rhythms of the Morris Minor to the confident purr of the MGB, the latter’s sound relying as much on the bass frequencies from the coming from exhaust as from the engine itself.

Other engine sounds that have been recommended are the sound of the F1 Racing Cars at Grove and, at the other end of the spectrum, the calm chugging of a canal narrow boat.


Posted 2 July, 2009 by robert jarvis
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15 overhead

Around Brize Norton a common sound is that of  the various aircraft taking off or coming in to land.  When talking with local people about the aircraft noise I was surprised to come across very few complaints about the noise pollution, but rather an expressed fondness, and even pride, for the different planes that take off from the RAF station there.

Closer to the station it is possible to get a good view of the planes as they take-off or come in to landing, and there is often a small crowd of people there waiting in anticipation.  The most common planes are the Hercules, Tristar, C-17 and also the VC10.

The different planes leave different sound trails, I guess realted to the size and number of engines.  Thus the propellor-driven hercules sounds very different from the C-17 with it’s four jet engines on its front wings.  This particular plane leaves an incredible bass rumble that envelopes the listener like the heat on a hot summer’s day, whereas the Hercules doesn’t have the same bass rumble.

And talking of incredible sounds: when I was there the other day, there was the very rare Vulcan parked up (but not flying anywhere) although I was lucky enough to witness the Red Arrows taking off.

solstice dawn

Posted 22 June, 2009 by robert jarvis
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14 solstice dawn

To mark the summer solstice I did an all night recording with sound recording enthusiast, Ian Widdows.

First stop was the woods between Bix and Nettlebed.  Arriving about 11pm the wood was silent apart from the slight rustle of leaves and the sound of traffic on the A4130, and then quite dramatically there was the sound of a barking deer barking in the distance.  In the end, I felt that the sound of the traffic and overhead planes were too noisy to get a decent recording and so we headed off to where I knew there would be less ambient noise.

We arrived at Chimney Meadows some time after midnight and began to explore the nature reserve on the search for any sounds of nightlife.  Disappointingly, there seemed to be very little going on at first, but as dawn approached the reserve awoke with the sounds of the birds’ morning chorus.  Surprisingly the dawn chorus began very quickly – at 3.50am the reserve appeared as quiet it had been for the previous two hours, but by 4.00am the place was full of birdsong.  (I had expected a much slower acoustic awakening).  Now the reserve seemed full of recording possibilities and we recorded through to about 7am exploring the different natural habitats.

loud but magnificent

Posted 15 June, 2009 by robert jarvis
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13 loud but magnificent

Spent a lovely morning at Filkins Mill, near Lechlade.  There they have a beautiful working Dobcross Loom in the small workshop area.  It was a real priviledge to see (and listen) to this machine in action with its wonderful rhythms and sounds as there are so few working examples left to be be appreciated in this way.

Although the loom sounded magnificent as it weaved it was also not, by any means, a quiet listening experience and after ten minutes or so I felt that my ears could do with a rest.  I wondered what it must have been like to work all day on such a machine, or even be in larger factory full of such machinery.

I remember speaking with mill workers from Northern Ireland’s Mossley Mill when I worked on a project with them some years ago, and one of them saying that their work conditiions were so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think, let alone have conversation with the person next to you.


Posted 8 June, 2009 by robert jarvis
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12 chinnorTrain

I spoke with a recent contributer to the Sounds of Oxfordshire BBC page who lived in Didcot.  For her, an important element of her sonic landscape was the sound of trains.  Didcot is a major junction for trains in Oxfordshire and so the regularity of trains coming and leaving serves as an acoustic reminder of the time of day.

As well as the every day sound of diesel trains, Oxfordshire also has quite a few stations that still keep a connection with their steam heritage, and on certain days (especially throughout the summer) the chug and whistle of specially driven steam trains can be heard through the countryside, this time connecting with times past.


Posted 28 May, 2009 by robert jarvis
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11 hydraulics

In my opinion, the City of Oxford has done well in helping to preserve its acoustic quality, meaning that it is actually possible to hear the sound of the different spaces, framed by the City’s architecture, as they reverberate with their own shape.

This is mainly due to the removal of traffic from the town centre – at least until the evenings when cars are allowed to drive through the City centre.  When this happens there is an almost immediate masking of the quiet reflected sound that gives the City’s acoustic such clarity.

Of course, their are other contributors as well, such as airplanes flying overhead, and at times the buses themselves; however, the difference that the reintroduction of traffic makes to the clarity of the centre’s soundscape is very noticeable, if not profound.  What does it mean, for example, when one can’t hear the sound of his or her own footsteps: when that acoustic connection with Earth is lost?


Posted 11 May, 2009 by robert jarvis
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10 rush

Shifford Lock is one of the deepest locks on the River Thames.  As such, the sound of the water rushing through the final gate as it opens to level the water again after a boat has passed through is impressive.

Most of the deeper locks compensate for the extra water pressure by having more than one release point for the water to escape through.  Not so for this lock which has only one point for the water through which to rush.

After the soft hollow sounding metallic clanks of the well-oiled lock gear (effectively a rack and pinion system manually wound by the lock-keeper opening the valve and  allowing the water to return to the chamber) the water bursts through at a high but decreasing pressure creating a spectacular initial sound that gradually softens as the water levels out.

may morning

Posted 2 May, 2009 by robert jarvis
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Interestingly, one of Oxford’s defining moments in its yearly calendar is a ‘sound occasion’.  On the first of May each year at 6.00am crowds of people congregate close to Magdalen Brige to hear the College Choir sing from the top of the Magdalen College Great Tower.

I have found that prople describe this occasion in reverence, describing how the awaiting crowd hushes in anticipation of the faint sounds of the Hymnus Eurcharisticus being sung from high above.  My experience, unfortunately, is a little different as the majority of the crowd appear to be students still excited from their all-night partying, and it is, in fact, their own sound that becomes the predominant sonic memory.

When the majority of the crowds have dissembled, perhaps to go into the City to experience some of the other May morning celebrations, it is not unknown for some of the students to also contribute to another sonic event.  Unlike the choir’s dawn chorus, this sound is held in disdain by most of those I have spoken with – it’s the sound of students jumping off Magdalen bridge and into the River Cherwell – beginning with a group “5-4-3-2-1” countdown before the jump, the splash and final group cheer.


Posted 28 April, 2009 by robert jarvis
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On Sunday I went to see Oxford United Football Club’s last match of the season at their home ground of the Kazzam Stadium.

The stadium itself is three-sided , with the open side pointing west.  This, of course, only helps the sound of the matches carry outside the ground, across the fields, and over to the nearby housing estate.  Predictably, I have come across quite a few people now who live fairly close to the ground and have mentioned hearing the cheer for the fans when a goal is scored.

Although, on this occasion, Oxford United did not win the game, the fans themselves certainly didn’t disappoint with their synchronised roars as they encouraged their team with a series of chants, roars and songs.


Posted 23 April, 2009 by robert jarvis
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Today is the official launch of the Sounds of Oxfordshire project.   I began the day with a BBC Radio interview at 8am in Banbury talking about the project and encouraging listeners to let me know which of their County sounds were of interest.  Similarly, at the end of the day, I had a interview on the local BBC news where I was able to talk a little about the project.

Today was also the launch of the BBC website where people can also submit suggestions for suitable sounds for the project.  I look forward to following these up and learning more about the sound of the County over the next six months as I piece all this together, collecting the sounds, engaging with the general public and creating my sound piece for broadcast in October.

cattle mart

Posted 18 April, 2009 by robert jarvis
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The Thame Cattle Mart is a flurry of activity on Wednesday and Friday mornings, with lorry loads of animals arriving and departing as well as the auction itself.  This takes place in a concrete ampitheatre, with a steady flow of the animals on sale being herded in and out in sync with the auctioneer’s descriptions and handling of the bids.  The auctioneer hurtles through each sale, speaking so fast that it sounds like he doesn’t have the time to finish each word.  As he notes the bids and relays the increased price, his rhythmic delivery also speeds up, finishing with the crack of the hammer as the sale is made.  A dramatic audio experience.  Recommended!

clanks and chimes

Posted 4 April, 2009 by robert jarvis
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I have noticed that many towns in Oxfordshire have their own market at least once a week. On Friday afternoon I arrived in Wallingford just as its market was being taken down, and was treated to the musical clanks and chimes of the storeholders disembling their stalls.

Their random sounding metallic music provided more than a rather pleasing acoustic diversion.  The sounds linked to a quality of sound harkening to times past, and therefore signaled more than simply the end of the working day but perhaps even of an era, as supermarkets strengthen their influence on UK culture.

ploughing match

Posted 20 March, 2009 by robert jarvis
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Driving between Islip and Bletchingdon, I chanced upon a ploughing match taking place in a field adjacent to the B4027 road. I guess the occasion was an early round for a bigger competiion as there were very few spectators and no pomp and circumstance.

Instead, there were twenty or thirty smallish ploughs being expertly controlled by their drivers, digging up small oblong areas of the field under the watchful eye of an adjudicator. Some were operated directly by their drivers but many used a tractor of some kind – many of which appeared ‘vintage’. The field then was full of the chugging of the different tractor engines moving back and forth along the furrows, and it was possible to get up close and listen to the different engines as well as hear how the ploughs themselves sliced through the soil.

quiet lane

Posted 14 March, 2009 by robert jarvis
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As much of Oxfordhire is rural, I am assuming that a significant element of its aural identity will be sounds connected with the rural way of life.  Certainly, the county is peppered with small towns separated by large expanses of farming land.

On my way to one such town, I came across this self-named country road.  Intrigued to see just how quiet it was I went exploring with my microphone.  At the time of visit (around 0730), it did live up to its name – all was still, apart from a rather vocal cuccle of hens, a small flock of chaffinches moving from tree to tree and the sound of the morning skylarks above the fields.  As the morning progressed however, the traffic noise of the not so quiet M40 also became a part of this lane’s soundscape and its intimate tranquility was lost.  It did make me wonder though where the quietest place in Oxfordshire might be.


Posted 2 March, 2009 by robert jarvis
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Spring is in the air, and as nature awakes so do its corresponding sounds.  For me, at this time of year, there is a certain clarity to the season’s new sounds as they  introduce themselves one-by-one and take their place in the developing soundscape.  These first new sounds return like old friends, and signal to their listeners that the world is changing from its winter state to something warmer, bringing hope and inspiring new aspirations for the incoming months.

Over the next few weeks I will begin my research into the sounds of Oxfordshire and how local people relate to them.  I look forward to getting to know the county, its soundscape and its listeners….

Watch This Space!

Posted 20 December, 2008 by robert jarvis
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Sounds of Oxfordshire is a new soundscape composition project that brings together BBC Radio Oxford, Oxford Contemporary Music and the people of the county of Oxfordshire with sound artist and composer Robert Jarvis.  Through an extensive outreach programme people of all ages will be encouraged to submit descriptions of sounds that they find particularly appealing, perhaps because the sounds are in danger of disappearing, perhaps because they are unique, or defining of a particular location or time.  These submitted sounds will then form the basis of a new sound – art work, created by Robert Jarvis, which will take a variety of forms, including a special broadcast on BBC Radio Oxford in autumn 2009.