The Sounds of Britain

The sound of waves Norfolk

Listening to the sound of waves on Norfolk’s coast

What is the sound of Britain?

The pouring of a cup of tea, a black cab beeping and the chimes of Big Ben are all being used in a new Visit Britain tourism campaign.

Dubbed ‘Sounds of GREAT Britain’ it is designed to inspire the world to choose Britain for their next holiday.

So what would be your soundtrack to the British Isles? Or, if you live abroad, which sounds would make you want to visit?

Having watched the tourism video, I was a bit surprised about some of the sounds picked to represent Britain – the splash of a surfer, the cracking of a poppadum, a New Year’s fireworks display and the hitting of a tennis ball at Wimbledon.

Andy Murray at Wimbledon

Andy Murray at Wimbledon c/o VisitBritain

Call me cynical but these are sounds that could be heard in so many other cities and countries. They’re not exactly unique or different.

I can also think of better places to watch spectacular fireworks (Dubai, Kuwait), go surfing (Bondi Beach, Hawaii) or tuck into poppadums and curry (India).

Then, I don’t suppose the campaign is designed for me or fellow Brits. It’s aimed squarely at the American market place with a nod to Europe and Asia.

A soundtrack for GREAT Britain

London Guard

London Guard c/o VisitBritain

‘Sounds of GREAT Britain’ is a £2.5 million global campaign to promote British tourism.

The fact that this tourism campaign has to spell GREAT Britain in capitals is really annoying. Do they really need a megaphone?

For me, the whole campaign reeks too much of corporate marketing, quick to tick all the right boxes by featuring the big locations including Edinburgh, London, the Lake District, Birmingham and Stonehenge.

The choice of London attractions is almost cheesy – Buckingham Palace, Harrods, Big Ben and Wellington Barracks – and feels distinctly old-fashioned.

It would have been nice to have a little more variety and a few more surprising images and sounds.

So do you agree with their choice? And what would be yours? Guess it’s time for me to ask myself what would be my top 10 sounds of Britain.

Top British tourist sounds

1. Big Ben’s chimes

Big Ben is an obvious choice as it has been the soundtrack to British life for generations.

It brings in every New Year and its chimes can be heard on countless TV and radio news programmes.

2. Parliament’s Black Rod

Parliament goes hand in hand with Big Ben which is why it’s my second choice.

One of my favourite sounds is Black Rod striking the doors of the House of Commons with his long, ebony staff at the State Opening of Parliament.

It’s a great but slightly bonkers British tradition.

 3. House of Commons – ‘Order, Order’

Eccentricity is another British characteristic which is sadly absent from tourism adverts and campaigns. It’s best captured in the House of Commons when the Speaker tries to control the rowdy politicians at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The sound of him crying out ‘Order, Order’ at the top of his voice to calm down a bunch of badly behaved MPs is a truly British treat.

4. Bagpipes

North of the border, Scotland would not be what it is today without the sound of bagpipes, something that has mysteriously disappeared off the Great Britain tourism soundtrack.

An acquired taste, I always associate my arrival in Edinburgh with the sound of a sole piper standing on the corner of Princes Street.

It’s not to my musical taste but it does set the soundtrack to the city perfectly.

If you’re a fan, don’t miss the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the mother of all bagpipe jamborees, in August.

5.  The Shipping Forecast

Another iconic and surreal British sound is the shipping forecast on BBC Radio Four. If you’ve never heard this, it’s well worth a listen – the style and sound are unforgettable.

The whole effect is enhanced by the deadpan announcer reading a long list of weather information and names. The waters around the British Isles are divided into sea areas with weird names like Dogger, Rockall, Forties and Fastnet.

The reading of the shipping forecast has a strangely lyrical quality and has inspired several songs and poems. It even has its own Twitter feed  and several fan sites.

6.  Wild geese honking

Wild geese are my favourite wildlife sound in Britain. There’s nothing better than lying in bed and hearing the sound of wild geese flying overhead in rural Scotland or Northumberland during the winter months.

Thousands of Barnacle Geese fly in to the Solway estuary daily in winter, honking as they fly over.

For me, this symbolises the great wilderness sound of Britain – perhaps only rivalled by deer ‘barking’ during the autumn rut. It’s a huge shame that these sounds failed to make it into Visit Britain’s adverts.

Listen to the sound of the Barnacle Geese on the RSPB website’s audio clip.

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

Honking Barnacle Geese in Scotland

7.  Elgar’s music

OK, it may not be trendy to listen to Elgar, one of England’s greatest composers, but nothing symbolises the sound of the British countryside better than his music with its pastoral quality and lyrical romanticism.

It also reminds me of the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Albert Hall, another great sound of Great Britain, complete with party poppers and rousing cheers.

Every time I hear Pomp and Circumstance, I can’t help thinking of the gently rolling countryside of England’s  West Country including the Malvern Hills, Chilterns and Cotswolds.

Chalk horse

Pastoral landscape in the West Country

8.  The Tube announcements

If I’m travelling around London I’m bombarded with noises so a few striking sounds stand out.

One of my favourites is the Tube announcements which range from ‘stand clear of the doors’ to ‘there’s currently a good service on the Jubilee line’.

Everyone’s favourite Tube phrase – ‘Mind the Gap’ – is still being used on Northern line trains and stations too.

There’s something so intrinsically British about some muffled Cockney or Londoner proclaiming that there’s a good or bad transport service running – or not. It won’t be the same if and when they replace these with 100% robotic announcers.

My favourite Tube story is one about the old-style announcer Oswald Lawrence whose voice was used on the Northern Line but was phased out until only Embankment station used it.

His widow Dr Margaret McCollum said she often went to the station to hear his voice and was devastated when “he wasn’t there” in 2013 after his voiceover was dropped.

After hearing her story Transport for London bosses decided to restore his  ‘Mind the Gap’ warning on Embankment Tube. Pure genius!

9. British actors

British actors ‘doing the classics’ has to be on my list. The dulcet tones of some of Britain’s greatest thespians is a real joy.

We have some of the best actors in the world from Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Gambon to Jeremy Irons and Dame Judi Dench. But nothing beats them doing the sound of Shakespeare or Shelley, Marlowe or Marvell.

A trip to the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon is a great place to hear the sound of some of the best of them in full flight.

RSC Theatre Stratford

Look out for classic acting at the RSC Theatre, Stratford

10. Sound cities

So far, I’ve been a bit traditional in my choices so now it’s time to go off piste with a selection of British music. My musical sound of Britain varies enormously depending on where I’m travelling.

As a Mancunian, a trip to my home city always conjures up music from Joy Division, The Happy Mondays, Oasis and New Order especially when I’m wandering down by the streets near the old Hacienda club.

Down the road, Liverpool’s importance as a musical city extends from The Beatles in the 1960s (don’t miss a trip to the Cavern Club and Beatles Experience) and Gerry and the Pacemakers (the Mersey Ferry) to The Las and Cast.

Over in Yorkshire, a visit to Sheffield always puts the sound of the Arctic Monkees and Pulp into my head. And as I arrive in Leeds by train, I can’t help humming songs by local heroes John Newman and The Kaiser Chiefs which provide the soundtrack to the city’s buzzing night life.

London’s musical tradition is vast but if I had to pick standout tracks I’d include The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, The Jam’s Down in the Tube Station at Midnight and The Clash’s London Calling.

More recently, there’s the gritty urban sound of Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal’s Love This Town.

Dizzee Rascal

Tinie Tempah – Britain’s urban sound

Despite these strong musical associations with places, they are absent from the Sounds of GREAT Britain marketing adverts.

I guess that the marketing team thought using Rudimental would make the campaign sound all cool, contemporary and urban.

Call me odd, but it seems a bit narrow to select one band as the soundtrack to Britain? For me, they are too urban and London-centric.

Visit Britain believes they “represent the eclectic contemporary Sound of GREAT Britain” but the band’s soundtrack to the campaign, Feel the Love, did little to make me feel all warm and fuzzy about the UK.

And whatever happened to British folk music, new and old? Surely Mumford and Sons and Seth Lakeman deserve a nod?

To be fair, Visit Britain also give punters the chance to create their own soundtrack of Great Britain itinerary –  check out this web link.

11. Croquet balls clacking

My sporting sound of Britain is an unusual choice, the gentle sound of croquet, a very British game which conjures up images of green lawns, cucumber sandwiches and aristocratic country houses.

This peculiarly British game has a sound which alternates between a gentle clacking and a fierce ‘cannoning’ of balls when they clash.

Belsay Hall and Gardens

The gentle sounds of summer croquet

The rules of croquet were set out by Isaac Spratt in 1856 in London with the first competitive meeting taking place at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire in 1868.

This was followed by the formation of the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon.

Last summer I spent a lazy hour watching the croquet on a glorious sunny day at Belsay Hall in Northumberland (pictured above).  The gentle sounds were a relaxing treat, far from the furious pace of the city.

12. Old phones ringing

We’re so hooked on our mobile phones and their crazy ringtones that it’s easy to forget the old-fashioned telephone with its chunky design and loud ring.

I’m a sucker for old style phones with their persistent ringing tones – a distinctive ‘brrring, brrring’ that echoes across the room.

Recently I saw this fantastic old British phone at Eltham Palace, an Art Deco house in London.

Eltham Palace old phone

Eltham Palace’s classic phone

There’s another fabulous example of Churchill’s special wartime phone in London’s Cabinet War Rooms.

The Transatlantic Telephone Room is where Churchill would speak with US President Roosevelt by phone and discuss military matters. Its ringing signalled that important affairs of state had to be discussed urgently.

13. Steam trains

Steam train North York Moors

Steam train – North York Moors

My final sound of Britain is the whistling of a classic steam train.

The first steam locomotive was invented by engineer, Richard Trevithick, in 1804. Britain also boasted the first public railway, built by George Stephenson, between Stockton and Darlington in North East England.

There’s nothing better than hearing the train’s whistle, the chuntering movement as it lurches out of the station and the blast of the engine as the train builds up momentum and speed.

My favourite film celebrating the sound of the steam age is Night Mail, the classic 1936 British documentary, which captures the sounds of the railways to perfection as it takes a trip from London to Scotland.

Today, Britain’s rail heritage is celebrated in a number of attractions which capture the sound of steam including York’s National Railway Museum, Shildon Rail Museum in County Durham and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

Each of them have steam trains and trips which capture the golden age of steam.

Steam train North York Moors

All aboard – the ‘sound’ of steam

14, The football whistle

Football is Britain’s national game and it comes with a vast array of sounds from the wall of noise of fans singing to club chants that echo across the stadium.

Long gone is the football rattle, once heard on 1930s football terraces, but the one thing that persists is the referee’s whistle.

Football match

Waiting for the whistle at a Premiership match

For more than 100 years it’s been the sound that’s brought triumph and despair to thousands of football fans.

Acme whistles are one of Britain’s oldest whistles. Made in Birmingham since 1870 the company is still going strong.

They made the whistle which provided the soundtrack to England’s greatest football triumph.

The Acme Thunderer whistle was used by Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst to bring the 1966 World Cup final to an end.

The whistle is now in a football museum in Switzerland. But the sound of the referee’s whistle continues to be one of the iconic sounds of English football.

15. British wildlife

If you love the sound of British wildlife, look no further than sound recordist Chris Watson’s incredible audio clips of a wide range of creatures from ants to otters.

Chris has worked on David Attenborough’s BBC wildlife documentaries as well as on soundscapes and music compositions.

His Sound Map of Sheffield – called Inside The Circle of Fire – records the sonic world around us in ‘surround sound’, from bird song and bees to park life and the city’s industrial past.

A former member of the band Cabaret Voltaire, Chris is a genius at capturing the minutest details of sound. His work proves that if you listen carefully, British nature has some amazing sound stories to capture our imaginations.

Digital map of Britain


A British music festival

That’s my sound map of Britain but what’s yours?

Why not visit the digital version of the Visit Britain ‘Sound of GREAT Britain’ campaign which allows users worldwide to create their personalised advert and itinerary.

Having completed your edit, you can  find out more about your chosen itinerary on Visit Britain’s LoveWall or you can share with friends via Facebook, Twitter and Weibo.

Watch the YouTube film here

Whatever your views on the merits of the Sounds of Great Britain tourism campaign, it has set us thinking about the authentic sounds of the British Isles.

The more you think about it, the British Isles has some truly wonderful sounds from the tranquil lapping of waves on the Norfolk coast to the peeling of church bells in a country village.

Great Britain?  More like Sound Britain… if you ask me!

Bikes in front of Horse Guard Parade

Bikes ringing bells in front of Horse Guard Parade c/o VisitBritain

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