Field Recording at Avalon Marshes, Somerset Levels

Written by  Rowan Evans, composer and writer for WULF

fæst is that ēglond, fenne biworpen  [that island is secure, surrounded by fen]

Avalon Marshes is a large network of wetland and nature reserves in the Somerset Levels, south of the Mendips. Divided by rivers and man-made water channels, the area is shaped by water and marsh and frequently floods in the winter. Watched over by Glastonbury Tor, the place takes its name from an island in Arthurian legend, Avalon, and in past centuries would have been a constantly reshaping landscape of islands that rose and disappeared as the floods ebbed and retreated. Outside of East Anglia, Avalon Marshes offers the closest environment to the marshy fens described in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, the tenth-century poem at the centre of our project, making it a promising choice as a site to take source field recordings. The Levels is also the place from where the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred assembled his troops (and burnt some cakes) to resist the Viking invasion, and our poem itself exists in the Exeter Book manuscript, so it felt right in many ways to head to this local part of the South West.

Reeds and mere at Westhay Moor. Photo by Clare Twomey.

Reeds and mere at Westhay Moor. Photo by Clare Twomey.

The music, sound design and visual projection of ‘WULF’ all integrate field recordings from the area in original or abstracted form – the sounds of circling birds, reeds and wind, the surfaces of dark bodies of water. We made our first audio recording trip to the reserve at Westhay Moor in the winter of 2015 with Laurie Owens, then sound editor at Wounded Buffalo, musician Hal Kelly and photographer Clare Twomey. We took a couple of Zoom handy recorders and a gun mic, which all wore fluffy ‘hats’ like us to keep out the December wind. My biggest surprise arriving at Westhay was how oppressive and even claustrophobic the environment can be. Although the Levels are an expanse of flat land, the sense in the thick of the fens and woods is far from open. Dense reeds tower above head-height, black coppices and undergrowth crowd in and shut out the light. The only points of spaciousness are offered by meres and pools whose water is blackened by peat, and which are completely un-navigable to anyone on foot. In the pre-industrialized world of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, such environments would be a hostile wilderness to those without proper knowledge of the dry tracks and boardwalks, and leave humans vulnerable to attack from predators or each other. I lost the group straying off to record creaking trees, my feet in shallow pools and undergrowth, using the microphones’ heightened stereo field to tune in to constant peripheral activity, the feeling of being observed between reeds and branches.

Jack Offord and Rowan Evans in the bird hide at Shapwick Heath. Photo by Maisie Newman

Jack Offord and Rowan Evans in the bird hide at Shapwick Heath. Photo by Maisie Newman

This sense of enclosure, threat and obstructed vision characterised our recent return to Westhay, Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall with film-maker and projection artist Jack Offord.  Jack spent his first visit capturing wide-angle shots of the landscape, which in open places divides itself into clear visual strata of sky, reed and water. We were drawn to groups of dead trees that jut above the reed-line at angles, almost how I imagine the skyline of the Mississippi Delta, and filmed from concealed bird hides at Shapwick. The serious bird watchers we met were keen to share the whereabouts of kingfishers, and I even spotted a Bittern! Back in Jack’s studio we began to experiment dividing the filmed images into parts and textures as I have been doing with the audio, and encouraging the feeling of oppression and obstruction by removing areas of vision. My recordings have likewise moved from long takes of ambience to the increasingly ‘close-up’, textured sounds of our interaction with the landscape, of pushing through branches or treading over muddy ground. One further mission is yet to be completed, as we hope to gather extended footage of the vast starling murmurations that happen throughout the winter. Thousands of the birds gather and fill the sky with black, flexing torques before they roost together in the reeds at the Ham Wall reserve. Getting a clear shot and uninterrupted sound has been difficult so far, as so many people flock to see the birds' display. There’s even a 'starling hotline' to find out the latest roosting spot... Just as the Anglo-Saxon language of ‘WULF’ is embedded in Somerset’s terrain and place names – Shapwick, Mudgley, Meare – the audio-visual elements of the performance will be bound to this common point of origin. I look forward to more expeditions in the winter monaðs.