From the age of 5, my home was in London, a mile from touchdown under the main flight path of Heathrow Airport. Planes came over so low they almost touched the roof. One once did, clipping the ridge tiles and causing considerable damage. The house was in a side road off the main A4 London to Bath road and a direct route to Twickenham rugby ground. Next door to the house was the local junior and infant school. Alongside the school ran a busy underground train line, except here, it was over ground and the end of the line, trains running night and day.
As you can imagine, all this meant it was always noisy – very noisy! – with planes, trains, traffic and children. There was never silence, but we were used to it. Even at night it was never quiet, the traffic, even in those days, constant. At night, we could lie in bed and watch the lights of aircraft stacking above as they circled waiting to land, and always the roar as they came lower and lower before finally skimming the roof as they come in. During the day, even at school, people would stop talking mid sentence every few moments to allow the plane overhead to pass else it was impossible to hear what was being said; speaking, pausing, continuing with less than a minute in between. It was the way of life.
Several years later I moved some hundred miles away to rural Gloucestershire, except where I was it wasn’t so rural. It was to a large housing development, at the time the largest new housing construction site in Europe. I was lucky though. My new gleaming house was right on the very edge of the estate. There was no road at the front, nothing beyond the front garden except a path, an infrequently used rail line and beyond that, fields and farmland. It was heaven to wake up, pull back the curtains and see wild rabbits playing on my lawn, hear the cows mooing, and best of all, hear the dawn chorus of birds. I had never been so happy. No cars. No aeroplanes. Peace.
Several stories and moves later, I found myself where I live today, in the middle of a large, ever-sprawling town set between the meeting point of two exceedingly busy motorways, the M4 and M5, with the Paddington to Wales rail line a short distance away and an airfield close by. But it is so quiet here, it is almost unbelievable. Okay, in the background is the constant hum of the motorways but over the years you learn to block out the sound.
My road is very narrow, with a school at one end but traffic is light, hardly there, barely noticeable. At Christmas, the airfield was closed. Yes, we still get planes going overhead, but they are high up, on their way across the Atlantic and are soon gone. Most of my neighbours have dogs but you rarely hear them barking.
But it is far from silent. I can hear the birds singing all day, many of them in my garden, most from a small bluebell copse behind the houses opposite. I can hear the wind, feel it sigh and breathe, hear the beating of a bird’s wings and bees’ busy drone, hear leaves rustling in the breeze, almost hear the grass quiver. I am sure I can hear seed pods burst and scatter their load around the garden, and hear the creak as pansies nod and dance their heads as a butterfly gracefully passes, a slight stir in the air.
In the undergrowth I can hear the frogs, a slow-worm or two and our resident field mouse as they scuttle among the plants in search of a meal. At night I can throw open the window and hear an owl call, the bark of a vixen, hear a hedgehog snuffle and snort, and in the morning I can enjoy the dawn chorus without the beautiful sounds being drowned out by cars and trains and planes. Whatever I may think of my house (I’m not fond of it), it does have its advantages and for the moment I am content to enjoy the beauty of nature’s sounds around me.
There is only one sound missing, a sound I would give my eyeteeth for to hear every day, that is of the sea, of surf gently pounding against the shore. Always constant, always different, and always soothing. Oh well, if I close my eyes and pretend hard enough I can turn the motorway hum into the distant sound of breakers. Breathe in, pretend. Relax. It isn’t hard to do here.