Research reflections

It’s an exciting time in my ACE DYCP-supported project, CYMA. This week marks the final week of the research phase of the project. While I’ll continue to research my topics and relevant techniques throughout, this boundary marks a shift of emphasis: next week, writing becomes my primary focus.

In the field

At the weekend I undertook my first research trip, in which I travelled to the North Norfolk coast to do some site-specific writing and field recording on the salt marshes. The visit came at just the right time.

Flo is a white person wearing a green coat. They are next to a muddy path in a field, holding a recorder with a grey windjammer on it, and looking through a pair of binoculars.
Recording in the field with a secondhand Zoom H4N Pro, 18 March 2023 (c) Flo Reynolds.

While much of my research phase has been about reading theories of sound, it has also meant getting to grips with my field recording equipment. I’ve been running tests – strange rituals involving water, a wheelbarrow, and walking over gravel – and met with sound designer, composer and musician Jonathan Baker to help me get the best out of my equipment.

The research trip represented a chance to put all I have learned so far into practice, and take my new methodology out into the field. 

The Whirligig

I don’t remember how I came to settle on this landscape as a central part of the project – perhaps it’s in a notebook somewhere – but by 2020 when I wrote about scoping the project, I had already found the place I felt compelled to write about.

The Stiffkey Whirligig is a curious paved circle stretching out into the North Norfolk salt marsh, with a gallows-shaped metal pole at its centre.

The Stiffkey Whirligig radio arm is a rusted metal pole with a smaller metal pole at its top forming a right angle. The radio arm is almost silhouetted against a grey cloudy sky and gorse bushes.
The Stiffkey Whirligig radio arm, 18 March 2023 (c) Flo Reynolds.

The National Trust sign in the nearest carpark describes it as “a relic from the Cold War”; military history websites emphasise that it represents an early development in drone warfare from the Second World War, when many American troops were stationed nearby; and a friend local to the area tells me that it was once used as a sheep weighing station.

The metal arm is embossed with the name “Radioplane Company”; a quick Google search reveals that the company has Hollywood connections, having been founded by the actor Reginald Denny, and later employing a certain Norma Jeane Dougherty. 

Waves of stories

I’m less interested in the precise military use of the radio arm, although the vision of small balsa wood aeroplanes being hammerthrown from it, shot at by practicing troops, and then crash-landing on the saltmarsh, is an arresting image. More, it’s the overlapping and occasionally contradictory stories of the site which interest me.

There’s a sense of waves of different relationships between place and people along this coastline, echoing into history through stories of 19th century smuggling, through the Hanseatic League of the Middle Ages, through Roman Britain, and beyond… after all, Seahenge and Holme II were discovered just a few miles down the coast.

Flo is crouching down next to a large pool of water in the salt marsh landscape. They are wearing a green coat and holding a recorder with a grey windjammer and the cable of a hydrophone.
Taking a hydrophone recording in a pool at Stiffkey Marshes, 18 March 2023 (c) Flo Reynolds. I ensure my equipment is clean and washed before use to help prevent the spread of invasive species and harmful chemicals.

Today this coastline is home to the last few fishing boats, luxury second homes, and stand-up paddle board tours of the creeks. Beneath all of this, the salt marsh has been a fluctuating constant. It is an ecologically rich landscape, neither fully land nor water. In light of the climate and extinction events to come, it looks increasingly fragile.  

This is the landscape I have been fascinated by since I first visited in 2017, and where I first started practicing listening exercises in 2018. It’s where I now continue these practices, where I write in situ, and where I try to capture the sounds and stories of the marsh in all their variety. 

Writing live vs. writing the recording

Following the research trip, I now have pages of notes to work with, and many field recordings to listen back to, write from, edit into presentable shapes. One thing I’m particularly keen to compare is writing live versus writing from a recording – do any differences come through in the writing?

Flo is a white person wearing a yellow jumper and green coat. They are standing in front of a dinghy and crab pots on the Norfolk Coast while writing in a notebook.
Live writing on the windy Norfolk Coastal Path, 18 March 2023 (c) Flo Reynolds.

I spent hours on the marsh trying to get the perfect recording of a curlew’s call despite the wind, tapping the radio arm while stethoscoping it with a contact microphone, dipping a hydrophone into its pools and creeks. What do these recordings say of the place they originate from, while I’m back in my Norwich box room, trying to craft a successful pantoum? What might my eventual reader hear of them?

All of these questions, and more, are to be explored as I come at last to synthesising my research, and setting down to write.