My original thesis was a practice-led examination into the characteristic of acoustic and emotional resonance within landscape with particular reference to the upper reaches of the River Thames. Drawing upon my background as a professional musician, I intended to seek creative expressions for this resonance and to create a body of work formed through a combination of poetry, music, narrative non-fiction and field-recordings and to compose a song cycle, Night-Visiting Songs, integrating some of these elements.

However, as has been the case with many other PhD students, COVID has impacted on my research project. I am a musician and therefore the pandemic has significantly affected my work and income too. As a self-funded researcher, I was very grateful to the University for the Graduate School’s Research Support Award, which has meant, since restrictions were lifted, that I have been able to return to the River Thames. 

Last year due to COVID, I decided, in consultation with my supervisors, to expand my research to include the landscape I am presently living within, that of West Dorset. Having worked for some years at Thomas Hardy’s house, Max Gate, I used this previous experience along with Hardy’s writings to research, produce and livestream programmes of music and poetry from the places that were of deep significance to him. I also wrote essays on these ‘Hardyscapes’, embedding critical thinking into my creative writing. This work led me to thinking further about what makes a landscape resonant, what is it that means some places resonate more fully with us, making us feel we have arrived ‘home’ or alternatively, leaving us disinterested? I also collaborated with my twin sister, a conservation architect, on a West Dorset church porch project (the porches being the only part of the churches that were open), examining the architecture and history of these liminal spaces, producing a book length work of drawings and poems. The work carried out during this time led me to explore different creative strategies and methodologies while investigating the resonance of place, and to widen my conceptual thinking.

However, through all of this I was aware of a need to get back to the river and to integrate this recent work and thinking with my original intention. I needed to be back at the river, to talk to the people who live and work alongside it and to be immersed once more in that riverine environment.

The award has enabled me recently to travel up to the Thames from my base in West Dorset and to make some night-time recordings. I started at Cleeve Lock – a place that holds particular emotional significance for me – and worked my way up river on subsequent nights, taking in the marina, the Brunel railway bridge, Days Lock and Wittenham Clumps.  The recordings I made feature not only the more expected calls of geese and wildlife but also the sounds of the combine working late bringing in the harvest, people paddle-boarding after the hire cruisers have moored up for the night and the clock chimes ringing across the fields from the Saxon abbey at Dorchester. These recordings will provide a strong starting for my song-cycle.

During the daytime I have walked alongside the river, reconnecting with familiar places and people, including Ted, an Oxfordshire folksinger who was able to sing me some traditional songs as we sat in his garden.

To be able to return to the river has been a joy and a relief, to feel that familiarity and to have at last the basis of the structure for Night-Visiting Songs. I feel this work will expand the field of place writing with its emphasis on the aural world of this particular landscape.

Virginia’s research trip to the upper reaches of the River Thames was part-funded through the Manchester Metropolitan Graduate School’s Research Support Award. Find out more about the award and application process by visiting the PGR Development Moodle area.

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2 comments on “Returning to the River and Recording the Singing Places

  • 9th October 2021 at 11:55 am

    Dear Virginia,

    It was a joy to read your blog post and to read about how you connect to place through sound and how you explore how places becomes resonant.

    Best wishes,

    • 12th November 2021 at 2:23 pm
      Virginia Astley

      Dear Markus

      Thank you. I’m sorry for my late reply (have had a break) but it was great to read you comment. I hope we can meet up some time as I’d love to hear how your work is going.



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