‘Sound walks’ supply a brand new method to journey in lockdown | Strolling holidays

T.The bear’s throaty growl begins on my right, then circling predatory on my left as I turn. But I keep calm because the beast isn’t really there – it’s an illusion. I’m on a street corner in Leeds on a bright, cool autumn morning and there are no bears for thousands of miles – or at least not for more than a century.

Between 1840 and 1858, before Burley Park was just asphalt and terraced houses, the street I’m standing on was part of the short-lived Headingley Zoological and Botanical Gardens. I am on a guided “sound walk” around the graffiti remains of its walls and have just reached Bearpit Gardens.

A Garden Through Time, produced by community project 365 Leeds Stories, is an immersive, geographically localized audio walk – one of around 50 UK routes available through the Echoes app. As I move, my phone’s GPS tracks my exact movements and triggers music, sounds, and speech. At Bearpit Gardens, Pauline Mayers, a local artist and choreographer, talks about how the flora and fauna in Britain’s zoological and botanical gardens were an embodiment of empire and slavery in the Victorian era. It’s insightful, engaging, and acutely rooted in the area. The rustle of birds chirping in my ear subsides as I walk on from Bearpit Gardens.

Like many people, I struggled to cope with personal limitation during the pandemic, but healthy walks have opened up a new way of traveling – physically, mentally, and occasionally back in time.

A house that was built after Headingley Gardens was closed and includes part of the old wall.A house that was built after Headingley Gardens was closed and includes part of the old wall. Photo: Lorna Parkes

“The nice thing about it is that we are a very broad church,” says Andrew Stuck, who co-founded the so-called Sound Walk September in 2017. Every year people from Japan, Belgium and Brazil submit sound walks – similar to A Garden Through Time – to the Walk Listen Create platform. Entries will be shortlisted by an independent panel in October and a winner will be determined at the end of the year.

This year’s shortlist ranges from performative art to reports and travelogues. Some, like Bath Workhouse Burial Ground: Walking the Names, respond to the website. This piece consists of multi-layered readings from a burial register that appear when entering the unmarked grave of 3,000 people who perished in a forgotten bathhouse between 1858 and 1899.

Some resemble more sophisticated audio guides: the last eccentrics of Greenwich Village take listeners on a stroll through the New York neighborhood about the roots of the counterculture of the 1960s.

Other sound walks can be done from the armchair. My favorite is The Ears May Travel, which describes itself as a “vacation for the senses”. One segment is a meditative swim from the cave to the city in Crete. The creator, Carina Pesch, uses binaural recordings (with multiple microphones) to create a 3D stereo experience: it feels like waves are sloshed in between the swims of waves. “I’m particularly interested in the thin line between reality and fiction because it can sometimes be shifted,” says Pesch.

Despite the logistical challenges of creating Sound Walks during the pandemic, entries have increased 44% this year and the number of people who have signed up for Sound Walk September events (which went virtual this year) have signed up quadrupled. The sound walks experience is designed to be experienced in isolation. It fits perfectly with the very deep hole we are in right now.

Improvements in technology have also helped encourage new producers. Creator apps like Echoes and Gesso as well as the geolocation and mapping tool CGeomap have made participation accessible and easy. “Lots of people have smartphones that you can use to create all kinds of interesting walks, as well as follow, download and listen to them,” says Stuck. The global sound artist community includes musicians, composers, radio producers, and even screenwriters. The fruits of this eclectic brotherhood are audible dramas.

Our appetite for audio is also increasing. Last year Ofcom reported that 7.1 million people in the UK listen to podcasts every week – a 24% increase over the previous year and twice as much as five years ago. Similarly, a Deloitte report last December predicted that the global audiobook market will grow 25% in 2020 and be worth $ 3.5 billion. Perhaps these trends have something to do with the increasing recognition of the positive physiological and psychological possibilities of sound. The holistic discipline of sound healing is based on the idea that bathing in sound can increase positivity, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep. And the British Academy of Sound Therapy is now offering diplomas in sound art therapy that “celebrate the human voice as a transformative, creative and therapeutic art form.”

At a time when many people are struggling to get too far beyond their front door, the next best thing may be to be transported to another time or place. So get in touch: it feels good.

• Visit walklistencreate.org or download the Echoes app to browse sound walks from around the world

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