Sittingbourne. As the song goes – still rainin’, still dreamin’. Indeed,
this estuarine corner of Kent is hosting another wet and wind-warped day.
Alan of the SKLR is there to lift everyone’s spirits and dole out Quality
Street. He furnishes me with a ticket to ride the busy Santa Special.
I’ve met up with Simon, the project photographer commissioned by Arts
Transmission to document the project. Armed with our respective kit, we
board the ‘Superb’ bound for Kemsley Down. As the whistle blows and the
stationmaster’s flag signals our departure, we both look upward to the grim
overcast sky and reflect on the steady rainfall. The latter is threatening
to turn our respective arts of photography and sound recording into rather
While Simon snaps away, I point my microphone this way and that, searching
for the ‘sweet spot’ where the manifold railway sounds rattling through our
carriage achieve a representative balance. The kids on board chirrup away
with excitement as we traverse the viaduct and head out into the open
countryside. Swatches of industry rows of concrete pipes, dumper trucks,
steel-clad warehouses – nuzzle up against the hedgerows and marshland. It’s
as if those two adversaries industrial architecture and stark nature
have decided to stand eyeball to eyeball, and face each other down in a
stalemate of incomprehension. To me, it’s a reminder that our perfectly
paved towns and cities once stood on land that was home to grass, trees and
wildflowers and perhaps the odd giant fern if you roll back to Jurassic
times. But do beware of the dinosaur and keep your hands out of the cage!
In the Kemsley Down café I chat with John who is a long-standing member of
the railway. He is a mine of information and tells me about the origins of
the railway in 1969, back when Bowaters passed on key parts of the railway,
infrastructure and rolling stock to the Locomotive Club of Great Britain.
What a generous bunch. Please can I have a steam engine too!
I ask John if there’s a possibility of me wandering down the line a ways to
get a recording of Superb passing. I’m keen to ‘capture’ that unique sound
of a steam train approaching from down the line, roaring past and then
hurrying away, the steam gasps and puffs melting into the distance. I should
add – ‘Capture’ – that’s the fancy word us sound recordists use. Probably
because it makes it sounds more romantic and risk-defying as we’re out
recording a passing moth.
John kits me out with bright yellow Hi-Vis jacket, instructs me on the
railway protocol of waving at the driver as the train goes by. Looking like
a giant banana with legs, I thank John as he helps me out through the mill
gates in the direction of Sittingbourne.
I set off up the track in the heavy rain trying as best I can to protect my
sound equipment. Rain bounces off my head and rolls in an icy smear down my
back. I’m thinking, what with all my moaning about the weather I’m starting
to sound like a cracked record. Or like the CD player in my local Turkish
restaurant which keeps sticking and gurgles forth digital nonsense until one
of the staff give it a slap.
Simon has arranged to take a few photos as he passes on his way back to
Sittingbourne. Hanging from a carriage in dare-devil fashion, he rushes past
in a steamy blur, snapping furiously. I can’t imagine it’s much of a photo
opportunity. The light is occluded by heavy cloud and I must look like a
half drowned rat.
post by sound artist Jim Whelton