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1/19

The Men's Shed:
Middlesbrough

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The Men’s Shed Allotments is bordered by the railway, a flyover and a quiet housing estate.  Because of the lay of the land and the built environment, this large rectangle has its own micro-acoustic ecology:  the crowds of sparrows,  hens and quieter voices close-up with the breeze; the hammering, chopping and calls across the site echoing off the nearby buildings.
 

I began visiting the site before the pandemic and lockdown.  It was really good to see some familiar faces when I returned this February.  The weekly sessions each have their own rhythm and sonic texture – the weather conditions, the number of volunteers and the jobs they are doing all contribute to a particular atmosphere on each visit.

What you hear perhaps more acutely through recorded sound is the continuous flow of contact and interactions between people, materials and environment – the different layers of sound produced by various tools and tasks can sound almost musical at times.  The focused, sustained work by R. as he digs, scrapes and flattens the earth to build a new pond has the effect of slowing you down.  

 

Whether it is the drawing of a hoe through the earth, the wheeling of barrows on the gravel or the sawing of fence posts, these sounds are what I think of as ‘sonic narratives’ - stories-in-sound of interactions with the land.  

 

Always present, the sounds of the birds shift as the weather and seasons change; the traffic, sirens and other more distant sounds of urban life are more consistent yet feel remote from the site.

The allotment is a place to meet others but a place where you can find your own space.  Stories, jokes and laughs are shared in the relaxed way that gardening work allows. As the volunteers gradually get used to a sound artist in their midst, new conversations begin to surface and perhaps our roles might start to overlap a little.
 
I. Stories of nesting and courting. March, 2021
R. is a retired bricklayer.  He has already made two structures on the site, including a brick dovecot which he has named The Ivyhouse.  This season, he is building a wildlife pond.  He tends to come to the Allotment for the whole day and works hard.  He tells me some stories as he works, including the one about the significance of the dovecot’s name.
 
II. Sparrows and Barrows. April, 2021
This was a particularly industrious session, with several volunteers helping to bring in a load of fertiliser on barrows and trolleys.  This is offset by the sounds that mark the time by their regularity at the site: the trains, the Whistling Man and the barking dog.  A real change in energy when lunch break comes and most of the volunteers leave, making way for the afternoon session.  R. stays back and I join in on this stiller soundscape, enjoying the pitched ‘clunks’ of some nails on the workbench.
 
This Men’s Shed project is managed and delivered by the charity, Groundwork.    
Groundwork is a federation of charities mobilising practical community action on poverty and the environment across the UK. They are passionate about creating a future where every neighbourhood is vibrant and green, every community is strong and able to shape its own destiny and no-one is held back by their background or circumstances.