STAINES MOOR LiES just outside London about a mile and a half southwest of Heathrow Airport. The Ordnance Survey map shows it as a fragment in that extra-urban mosaic of quarries, reservoirs, brownfield sites, marshalling yards and grazing land usefully named ‘Edgelands’ in 2002 by the environmentalist Marion Shoard.
The Moor is quite flat and bounded by road and reservoir embankments like the baize of a pool table. It is infiltrated by three watercourses: the Wraysbury, the Colne, and the Bonehead Ditch. One of the conceits of scrutinising Edgeland places on maps is that you’ll find somewhere which has slipped out of the normal stream of life, like the territory of JG Ballard’s Concrete Island.
Of course, no such place of more than a few acres can exist in England. The Moor is owned by a quarrying firm, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a number of local people hold grazing rights. An information board stands at the Moor’s southern entrance: a subway beneath the Staines Bypass.
This recording of skylarks was made roughly in the middle of the Moor where road traffic forms the dominant backdrop:
A few hundred years north, on a wooden footbridge spanning the Bonehead Ditch, the noise of jet engine from the airport begins to become noticeable:
The suburban village of Stanwell Moor lies further north again. The soundscape is typical in all but one respect of a residential street on London’s outskirts: sparrows chirping in bushes and hedges, someone is mowing their front lawn, someone else is tending to a car engine, radio adverts come from an open window.
Heathrow’s noise is behind everything but the source is unseen, like hearing the surf in a seaside town a few streets back from the promenade. Sometimes it rises in intensity as a plane begins takeoff.
Most of the variation I heard across Staines Moor was of one contrinuous sound source like the M25 fading while another, like the airport, grew. Perhaps more interesting differences exist among the range of Edgeland places surrounding the city.
The Edgelands were in our awareness before they had the name. To a city child like me they were the exotic parts of the old black-and-white London street atlas: blank areas with small rectangles labelled ‘Works’. They had good place-names too and in that sense all readable maps are sound maps.
There exciting or dangerous things could happen. Older youths might demand to know what football team you supported and there would be no right answer. Something tells me something’s gonna happen t-o y-o-u from Cilla Black’s 1971 hit sung jeeringly to a slow group handclap – then the chase begins.
Or there were the hazards of gravel pits or express trains or scum-topped canals. These fears was encouraged by public information films such as ‘Dark and Lonely Water’ made in 1973. Mark the gloating excitement Donald Pleasence adds to the line It’s the perfect place for an accident.