In Lore of the Wild, Sophie Austin and Bernadette Russel invite you to hear stories, songs and sounds from more-than-human inhabitants of Lesnes, an area of ancient woodland in southeast London.
Lore of the Wild was commissioned by Metal Culture and Bexley Borough Council for the festival Estuary 2021. The commissioners invited us to create an audio storywalk that was inspired by Lesnes Abbey Woods, an area of ancient woodland on the edge of London and Kent.
We received the commission in November 2020, the year the Coronavirus pandemic hit the world. That winter, in London, we were in a limbo state of lockdown, with movements limited to hour long exercise routines or essential travel. But, thanks to Capitalism, we were allowed to work and to travel for work.
Every week, we would don our masks and get on separate empty trains and disembark at Abbey Wood station. When you exit the station you are met with a main road flyover. Looking to your left you see the tower blocks of Thamesmead with the city of London skyscrapers in the background and to your right, over the fly over, you see the looming presence of Lesnes Abbey Woods.
We’d walk alone, over the flyover and take the left hand path, through the bronze sculptural gates, into the woods.
We’d meet at the café. An oak milk latte for Bernadette, a black coffee for Sophie and then we’d walk. Entering the woods by the old well, we’d leave the pandemic behind and enter the wild. Early on, we established the route of our storywalk; not too arduous, but long enough to lose time and take in the different environments within the woods.
Each subsequent meeting, we’d walk this route and talk about anything and everything or walk in silence, enjoying the more-than-human conversations occurring around us. Through our conversations and earwigging, we began to establish the ideas and stories, characters, and voices, we wanted to explore.
Early in 2021, we invited musician, sound artist and composer Hannah Marshall and illustrator Melanie Smith to join our team. And we walked with them sharing our ideas, inviting them into the conversation and sitting, standing or walking in silence as they took in the voices of the woodland.
The writing process was pretty quick; 6 weeks to write twelve stories. We each wrote one a week. Every Friday we’d submit a recording to each other. Those were magical moments in the creative process when an MP3 would arrive and we’d hear a new story, fresh off the page. It was important for us to listen to a new story, before reading it, to get a sense of what our audience might hear – what was too much to take in, what needed unpicking a bit more etc.
We had an even quicker recording process – luckily we worked with 5 brilliant actors and Hannah’s sound engineering wizardry and before we knew it, we’d finished the tracks.
Melanie’s beautiful map followed – an evocative and detailed interpretation of our walk including vital information and woodland whimsy. You can pick up the map at the café or download it from our linktree.
We decided to use Spotify and Soundcloud as our platforms of choice as these seem most widely used and have good download capabilities ensuring the tracks can be listened to anywhere in the woods.
Soon you will be able to borrow an MP3 player from the café so you can listen to the walk without using your phone. We hope this will be available in 2022.
This should give you a bit of an idea about how we made the storywalk, but what about the stories themselves?
It is impossible to convey the impact our conversations, at such a heightened time in this wild world, had on us as writers, but we hope the stories speak for themselves on the depth and passion with which we connected to our woodland collaborators.
The stories can be listened to anywhere, not just in Lesnes Abbey Woods, and we’d love to know where you choose to listen, and how they resonate for you.
Below, a bit of tantalising backstory on each chapter, to inspire you to take a listen.
Thanks for reading, and for listening.
1. Wild Welcome
Stand near the old well and listen to a story of hope & a homecoming.
This first story “The Wild Welcome” is a fable about 2020, a mythological take on a very trying time, but a time of wondrous transformations too.
Slowly, people began to disobey their alarms and get up with the birds. They witnessed the everyday beauty of a sunrise. They walked in the woods, shy at first, then confident, knowing that this was not a visit but a homecoming. That they belonged here. They were loved here. This was family.
2. Crow Road
Pause where the paths cross and listen to the Crow’s tale of friendship & flight.
Bernadette loved researching crows for this story. They gather in “funerals” to mourn, make tools and create art (if you doubt this, we challenge you to google!) This story is the tale of an inter-species friendship between a pair of crows (played by Charlie Folorunsho and Harriet Kershaw) and a woman and her dog, how the crows tried to help her by showing her the beauty of the wild wood.
Let us teach you how to fly, we cawed… You have different wings to us…But still you can fly, above your troubles and worries, to see the world differently
Sit near New Road and listen to the Ant’s story of paths & a deadly skydance.
In Bernadette’s story, voiced by Natasha Magigi, we learn about this incredible all-female society (the male ants don’t last long but they too are glorious!) – ants have a thing or two to teach us about perseverance and resilience. Bernadette also learned that ant nations- who warred like the most blood thirsty Vikings- have now been observed by scientists very recently to be making peace and forming mega colonies- peace being the best way to ensure survival. We both found this mind blowing and very hopeful- ants can evolve from war to peace so maybe there’s a chance us humans can too. They are tiny wonders.
Strange how you make unicorns and dragons when you have amongst you such wonders…
4. Fox Clearing
Stop in the clearing and listen to Fox’s story of shapeshifting, treasure & a ragged rebel army.
This is Bernadette’s dream time story beautifully told by the actor Charlie Folorunsho. It conjures up the footsteps of men and women marching to London to confront those in power. The woods around Lesnes Abbey provided shelter and a meeting place for those joining the peasants revolt. We imagined how this gathering would be viewed by the other species inhabiting the woods.
We foxes curl up noses to tails, soft ginger ouroboros, dreaming of the long ago days after the plague, when Joan, Abel Kerr, Wat Tyler, and the rest of the rebels set fire to an old world to begin a new one.
5. Conduit Pond
Gaze at the water’s edge and listen to Pond’s story of treasured memories & menacing myths
For this story, Sophie wanted to play with the murky menace in the still water of the Pond whilst celebrating her life giving and joyful properties.
Bodies of water have a wild aquatic magnetism and we loved imagining all the creatures who would have been drawn to the natural spring appearing out of the ground. Real magic.
We wanted to capture the cyclical nature of wild time and have loved visiting her over the last year to see the life she nourishes grow and die back as the seasons change.
Voiced by Bernadette, Pond is a mysterious flirt who laughs like a drain!
If the water’s still,
We’ll have no fill of baby’s little laughter
For she slipped underneath
Met Jenny Greenteeth
And none will go in after…
6. Nut Alley
Dance amongst the tall trees and listen to Squirrel’s story about tree planting & a life-affirming storm.
On our woodland walks we were accompanied by squirrels and loved watching their boundless busyness.
For this story, Sophie wanted to imagine what a natural disaster might be like for a squirrel. On our walks we remembered the storm of 1987 and used it as a backdrop for this story. The extraordinary number of trees that got blown down would have had a huge impact on the woodland and, as we walked through we tried to imagine what the woods would have been like during the full force of a storm and what it would have been like the morning after from a squirrel’s eye view. The squirrel’s perspective really helped both of us when this last year felt a bit overwhelming. Harriet Kershaw brought Squirrel’s energy to life, so much so, that we now call all squirrels Harriet.
When a storm hits, cling on; you are meant to be here!
7. The Giant
Rest by the fallen ash and listen to Fungi’s story of the giant who appears when it rains.
This is Bernadette’s story about the mighty mushrooms voiced by Charlie Folorunsho!
It was such a treat to research and begin to find out more about these incredible residents of the wild woods, known as the Third Kingdom as they are defined neither as plants or animals, but something else entirely. The mycelium network that connects the forest and stretches over the world is magical, awe inspiring, humbling. We are interested always in the intersection between folklore and science and how they criss-cross, and in this short story Bernadette blended both science fact and ancient stories.
I live deep beneath your feet.
In the underworld where everything begins,
In the belly of the earth.
Fee fi foe fum
When it rains, you’ll see me come
I stretch a forest wide, and live in every place on earth
I grow even in the damp between toes
Under the felled logs of trees
I consume the dead
Mostly I lay quiet in my dark strangeness, underground, unseen.
But in acorn time, when it rains and rains and rains…
Fee fi foe fum…
8. The Chalk Pit
Look down, through the railings, and listen to Fire’s story, of an awesome funeral pyre.
The Chalk Pit at Lesnes Abbey Woods is a magnetic space. We were drawn to the fence surrounding the pit and spent a long time gazing down into its depth as if the mulch at the bottom would reveal the future, like tea leaves in a china cup. Often we were disturbed by the buzz of trail bikes illegally flying around the pit and we’d smile as we imagined the night time gatherings that must have taken place leaving behind smouldering fires, empty cans and bottles. On a couple of occasions we were lucky enough to witness the pit’s resident Buzzards swooping to their nest.
It was Ian Holt, Lesnes Estate Manager who sparked the idea in Sophie for this particular story. We were talking about the Great Storm of 1987 and the impact it had on the woodland. It was before Ian’s time managing the wood, but the previous manager told how he and his team had piled many of the fallen trees (the ones they couldn’t leave to decompose) into the pit and burned them. We found the image of this great funeral pyre deeply moving and Hannah Marshall’s cello captures the tone perfectly.
We also loved imagining the character of Fire, performed so beautifully by Theirry Spall. It made sense to us for Fire to have a young voice and a youthful energy which contrasts so well with the weight of such a loss.
9. The Bottom of the Blackheath Sea
Climb the steps and listen to Earth’s story of muddy knees & a buried heart
On our very first woodland walkabout, we were joined by Estate Manager Ian and at a certain point in our walk, he stopped us and grinned, ‘you’re standing at the bottom of the Blackheath sea’. Sophie immediately wanted to write a story that included those words. Her dad is a geologist and she spent a lot of her childhood looking at rocks, trying to read the ancient stories written in their layers.
We loved imagining all the layers of life that had existed under each step as we went on our walk.
Roseia of Dover’s heart was buried at Lesnes Abbey. She was the great, great granddaughter of the Abbey’s founder, Richard de Lucy. Being an heiress in the thirteenth century, she was unable to keep her connection to the land she grew up on. Her husband became the legal owner and sold it on. We tried to image how that must have felt.
We imagined that Roseia’s greatest love was the Earth at Lesnes and so Sophie wrote a love song between them. Our brilliant Sound Designer Hannah Marshall, inspired by Linton Kwesi Johnson, came up with the beat. Actors Charlie Folorunsho and Natasha Magigi made it their own and Melanie Smith captured the sentiment beautifully in her illustration.
10. The Queen & the Wind
Sit on the wooden throne and listen to a story from the Air of a foul-mouthed Queen.
Reflecting on this story now, it is very much a response to the overwhelming experience of our pandemic year. The invitation to breathe is very much heartfelt! We wanted to explore our relationship with air, our fear of what it can carry but also our gratitude for the life it allows us. This story is voiced by the brilliant Natasha Magigi and we worked together with Sound Designer Hannah Marshall to explore the different voices the air might have. We wanted to embrace the idea that humans can be as temperamental as the wind, wild as the air we breathe.
If you listen on our storywalk at Lesnes Abbey Woods, this story offers you a well-earned breather and a seat in a circle of logs which appear on the open heathland. This story allows you to take a seat and enjoy the expanse, fresh air and the gifts the air carries.
That’s all you need to do.
11. The Whispering Path
Walk along the path and listen to old friends who’ll bestow upon you many precious gifts.
In The Whispering Path, you will hear old friends bringing to your ears their own unique gifts.
This story provided us an opportunity to reconnect with all the beings we have written about and a space to appreciate their myriad gifts.
We wrote each voice separately and then read them aloud together, by the end of the reading we were overcome with the pure magic that we humans receive.
Listening to this track in the woods, you walk down a long path with tall trees towering above and the ever-mulching earth beneath your feet and you get an incredible sense of connection. Sound designer Hannah Marshall’s stirring rhythm carries you onwards and, we hope, in the silence that comes after, the listener begins to consider what they may offer in return.
Here come I, Earth, the beginning and the end.
12. The Wild Exit
Meet the Green Man, for one last tale. Walk on, & learn the magic words which you can exchange for one last gift as you leave…
Spending a year during lock down in this beautiful ancient woodland, having the chance to reconnect, hang out with the trees, animals, insects, birds, people (and ghosts!) who were in the woods at that time was an incredible gift. This is where the Wild Exit sprang from: our conversations about the importance of realising we are nature, not separate from, but vitally connected to the whole wild and green world.
So we’ve invite you to notice the wild all around, and within you, now and always…. To protect us and fight for us and cherish us because we are you, we need you and you need us.
Sophie and Bernadette’s in-depth article is the seventh in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards talking about their work.