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Oxford: our beautiful city during lockdown

Here in the UK during the current coronavirus lockdown (as of early May 2020), we’re allowed to go out for one form of exercise per day. As part of my prescribed exercise, I’ve stopped in a few places around our city of Oxford to capture how it sounds in this unique moment, in which everything has changed – not least how the city sounds. Here are a few of the highlights.

The bells of Christ Church

“The bells of Great Tom ring 101 times at 9.05pm every night in central Oxford – a tradition going back centuries.

We recorded this sound on the night a lockdown across the UK was announced, and we could still hear kebab vans, taxis, buses and plenty of passers-by, as you can hear below:

As a comparative recording, we returned to Christ Church College to record them once again in May 2020 (albeit at the quieter rear entrance to avoid the occasional bus still in service), and the bells can be heard loudly, clearly and beautifully. We live perhaps half a kilometre from Christ Church, and each evening now we can hear the bells from home if we open our window – one of the most calming sounds of the lockdown, as you can almost imagine life in Oxford 200 years ago.

The sound of old books being cared for

The Radcliffe Camera is one of the most famous libraries in the world, and a centrepiece of the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University. It’s a beautiful building that is usually surrounded by tourists, even relatively late at night, and it sits close to Oxford High Street, so there’s usually a buzz of people but also a drone of traffic.

Not tonight, though. Not during the Covid-19 lockdown. Tonight, you can clearly hear a different kind of drone coming from the building itself. In this recording we begin at the front of the building, and we can hear an air conditioning-style pulsing drone coming from the building.

This is the sound of the air conditioning that’s turned on at all times to protect the ancient and very valuable books inside the library. We walk around to the left where the air conditioning vent sits about an old-style ornate grating, and the pulse gets louder and louder, becoming almost industrial in scale – and you can usually barely hear it over the sound of the city!

One last surprise – as we stand over the grating to record, we can clearly smell the scent of old, leather-bound tomes drifting up from the grating – engulfed in the scent of ancient books, it’s as if the library is giving out something of its essence to passers-by, even if its doors are currently locked to all visitors.

Bodleian Libraries – at the heart of the city

The Bodleian Libraries are one of the most famous libraries on the planet, and they sit at the very centre of the city of Oxford.

Broad Street is usually a busy thoroughfare, with popular pubs spilling their customers out onto the street, students and citizens walking around in large numbers and a fair amount of traffic.

During the lockdown, almost nothing. There are so few people that you can hear couples coming from 200 metres away, and you can hear every individual conversation clearly – it’s quieter than 4.00am on a normal day.

The loudest interruption in this recording, approximately once every two minutes, is a scooter or motorbike going past. Each and every one of these is a Deliveroo rider on a trip to deliver an evening meal around Oxford, as home delivery services become one of the essential services keeping the city going.

Walking in Mesopotamia

One of the greatest things about Oxford is the amount of green spaces tucked away all over the city, even in the centre – one of the loveliest is called Mesopotamia, as you can hear in this recording by Giulia Biasibetti, who writes:

“Walking along this strip of land between the upper and lower levels of the river Cherwell, one is completely immersed in nature.”

Green energy in central Oxford

One of the few nice things about the lockdown is a chance to discover or rediscover the beauty of the area in which you live – what are the little pockets to uncover, and where can the moments of peace be found in your local area?

This recording is from an eco-cooperative just ten minutes from where we live, where usually you’ll find a thriving cafe, families enjoying themselves and people tending the community garden.

Today, the wind turbine that provides some of the power to the cooperative is the only sound, as the area is deserted, and this beautiful, multi-tonal sound is oddly haunting when the area is abandoned as it is today.