I had the loudest day of my life last week, and it started in the library. I’d booked an hour in the reading room, researching a feature for Almanac (there’s shock number two for you. We research.)

The librarian at the desk, I’m almost certain, has two jobs. I think she’s the same woman who stands on a beer crate and shouts ‘come on girls, two skirts for a fiver’ on Bold Street.

She was on the phone to her friend, shrieking about Breaking Bad. And she was the loudest human in Liverpool. I shuffled over to her desk to ask whether there were any ‘quiet spots’. It was the passive aggressive equivalent of me going ‘Shhhhh!’. To a librarian. And the latest example of a city that’s turned itself up to 11. She looked at me like I’d been caught using the pages of my dusty tome for loo paper.

Next up was dinner at Almost Famous – which involved a walk along Church Street, where those two Britain’s Got Talent losers, the blind fella with the dog, a couple of human beatboxes, a blues rock band and some Peruvian panpipers duked it out. Or, rather, their Peavey amps did. At least the white-sheeted bloke has the decency to keep his mouth shut. I threw a quid at him, but refused his outstretched Chupa Chup.

At Almost Famous, I shoved down a filthy burger to the deafening soundtrack of Chaka Khan, and the live percussive accompaniment of jaws dislocating. The usual.

And then I went to see the James Hunt film, Rush. The only good thing about this ear-splittingly loud assault was that the roar of the engines drowned out the piss-poor dialogue.

And here’s the thing about cinema volumes – Dolby Laboratories recommend that sound is set at ‘fader level 7’. But level 7 is brain-numbingly loud for most auditoria, so cinemas turn it down, to between 5 and 6. Then, knowing their films will be turned down, film-makers make them even louder to compensate! It’s the same twisted logic that’s resulted in the ‘Loudness War’ on new recorded music – a competitive escalation of volume that benefits no-one (least of all the music itself.)

The film before last, The Conjuring, was described as the film that elicited the noisiest audience behaviour – especially from kids. “It wasn’t that I was being snapped out of the film, but that I had never been offered the opportunity to invest from the beginning,” says film writer Tom Beasley “From the moment I took my seat, they talked constantly and rustled their bags of sweets for implausibly long periods of time. I hoped that this would cease as soon as the movie began, but I was unfortunately very wrong.”

I shared his experience. The kids being especially noisy during the film’s quieter, more suspense-drenched scenes. I’ve come to the conclusion that, these days, many people are just terrified of silence. They just can’t handle it. So much so that, even if they’re forced into it, they need the noise of social media on their phones to help them though.

It’s not that I’m after a world without sound. We’re designed for sensory inputs.
Apparently there’s a room in the US that’s so silent it becomes unbearable to stay in – an ‘anechoic’ chamber that’s 99.99 per cent sound absorbent. And turns you mad.

No, I just don’t feel the need for my ears to be bleeding when I’m trying on some lycra smalls in American Apparel.

So, on Sunday I went to the Quaker Meeting House. I’d heard they like nothing better to do than sit, in silence, and think. And to me, was non-music to my ears. Yes, technically, it’s a house of God, but the prospect of finding, even just for an hour, a little peace, seemed like a reasonable trade off.

It was a deeply curious experience. Thirty or so of us, sitting facing each other in the crucible of Birkenhead’s Meeting House (no hierarchical trappings such as alters, liturgy or services for the Quakers). Occasionally, the silence can be interrupted should someone feel the need to get something off their chest. But this only happened the once, and the rest was silence.

It’s quite remarkable, the stuff that percolates up from your brain’s dusty filing cabinets when you force yourself into a silent space.

At the end of the ‘meeting’ we shook hands, shared tea and biscuits, and I shuffled off into Birkenhead Park. Clear headed and, yeah, probably a bit warm and fuzzy.

“It’s not that we worship the silence, per se,” explains Liverpool Quaker’s Lisa Hoyle, “but of what it can lead to. It’s a stillness. It’s a way to find what some call God, others call the light. The silence allows us to reach that deep, centered place where the mind becomes quiet, and we can really listen.”

“I found it surprisingly difficult,” I admit. “It took me about 50 minutes to settle into the silence. And then it was all over.”

“It’s a discipline,” she says. “And you have to practise every day. Our last meeting house, on Paradise Street, was right next to the bus station, so you can imagine! But if you work at it, you’ll soon come to realise that it doesn’t matter how loud the city is, the silence is within you.”

Where else can you find silence in, or close to, the city?

Metropolitan Cathedral CryptLutyen’s Crypt

Deep below the strident 60’s Cathedral, Lutyen’s vast, arched crypt encloses a hushed, ghostly reminder of what could have been. It’s a special, spiritual place, with (oddly for a crypt) lots of light, and space. And silence.

Liverpool Cathedral Tower

Somehow, Liverpool’s great Gothic Cathedral doesn’t ever feel quiet. All those echoing feet, giggling school kids and, oh yeah, Dexy’s Midnight Runners concerts. But climb to the roof at twilight and the silence (and the city beneath you) is golden.

Hot Air Ballooning

Take a balloon trip over the Cheshire countryside and the first thing that hits you (if it’s not a pylon) is the silence. It’s like you’re watching a film and your bum’s accidently triggered the mute button. All those bass rumbles disappear and the only sounds that reach you, spookily, are the barkings of dogs, chasing your balloon’s shadow.

Lady Lever Art Gallery

Museums and galleries are, of course, peaceful places to lose yourself in for an hour or two. Our current favourite is the Lady Lever – there’s something somnambulant about a stroll around Port Sunlight village – and the Lever’s Pre-Raphaelites are so polite, they’ll never shout at you like a Liechtenstein or Bacon at the Tate.

Silent Cities

Silent spaces in other cities have been mapped out: Take a look at New York’s and London’s.

Further exploration:

Sound recordist Gordon Hempton is a silence chaser – he documents some of the world’s most peaceful places for the The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, in Washington state.

He calls silence ‘an endangered species’. Take a listen to some of his field recordings (on noise cancelling Dre’s of course) and hear the sound of dawn breaking over 1,256 square miles of emptiness. Bliss.

Liverpool Quakers,
22 School Lane

Birkenhead Quakers
83 Park Road South

14 Responses to “In Search of Silence in the City”

  1. Complete silence is important but I also like to go somewhere leafy and quiet when I’ve been in town all day. St John’s garden is the only public park in the city center and it’s nice but not exactly quiet, similarly ‘Chavasse Park’ (which I believe we can’t officially call public?). Still nowhere near as bad as Manchester where the only green space in the centre (Picadilly Gardens) is also the loudest place in the city.

    Good leafy hideouts:
    -John Moores campus round the back of Rodney Street.
    -St Nicholas churchyard on the strand.
    -Falkner Square.
    -And of course the anglican cathedral gardens but they don’t have direct sunlight half the day.

  2. John Bradley

    Public not speaking is a dying art. When you can hear what is on someone’s earphones from 10 feet away, god know what it is doing to their ears. Even sending a txt msg is usually backed up with the beep beep of each button press, and the other day I was sat with range of someone typing so violently that seismometers in the US could tell you what was being typed.
    General unnecessary intrusion into others lives just doesn’t register any more, from littering to Tesco on myrtle street storing trolleys on the pavement on vine street all day, bikes being dumped on the pavement as people go into shops, negotiating Bold street and the groups of people blocking the payment….

  3. Wirralwobble

    I was in Bold street the other day and felt like a quite cup of coffee, how difficult could that be? Very. Some places have their ugly music so loud you can hear it on the pavement outside, the only quite place I found was in Waterstones and that was not only quite but the atmosphere and staff were both very pleasant. Perhaps SevenStreets could set up a directory of quiet pubs, cafes and restaurants, it would be really nice to have a quite night out.

  4. I am amazed at how loud a couple of the librarians in the Central Library are. They don’t appear to notice the silent majority of library-users trying to study in peace.

    It would be a simple job for the librarians to be aware of the noise levels and politely ask those with the ultra noisy head-phones and those making phone calls to stop or go elsewhere. And please not have tours whilst people are trying to study/read.

    Having said all that, we recently went to the Lake District in search of peace and actually found it harder to find silence there than in the city. The traffic is much worse and it is tricky to avoid the roads which are full of fast cars. We stayed in a house that was off-the-grid but were kept awake at night by the noisy generator put in by the National Trust and we could hear across the tarn. Incredibly, it made us realise just how peaceful the Liverpool streets and or city centre home are.

    My solution is to get up earlier and spend some quiet time before the noisier night-owls wake up.

  5. Gerry Proctor

    Thoughtful and reflective! Places of stillness and silence are really vital for all of us. Good to share the ones that people have found in the city. Thanks for starting us off on a search!

  6. For the record I enjoyed ‘Rush’ – but then I follow Formula 1, know that the cars are noted for their high decibel range and one of the main protagonists was called ‘Lauda’ – what more do you need? On the other hand, I fully concur with your choice of the Lady Lever Gallery – a true haven of tranquility.

  7. Klaus Joynson

    My vote for noisiest thoroughfare has to be Hanover Street. Since the new buildings have arrived, they seem to amplify the traffic noise. Since it’s mostly noisy buses and taxis blaring down it, it’s unbearably loud, even if you’re listening to stuff on headphones.

  8. The librarians at the central library leave room for improvement. And with the noise in mind WHAT where they thinking opening the space so that you can now hear a noise maker from the ground floor anywhere at all?? Yes it looks pretty, but apart from me still wondering what happened to the the books, it isn’t practical.

  9. Tinny Tess

    Enjoyable and thoughtful article, reminds me of some restaurants that spend a fortune on looking good but the “designers” seem totally ignorant about acoustics, I’ve come out of a few places feeling well fed but drained by the echoing reflected noise caused by too many hard surfaces

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