The art of noise; exploring a very modern-day nuisance
If you care to do so, a short train ride from London Victoria will carry you towards my neck of the woods: a sleepy, sedate, almost boring suburb of a suburb of a suburb just a brief hop beyond the M25. It is – officially – designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, forming part of the North Downs National Park, stretching from Guildford right through to Maidstone, with its tree-laden ridge creating a natural barrier between the sprawling metropolis of Greater London to the North, and the quiet, rural villages of Sussex, Surrey and Kent to the south.
Where I live is undoubtedly rural, which is why I chose to live there. I like the fresh air it gives me, coupled with the peace and tranquility that simply doesn’t exist amongst the urban hustle and bustle beyond. As the celebrated Australian poet Banjo Patterson explained in his most famous work, Clancy of the Overflow:
“And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the ‘buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet”
Where I live, there are no ‘pallid faces’, nor much traffic, buses, aircraft, pollution, disturbance or commotion. What there is, however, is peace and quiet.
Or is there?
You see, noise is a very funny thing, and a very subjective concept also. Not to mention something that stirs up a lot of emotion when it comes to where someone lives. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that noise is the single biggest subconscious driver of property decision-making (after all, surely living right next to a busy main road is great for accessibility?).
Let’s start with the basics.
First off, there is no such thing as silence, only relative silence. Our world is a noisy place, even without human intervention.
Our research into noise nuisances – which feeds into how we measure and present nuisances on the site – found that background noise within the countryside is still around 45 – 47 dba, consisting of the background rustle of the wind across the grass, through the trees, or the cacophony of animal sounds that human beings instinctively tune out of when they become too focussed on their own lives and less about life around them.
The quietest place on Earth is officially the Microsoft Anechoic Chamber, which has been acoustically engineered to absorb sound to reduce background noise levels to -20.6db. It has been reported that human beings placed in such quiet environments can withstand only short periods of time in the room, as the (relatively) amplified sound of their own body – their blood, heart, lungs, bones – can become distressingly deafening when all background noise is removed.
But for comparisons, ‘silence’ in the real world is still a very noisy 45 dba.
A recent article for the BBC found that even then, some towns and cities experience a residual background noise which is slightly greater than 45 dba. In Bristol, residents are complaining about a low-frequency ‘hum’, that scientists believe is caused by the constant vibration of the ocean floor. What this says, I suggest, is that wherever we are, there’s a background noise formed by the amalgamation of everything else.
In terms of road noise, we know this makes a big contribution to background noise and covers a wide area; in fact, you can see the noise for where you live on our website, thanks to the research we’ve undertaken over the past three years into road noise up and down the country. I have a personal interest in this, as while collecting some of the data I was subject to police stop-and-search twice (but then again, it was probably my fault for standing on the road bridge above Clackett Lane services with a noise meter, pointing it at traffic).
Motorway noise is loud. Very loud. At its peak (right next to vehicles), we’ve measured 85 dba, but the dispersal of the sound is what makes it a problem. As you move away from the road and walk further and further away, the sound level drops, but what happens instead is that the nature of the sound changes…from the ‘whoosh’…’whoosh’…as each car goes back, to a merged background drone which is, in some ways, more impactful as the sum of its parts.
Distance doesn’t kill the sound, in other words. Rather, the sound takes on a different form; standing 1km from the motorway you’ll still experience a good 60 dba which is enough to be readily noticeable; in fact, we surveyed extensively and found that 3km was the point at which a motorway was no longer a distinguishable noise…the caveat being that the build-up, elevation and atmospheric conditions all play a role, of course.
When it comes to aircraft noise, the rules are more fluid: again, this is something we measure on our site.
Statistically, people start complaining about aircraft noise when noise levels hit 57 dba. This represents the ‘volume’ (although this is the technically incorrect word to use) at which people start putting pen to paper, writing to their local MP, the Airports Commission, Civil Aviation Authority etc. And at the upper level, 78dba is the point beyond which things get intolerable: disturbed sleep, disrupted patterns etc.
But things can and do get much louder. Which is why this all paints such a complicated picture.
In summary, what I’m suggesting is that measuring noise by decibels is not a meaningful exercise for people moving home, or – at least – it’s only part of the process. What matters more is the categorisation of that noise and determining its nature.
Living next to a 30mph road where every 10 seconds there’s a loud ‘whoosh’ of a car passing by is – in some ways – more disturbing than a 60mph road where there’s a constant drone that is easily blocked off.
Moreover, it’s important to listen. There is no such thing as peace and quiet, just a spectrum of noise from the background hum of Bristol through to the kerosene-driven roar of Hounslow, with the rustling leaves of the countryside somewhere in between.
So, when you’re next viewing a property, take a moment to close your ears for a second, and – instead – open your ears. Absorb the sounds and noises and claps and bangs and roars and rushes and whooshes and swishes and rattles and taps and all the other aural stimulation coming your way.
And then, make an assessment of whether it’s the place you really want to live.