John Phipps

Everything in me wanted to dislike it – but it’s lovely: BBC Radio 3’s Sound Walk reviewed

With an evocative, impressively unannoying voiceover from Horatio Clare, this frustratingly does exactly what it promises to do, and makes you feel a bit nicer

Everything in me wanted to dislike it – but it's lovely: BBC Radio 3's Sound Walk reviewed
The summit of Ben Nevis: violins thrum as an ocean of mist emerges below us. ‘The sky up here is blue, grey and swirling,’ says Horatio Clare
Text settings

Sound Walk

BBC Radio 3

It’s a sweet, green, glowing dawn in north-west Scotland. All around us are empty hillsides of rock and heather. The cold air smells of moss. To the south, far mountain peaks resolve into high banks of mist and cloud, while up ahead stands the crumpled rock face of Ben Nevis, its broad shoulders beginning to fill the patchy, blueing sky as we walk towards it. It’s very beautiful. Look. A heron.

Why are we here? To take the long view, because two million years of intermittent glaciers have frozen, thawed and hewn the mountain into its present-day shape. More immediately, because of the Norwegian public service broadcaster. In the 2000s, it decided to televise, in real time, the railway journey from Bergen to Oslo. It’s a trip that lasts seven hours and features 182 tunnels, some of them extremely long. When it aired, the programme was watched by 20 per cent of the Norwegian population. I’ve seen it. It’s pretty.

It was the first piece of what’s called ‘slow TV’. You can still find it on YouTube, and I’m told that you should pop on some calming music, light a scented candle or well-stuffed joint and take a ride along the fjords yourself. This is what a friend of mine always does when life has completely crushed him, and since things move pretty quick these days, it may be that by the time you’re reading this column you’ll have something to feel crushed about yourself.

The BBC Sound Walk is slow radio, and it’s become immensely popular over the past few years. Sensitively produced, with a little atmospheric music and an evocative, impressively unannoying voiceover by writer Horatio Clare, it frustratingly does exactly what it promises to do, and makes you feel a bit nicer. What’s doubly irritating is that it does this very quickly and very effectively.

In fact, the BBC Sound Walk can be added to the long list of things — regular exercise, healthy eating, stable friendships, romantic security, a strong routine, eight hours’ sleep, herbal tea, candles in the bath and taking a night off every now and then — that eventually break you down and force you to admit that yes, they obviously do make you feel a bit better. A burn rustles in the creased flank of Glen Nevis and a piano wafts camomile pentatonics through the air.

‘This is really great walking,’ says Clare.

‘Yes,’ I think dreamily. ‘Isn’t it just.’

Everything in me wants to dislike this. The misty aura, the geological factoids, the occasional well-chosen trivia about historic figures who passed this way, the gentle interest, the soft pleasure, the sheer overwhelming mildness of it all. What was the point of all those years I lovingly incubated a contempt for everything sweet, smooth-brained and blandly pleasant that promised to ‘soothe’ or ‘calm’ the intellectual subject, if those principles can’t withstand ten minutes of someone talking about bracken and mist over wisps of solo fiddle? All those years face down in the revivifying nettles of difficult art, only to rise up and walk the first time someone offers me a dock leaf?

‘Granite is particularly beautiful,’ says Clare.‘Mmm,’ I think. ‘Beautiful.’ Look.

A heron.

We have reached the summit. Violins thrum as an ocean of mist emerges below us. ‘The sky up here is blue, grey and swirling,’ says Clare. ‘And physical. I can feel it catching and condensing in my beard and my eyebrows.’ Of course he has a beard. Suddenly, the mist clears for a second and we catch sight of the sea. We’re in the topmost layer of cloud, watching the far mist cohere and dissipate as the water beneath reveals itself in glimpses to the mountaineer’s eye. This is no more or less than nice. But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, nice is nice is nice. Art is not a utility, difficulty is necessary and democratic, intellectual struggle is at the heart of life’s most meaningful and refined components… I sink deeper into the bath. Resistance is futile. The strings begin to play us out.

We leave Clare on the summit with two peaks left to go. I will be joining him for those forthcoming episodes, and all those that follow, contemplating two lessons for the new year. First, that we all end up becoming the thing we once despised. Second, that the BBC Sound Walk is nice to listen to. It’s really, really nice.