The London Engine



I don’t sleep late in London – I’m rarely still in bed after 5:30am, but sometimes I seem to hear it starting up like a distant car engine.

King’s Cross is surprisingly quiet. In the summer all you really hear first thing in the morning is the sound of the river birds below. But then I become aware of it, the faint but perpetual sound I’ve come to call the London Engine. I assumed that it was just the sound of a great metropolis coming to life, but now French scientists think it’s not unique to the city at all. From Plymouth to Bristol others have been reporting it for decades, and doctors in Cambridge were the first to realise that what had been diagnosed as low-level tinnitus is in fact external.

The sound is most apparent in the countryside at night, but it is amplified by certain buildings, and has driven acute sufferers to sleep outdoors. It also seems more noticeable to those who live higher up. I only became aware of it after moving to the roof of the old warehouse where I live.

I’ve long pointed out this phenomenon to others – despite being a tinnitus sufferer I seem to have very sharp hearing – but after a while you do think perhaps your mind is playing tricks. Now research scientists at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France have concluded that microseismic activity from long ocean waves impacting the sea bed is what makes our planet vibrate and produces the low droning sound. The pressure of the waves on the seafloor generates seismic ripples that cause the Earth to oscillate. This is magnified in certain structural arrangements in cities.

It’s a mundane answer to an old problem; I prefer to think of a Dickensian image – the London Engine sparking to life.


4 comments on “The London Engine”

  1. Jo W says:

    “The London Engine”- I like that. It’s here in the suburbs too. I was born in London and have always had trouble sleeping if it’s too quiet. In the country I resort to wearing earplugs,so that I can hear my pulse. It’s soothing. Waking in the dead of night,when there’s no traffic on the road outside,is like the world has stopped. I then lie awake until the friendly sound of a roaring motorbike or police car,sirens blazing,sends me off to the land of Nod. 😴😴😴

  2. Vivienne says:

    Fascinating, I shall listen out for this. Personally, the idea of hearing one’s own pulse is off-putting: it’s always there, so once you tune in, can you ignore it again? But our hearing is selective – on holiday in Greece last year I was just saying how perfectly peaceful everything was, when I suddenly tuned into the sound of the cicadas – it was a cacophony that had just become background wallpaper and, up to that point, I hadn’t really heard them at all.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    If you want to know if someone is dead just stick his finger in your ear. If you stick your own finger in your ear you hear a sort of static-like buzz caused by the micro movement of tiny muscles. Don’t know if I got that completely right but remembered it from Seventy-Seven Clocks which I’ve just finished again.

  4. Talking of London’s great engine do try and visit the amazing Victorian sewage works created by Joseph Bazelgette.
    It is only open occasionally but by a miracle has been preserved and restored. It is literally breathtaking in its beauty and ingenuity.

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