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.