I usually walk around the city with a large pair of headphones clamped over my ears. Sometimes what plays within my little audiological cocoon is music, other times it is voices from a podcast or a radio programme. I like the sound of company on my solitary expeditions. But the other week I and my headphones were walking along near the British Museum, when I came across something that made me reach up and pull them down around my neck. There was something else I needed to hear.
There is a pretty walled garden behind Gower Street. It's one of those private gardens reserved solely for the enjoyment of the residents of a row of expensive terraced houses. The wall around the garden once had heavy iron railings around it, but these railings are long gone. During the war in Britain, such railings were often ripped out of their walls, and melted down to make arms and armour; reinvented as different tools for keeping people at a distance. Yet without the railings in place passersby can now peek over the wall, into the green garden within.
The garden's entrance is guarded by a large metal gate, padlocked shut. This gate now also bore a sign that made me stop. "Phantom Railings" the sign proclaimed. Phantom what? I read on. A soundscape had been installed in place of the old metal railings, the sign continued; an invisible set of railings, that would appear audibly as someone walked along the pavement next to the wall. In place of a set of physical railings that one could trail a hand along, were a series of sensors and speakers. And as I began to walk beside them I heard a ghostly person appear next to me. The apparition held a stick, and with every step we took together I heard a hollow clang, as the stick met each invisible railing.
Ahead of me the small group of tourists that I'd followed from the museum looked around, turning to see where the noise they could suddenly hear was coming from. One broke his step, jogging backwards and forwards, playing with the ghost and the sounds it was creating. His laughter wove in and out of the clangs and clunks of the phantom railings.
As I turned the corner and headed back onto Gower Street the sound of the invisible railings died. But looking back I saw the ghostly player of the railings had made some new friends, and was busily engaging and entertaining new pedestrians. From my silent spot, the phantom presence became entirely visible to me, in the smiles and puzzled looks on their faces as they stood before the railings that weren't there.