Anthony Nanson, author of Deep Time, wrote in his blog about his visit to the Sea Hear installation recently. I loved the comment about students reading the ‘story’ of the rocks, or perhaps, listening. I’ve concentrated on making the pebbles receptacles for human memory, but they can’t help but take on a certain life of their own as a result.

Anthony Nanson's Deep Time

At the opening of the current Fringe Arts Bath exhibition at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath, I saw – and heard – Alun Ward’s new sound installation, Sea Hear. It sparked in my mind a set of associations about the idea of rocks speaking.

Sea Hear comprises a miniature beach of sea-smoothed pebbles, some of which contain microphones. If you hold one of these to your ear, you hear a voice telling a personal memory of the sea. A different voice, a different story, in each pebble. Alun asked people to record ‘a memory of the sea’, but nearly all his volunteers chose to record a memory involving a beach. It seems apt. Listening to the pebbles in turn conveys a sense of hearing a selection of the memories held in the stones of a beach continually washed and reconfigured by the waves. When I returned to Sea…

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A lively opening last night for Seeing Sound from Inside Out in Bath. Before the show opened I took a quick audio tour of the whole basement show:

The sounds were recorded starting from the end of the show, at John Grieve’s Pianophone and ending with Stuart Fowkes’ Cities and Memories project in the stairwell.

Sea Hear installation at FaB
Sea Hear beach in situ

There’s a great progression of sounds through the basement , drawing visitors on from room to room, pausing to touch, listen and discuss.

Here’s another photo of the pebble creation process – the fully cored pebble started here.

Fully cored pebble

And to power the third player with optional sea sounds, used as a background to the voices, I’m using this home-made kit. The first one started smoking when I plugged it into the mains, dodgy soldering no doubt, so I spent the extra fiver on this upgraded model, complete with DC input, pretty LED light, and volume control (potentiometer – get me!).

Electronics – it’s magical.

Kit amplifier for sea sounds

In need of some of some more of those softer, easier-to-drill pebbles, I took a trip to Ringstead Bay on Saturday.

Ringstead Bay view
Pebble-eyed view of Ringstead Bay

As mentioned previously, Ringstead Bay is a top spot for softer sandstone, and chalky pebbles, and there are loads with ready made holes in them. The holey ones tend to be rougher though, and I’m still dithering between those and the much smoother chalky ones, like these:

Ringstead pebbles
Prime suspects – the softest, smoothest Ringstead Bay pebbles I could find to be drilled.

I thought I’d better check out the other local beaches though first, so took a run along the coastal path to Lulworth Cove and back, past Durdle Door, just revealed by the low tide (yes, I did remember to time my trip with the tides this time).

So here’s the view over Ringstead Bay on the way back

View over Ringstead Bay
The view over Ringstead Bay towards Weymouth.

Then it was time for a slow potter along the beach with my backpack. Even by 11am there were only a couple of others on this stretch of the pebbly bay. The water was freezing, and it was pretty windy, and the sandy beaches are a few miles further away.

It’s pretty rare for me to travel slowly, so it took me a while to get into the pace required for a pebble hunt. There must be quite personal reasons why anyone would prefer to pick up one pebble over another. What combination of things makes you decide to pick one up, and then why would a pebble become less interesting when you touch it even though it looks perfect? Does it handle well, the weight of it, the texture, the fit for your own hand. This time, of course, I was searching for ones I could teach to speak, so that helped focus the mind, and the hands.

seaweed on pebble
Pressed seaweed on a pebble.
multicoloured pebbles
Multicultural pebbles, posing on Ringstead Bay beach.
slime rock, Ringstead Bay
Sad creature on Ringstead Bay at low-tide
Pebble with speaker
Pebble with working speaker installed

Here’s the completed hole with 30mm speaker inserted, fully wired up and with working sound. I’ll embed it firmly later with tiling adhesive, but it’s pretty snug as is. This was a softer pebble, but still took about an hour to drill both holes (front and back). This includes lots of breaks of course – changing the water, checking the hole, checking the drill bit, checking on the pigeons next door.

So, I bet you’re really keen to drill your own pebbles now. I started with this blog post by Jenny Hoople, as it turns out a lot of people drill holes in pebbles to make jewellery.

This particular pebble comes from Ringstead Bay, Dorset, and here I pay tribute to Jessica M. Winder’s fantastic blog, an incredibly detailed blog about the natural world with beautiful photographs, including some of rocks and the beach at Ringstead. When my head was already spinning with the idea not all pebbles were the same, and the pain of drilling into quartzite, she really put me on the right track helping me find places for slightly softer rocks, and pebbles with ready made holes.

Here’s a back view of the same pebble – a smaller hole right through the other side allowed me to feed the single core screened cable through, solder it to the speaker, and bingo! I’m a bit annoyed now that I decided to hook them up to a stereo jack, as it means I have to cart two pebbles around at a time to demo the playback. Pebbles are heavy. I don’t think these will catch on as a lightweight portable speaker system somehow. Three pebbles down, five to go, though I have two with eroded holes that I’ll use with the couple of mini mini speakers (20mm) I have left.

The original idea was to use earbuds, but have you tried cutting the wire on those and re-soldering them? I have.

Pebble with speaker wire
Wire poking out of the rear hole.
Drilling a 30mm hole in a pebble
Drilling a 30mm hole in a pebble

So here we are, starting to core a pebble with a 30mm diamond drill bit (thanks to Eternal Tools!). This pebble was SOO much easier than the last quartzy one – chalk based I think, 5 minutes work rather than 30. It’s big enough to house one of these ditsy little speakers.

While I have a handy dremel and workstation for the smaller drill bits, these big 30mm holes have to be made with my feet stabilising a bucket of water (to keep the drillbit cool while drilling), and bits of wood stabilising the pebble in the bucket, with my massive masonry drill plugged into the wall. All wearing rubber gloves, rubber soled shoes and eye protection. Don’t do this at home.

The whole effect is beginning to take shape – here’s one of the prepared speaking pebbles sitting amidst a pile of silent pebbles.

Wired pebble amongst pebbles
Wired pebble amongst the rocks

And now, we have a programme for the show – it’s a 2 sided PDF with details of the artists and exhibits in Lee Riley’s SeeingSound strand of the Fringe Bath Arts Festival.

Pebbles with speakers
Working pebble speakers with the kit box

So, a successful weekend assembling various components into working order.

Built and painted the wooden box to house the various bits of electronics needed – still to come, two built-in loudspeakers to output some of the underlying wave sounds I’ve recorded previously.

Most importantly, I successfully soldered mono cable to three 3.5mm jack plugs, terminating in miniature speakers, stuck to hollowed out pebbles with tiling adhesive. Soldering those jack plugs is SOOO fiddly, and I’ve got small fingers. My hands were trembling with nerves. The reason for soldering these myself was that the headphone bud idea was okay, but earbuds just weren’t as loud as these mini speakers, nor as good looking. Earbuds would also have required more careful drilling of the pebbles, and in any case, I needed longer cables for each independent pebble, left and right audio channels.

Soldering the jack plug

Here’s the Behringer headphone amp which I’ll use for phase one of this project. The eventual aim is to build my own amp capable of outputting the 8 or so speakers8, ideally from a computer source so I can randomise and play with sound in real time. For now though, this is a nice single box solution to increasing the MP3 player volume enough for the mini speakers. It’s limited to two inputs, but for me that’s four channels of audio, and I can have up to 16 speakers, though the plan is for 8 this time round. Hollowing out eight pebbles will generate quite enough racket for the neighbours this week.

Pebble audio testing

Leave a phone message with your sea memory. Dial:

01225 667867

Just wait for the tone, then start speaking.

Leave your name if you wish to be credited in the piece, and contact details if you don’t mind being contacted with news about the show and what happens with your memory. I will take good care of it!

If you can, audio recordings made on your computer, or with an app, are best. The quality of phone messages is pretty low.

When you’re calling, national rates apply, these range from 9p per minute on landlines to 8p to 40p per minute on  mobiles, but of course, might be free depending on your contract. You needn’t take longer than a minute anyway.

How to do it

The easiest method is to use a service like Audioboom or Clyp to record your voice on their websites straight away or with the apps on your phone. You’ll need to create an account with these sites, then send the link to, or to keep the recording totally private, message me on Audioboom. For more control I recommend downloading the free recording software Audacity. This is a great tool and will introduce you to a whole new world of audio editing. Your phone or computer microphone will be perfectly fine for this project, but hey, if you have a Shure SM58 mic, so much the better. MP3 files are good, and small enough to send via email usually, but if you send me WAV files or AIFF files that’ll be fine. If the file’s too big for email, try a free service like Dropbox or WeTransfer. Or use Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud, or Microsoft’s OneDrive. All of these backup and storage spaces allow you to share files with others.

Recording tips

  • 1 to 2 minutes of recording will work well, but don’t worry too much if you go over this.
  • Record somewhere quiet.
  • Don’t get too close to the microphone, to avoid ‘popping’.
  • Listen back to your recording before you submit it.
  • If English isn’t your first language, feel free to tell your story in your native tongue.

Small print

  • By submitting your recording you are permitting me to edit your recording if necessary and play it back at the exhibition in Bath in May, and at future installations.
  • Before I do anything else with the audio files, i.e. publish them on a web site, I’ll write to you again to ask for permission first, so if you’ve said anything sensitive or identifiable, don’t worry.
  • If you have second thoughts and want to withdraw your contribution, don’t worry, just email memory AT or fill in the form below.
  • Contributions are anonymous by default, but if you would like your name to be mentioned in the publicity and credits, please let me know.