10 British Sounds You’ll Miss When You Leave the UK


Milk floats were known for their three wheels. (Wikipedia)

When you leave the U.K., the soundscape changes dramatically. These are the noises you’ll be sad to bid farewell.

British TV and radio
This category could easily command its own top 10—or 100. But for now, I’ll just set down a few names to tap you nostalgically on the eardrums: the EastEnders and Corrie theme tunes; Radio 4’s pips; the voices of John Humphrys and Kirsty Wark. Then there are those chirpy failed comedians, the continuity announcers.

Milk floats
Even though the majority of Brits now buy their milk in shops, the humble milkman and his electric set of wheels can still be seen—and heard—in most British locales. It’s a battery operated hum and the sound of bottles rattling.

Market stallholders
“Get your oranges, five for a pound!”—or words to this effect—are enthusiastically bellowed by fruit and veg vendors in markets all over the U.K. Every purveyor is trying to shout louder and sell harder than his neighbor. Possibly the phrase “cheap and cheerful” was coined off the back of this hearty British noise.

Fish in the fryer
As your batter-smothered cod or haddock is lowered in bubbling oil, there’s a hiss then the low, reassuring rumble of deep fat meeting wet starch.

These shy nocturnal beasts stalk the British suburbs, cities and countryside, barely making a sound—until mating season arrives. Then, they start with the old-lady-being-brutally-butchered impressions. It’s a fascinating and terrifyingly compelling noise. How to describe it to someone who’s unfamiliar with this particular mammalian audio treat? Let’s just say, it’s the aural equivalent of those YouTube videos documenting the lancing of a particularly heinous boil, i.e. it’s simultaneously the best and worst thing you’ve ever heard. So yeah, Brits. Bizarrely, you’ll probably miss the sound of foxes humping in the night.

Wood pigeons
The deep gentle coo of this plump, pink and grey bird is one of the most distinctively British nature noises. While we write off regular pigeons as pests, we’re little bit in love with these majestic birds and their vocals.

Bitter gushing from a pub hand pump
There is no sweeter sound in the universe than the wet whir of room temperature ale rushing from its barrel to your pint glass. Just the thought—let alone the sound—is enough to make a thirsty Brit salivate.

Church bells
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the romance of chiming church bells. Even Richard Dawkins must quietly crack a smile in the presence of this quaint and reassuringly British sound.

The muted hubbub of a country pub
American bars tend to be overwhelmingly loud bustling places where people go to talk at volume and watch television. So Brits used to the gentle hum of an “old man” pub will miss the subtle soundtrack of pints being poured and slurped, crisp packets rustling and stilted conversation.

Diesel taxi engines
Most major British cities have black cabs now. When the engine starts up it makes a distinctive bubbling chip pan sound that radiates confidence and authority. It’s like a distinguished headmaster clearing his throat to make a very important announcement.

See also:
10 British Smells You’ll Miss When You Leave the U.K.
10 American Smells Brits Will Learn to Love

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • ukhousewifeusa

    I do miss church bells and I do miss the country pub hub-bub, but not the annoying milk float waking me up!

  • Alan Richardson

    Too easy now to listen to BBC pod-casts of the quintessential Shipping forecast now including the coastal stations and twice as long. And a snippet of Bells on Sunday.
    When I was little the milkman arrived before six in the morning walking with a hand controlled float: Lord Raleigh’s Dairy …
    Not only the market stall-holders calling for custom but the smells.
    Didn’t frequent chippies much …
    Only time I hear foxes now is on TV period dramas as background atmosphere sound (along with birdsong, particularly blackbirds and thrushes)
    Cooing of wood pigeons I don’t particularly miss either.
    Now pubs of the gentle, country kind I do miss especially after bell-ringing practice.
    Not the sound of taxis, but the smell of diesel fumes on a cold morning remind, me of the school bus.

  • Jwb52z

    I don’t know specifically about other places, but in Texas, you still hear deep fryers in some places.

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      Go to any McDonald’s. (That’s Mackey’s in Australian.) Bingo. Deep fryers at work on the french fries.

  • Rickles

    First time I visited the UK I about crapped myself when I heard a fox while walking the backroads at night.

    • jumbybird

      What did the fox say?

  • http://batman-news.com Clifford Trout

    The larger towns near where I live have churches that play bells, every hour. Though it is more noticable at the Holidays.

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      Unfortunately my town has noise ordinances prohibiting the ringing of church bells… :(

  • Tom McDavid

    i understand the smells are difficult, but the sounds….let’s actually HEAR them BBC….

  • johnk1967

    If a certain entertainment company would open up the iplayer for use in the us like most of the rest of the world we could watch our shows again.

  • Paul Greenhow

    The bitter is not room temperature….it should be cellar cool.

  • Dejahthoris

    Milk float…sounds like some deliciously creamy drink!

  • expatmum

    Ah the wood pigeon coo! I love that sound in my mother’s garden when we go back to England in the summer. Not so much the bloody great magpies stomping around on the attic roof!

  • BB

    Your Wood Pigeons sound like a bird we call the Mourning Dove. We have Mourning Doves, in the Southwest anyway! It is a nice sound, isn’t it?

    • Marla

      I was going to say the same thing….love the cooing of mourning doves.

    • MontanaRed

      Brett and Maria, yes, they do! Mourning Doves are lovely, with their subtle pink/grey/lavender coloring and soft coos. Sadly, in many places, the non-migratory Eurasian Collared Dove has pushed the migratory Mourning Dove out of their traditional habitats. EADs do NOT sound so nice. One call is almost a crow’s caw.

  • Kat

    Also tge sound of walking on gravel. It’s different than in the us

  • jumbybird

    In my section of Queens, Ozone Park, we have doves that make a lovely cooing sound.
    You can always play “One pound feeesh” and “What does the fox say?” on youtube.

  • Janet Reed

    I always wondered…..why do they say “Mind the gap”?

    • Fergus

      It’s famously said on the London Underground to warn passengers that there is a gap between the train and the platform that somebody could fall in. It’s also used in many other British underground systems.

  • DianeR

    My husband reports that only United Dairies milk floats had 3 wheels; the Co-op milk float he drove as a summer job had 4 (“…and was faster.”). I’m trying to figure out why they were called “floats”: does it have to do with their similarity to the flatbeds on which parade floats are set up?

  • Brian Hadfield

    I can’t speak for some of the sounds, but depending on where you live in the US (and I know that’s always the catch), church bells, foxes, fish frying, and pigeons are not uncommon. Regarding the pub sounds, just look for a smaller, local bar (pub) and you’ll enjoy a more “Cheers”-like atmosphere. Like everywhere, it’s just a matter of where you live, and not just state-to-state; city to city within a state.

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      No milkmen though!

  • Valkyre

    Another thing you’ll miss – pints filled to the brim with little to no head!

  • Mish Mosh

    You’d think only Britain has chiming church bells.

  • Steve

    We have foxes in the US too. In fact I have one I see in my backyard from time to time here in NJ

  • me

    If you’re in the Boston area I can give you the names of at least a dozen pubs where, if there aren’t too many people (American bars can be very noisy as you said), you can still hear that room temperature ale being served from a hand pumped tap. Can’t help you with the rest Im afraid.

  • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

    Dude. We have foxes in the US. I’ve seen them cross the street, I’ve seen them in the woods behind my house, and I have certainly heard them caterwauling.