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English lighthouse beams out shipping forecast

17 April 10 10:52 GMT

By Zeb Soanes
BBC Radio 4 announcer

The BBC shipping forecast is usually read from a windowless studio in London but one day this spring I had a chance to read it looking out from the Orford Ness lighthouse across the North Sea.

The forecast boasts a list of 31 maritime locations, names that evoke a wild seascape of the imagination: Dogger, Fitzroy, Hebrides, Rockall, German Bight… and it's a daily rhythmic recitation much of the country finds quaintly comforting.

Tucked up in bed, the landlubber experiences all the vicarious danger of gales that are "imminent", and is reassured when conditions are "moderate or good".

This nightly litany of the sea reminds the British that theirs is an island nation with a proud seafaring past.

For me, it evokes thoughts of home and family. I grew up by the sea in Suffolk on England's east coast.

The stretch of coastline running down from my hometown of Lowestoft is heavy with history and with myth.

It is also being steadily eaten away by the encroaching waves. Over the years, whole villages have been lost to the sea.

Legend has it that on stormy nights, you can still hear the church bells of Dunwich tolling far beneath the waves.

Now it is the famous lighthouse at Orford Ness in Suffolk which is under threat.

Secret tests

The British Ministry of Defence commandeered this area and used it for more than 70 years to carry out secret military tests.

Work was done here to develop the atomic bomb and perfect the system which later became known as radar.

One of the buildings is now used to beam the BBC World Service across the North Sea to Western Europe and beyond.

There are numerous, possibly apocryphal stories about this remote spit of land which, for many decades, was strictly closed to the general public.

Some believe the tall networks of aerials were first erected to monitor the movement of UFOs.

Certainly it's true that one of the benefits of having been a closed military site is that wildlife was left to flourish including several rare species which, seemingly, weren't disturbed by the frequent explosions and other mysterious military activity.

The BBC agreed that on this one occasion the shipping forecast could be read from the top of the Orford Ness lighthouse, and I met Keith Seaman, the lighthouse-keeper with an appropriately nautical name, over tea in a former Ministry of Defence hut.

He comes from a long line of keepers. He drove us out across the shingle, past ominous warnings of unexploded bombs (they still find up to 15 a year), to reach the lighthouse.

It is mainly white but with two red candy stripes. Keith told me the stripes are as much a signal to sailors as the light itself, identifying the lighthouse by day as Orford.

"There's another red and white lighthouse up the coast at Happisburgh, but that has three stripes," he informed me.

Notorious dangers

The dangers to shipping here have long been notorious. In 1627, 32 ships were lost in a single night here. There was scarcely a survivor.

This lighthouse stands only metres from the shoreline. It seems poignant and perhaps fitting that a landmark that has stood for 200 years and survived storms, flying-bombs and machine-gun fire, may ultimately be swallowed by the sea.

Like all modern lighthouses it is battery-powered, charged by the mains to ensure continuity of service in the event of a power-cut.

Half-way up, I was surprised to see a computer-station linked to a transmitter on the roof. Therein may lie the fate of all British lighthouses - high-tech navigation systems may soon render them all useless.

But, as Keith noted dryly: "That's all right so long as the computers work."

On this beautiful spring day, we had a wonderful view from the top and on a clear night, I was told, the light itself can be seen for 25 nautical miles (46km).

It has a four-tonne lens which floats on a bath of mercury. Keith switched off the motor and showed me how, with a mere touch of my finger, I could start it revolving again.

And so, finally, I unfolded a copy of that morning's shipping forecast, faced out to sea, and started to read.

At the BBC headquarters back in London, we broadcast from a windowless studio, so it was a real treat to be able to gaze out and read to the distant crews in boats on the horizons who, as opposed to the landlubbers who simply enjoy its poetry, depend on the forecast's maritime data to keep them safe.

"The area forecasts for the next 24 hours," I intoned.

"German Bight, Humber, Thames. North-west backing south-west four or five decreasing three at times. Slight or moderate. Occasional rain. Fog patches. Good, occasionally very poor."

Of course it all made perfect sense to Keith, the lighthouse keeper, who remembered one final piece of advice, to protect those out at sea: "My grandfather always said, 'Before you leave, sweep your eyes over the horizon.'''

And so before we left, we did.

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