The giants of forecasting

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, which is lucky because in this case, they are both dead so there’s no chance of that.  Heroes is perhaps an exaggeration too as I’ve only recently got to know them but it sounds more impressive. It’s a sunny but cold Sunday morning in February, the light is sharp with a gentle breeze. The streets of Hackney are still drowsy from the night before.  I’m on a mission to visit the final resting places of two giants of weather forecasting; Admiral Francis Beaufort and Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, the first having set the now ubiquitous scale for measuring wind strength and the second pioneering the idea of predicting the weather, coining the term ‘forecast’ and introducing a system of storm warnings to save lives at sea, which became the shipping forecast.   

I’d started to read more about the history of the forecast when I heard I’d been shortlisted for a Churchill Fellowship and thought I’d best know what I was talking about in the interview. There are several books on the subject, ‘Attention All Shipping’ being the most interesting in my opinion.  I’d followed the recommendation in the back by it’s author, Charlie Connelly, to read the biography of Fitzroy by John and Mary Gribbin and had then gone on to read ‘This Thing of Darkness, a hefty tome which provides a narrative based account of the same events, its volume made more accessible by my reading it on a kindle.  I was in and out of hospital at the time and off work so had a lot of time on my hands. 

Beaufort’s tomb is in St Johns churchyard in Hackney.  I kicked myself when I found this out as it’s not far from my flat and even closer to my brother’s house, I thought it was something our dad would have been interested in. By strange coincidence, I’d once got a free ticket with a friend to a Richard Hawley gig at St Johns Church and had been listening to ‘There’s a Storm a Coming’ on repeat for the past few weeks.  I wondered if he’d know how close he was to the namer of the winds whilst strumming out the chords in the grade II listed building.  The tomb itself is modest, or as modest as a family tomb can be anyway.  Its flat top is moss covered with a white stone base below.  It sits in a line with other similar tombs behind a metal railing.  The carved letters are thin, precise and sharp.  A small plaque on the tomb reads ‘Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer to the Royal Navy 1829-1855, Originator of the Beaufort scale for denoting the force of the wind (1805)’.  Another sign on the fence has a portrait of the man, a description of the wind scale and notes that he is buried with his second and first wife and her parents.  I cant help thinking it must be a bit of an awkward squash in there, but this is London after all and cramming as many people as possible into a small box is one of our favourite pastimes. 

My memory of the accounts in the books I’d read was that he had been one of Fitzroy’s supporters in the Admiralty, which had become quite rare during the later stages of his life. In any case, the two men had definitely known each other and had at one time been in the same boat.  I stop to think about Beaufort’s work and the preceding times where uncategorised wind strengths from ‘a bit blowy’ to ‘blustery’ or ‘windy woos’ would have been rife.  His neat form of classification and description also meaning he must have at some point experienced all of these conditions, probably in a ship at sea.  Weather conditions can make a trip interesting but having read accounts of the storms faced by Fitzroy and his crew off South America, storm 10 or violent storm 11 were not situations I would like to be in.  I press repeat again and listen to Richard Hawley’s own storm warning, catching the Overground, then heading south on the Victoria line to Brixton.  I get a seat at the front of the top deck on the 196 bus to Norwood.  I’ve lived in London for nearly 15 years but still get a twinge of excitement when I get onto a big red double decker bus.  

As the bus leaves the DIY stores and supermarkets, views of the city start to open up towards the north, the sky having turned a steely grey with the sun picking out the glinting, crystalline points of Canary Wharf and the Shard.  A small boy sits down next to me and stares, making me feel uneasy as the bus drags itself up the steep hills towards the wide avenued promontory ahead.  The land falls down to the south forming a flat basin, opening up long views towards a nondescript ring road and what I presume is Croydon.  A huge radio antenna dwarfs the spire of All Saints Church.  There is a small new build house right beneath the mast is optimistically advertised as a luxury 2 bed.  Fitzroy’s physician had ordered he move out of the city to higher ground and fresher air, due to his poor health.  It as here that he died and was buried without full recognition of his life’s work.

I walked past the grave to begin with, poking around in the dappled light of the churchyard.  I knew it wasn’t a grand affair from the accounts in Charlie Connelly’s book and others.  I eventually found it next to the driveway where the small Sunday congregation had started to arrive.  People were sweeping the steps and putting the bins out.  The headstone has it’s back to the busy road and a small white fence runs around the outside of the grave, the spiky leaves of some exotic plants rustled gently in the light breeze.  A large cross with an anchor draped around it is carved within a circular inset beneath the curved top of the headstone.  The two emblems representing the cornerstones of Fitzroy’s life; a deep creationist faith and his love of the sea.  The former having bought him to blows with the preeminent Charles Darwin, a second choice candidate who was referred by his university professor to become Captain Fitzroy’s companion on the second voyage of his ship, the Beagle, circumnavigating the earth via Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos  Islands.  This was the voyage on which Darwin formulated his ideas on natural selection later published in ‘The Origin on the Species’ It seems Fitzroy blamed himself for allowing such a fundamental upheaval of established beliefs to occur, when in reality there was a groundswell of opinion, faith in scientific proofs and shifting beliefs that he could not prevent.  

It may have been this internal turmoil that led him to take his own life a few months before his sixtieth birthday in the dressing room of a thee storey Victorian villa just up the road from where I’m standing.  I spend some time thinking about how much of the world this man had travelled, the exotic and wild places he’d been, not by cheap flights booked online but under sail. I had been struck by the number of sketches included in some of the books I had read and noted that as well as sailor, navigator, mathematician, surveyor and draftsman, he had been a talented artist.  Fitzroy had endured huge challenges, faced severe depression and had literally been around the world on a ship whose tiny cabin he’d been cooped up in for months on end. His compassionate nature which generally outweighed his sometimes fierce temper, combined with his constant push to do better led him to gain the respect of his crew and achieve great things.  Here, by this busy roadside on the outskirts of London, he had been put to rest.  Largely shunned by the establishment, despite investing huge amounts of his personal money for the public good and his groundbreaking work on forecasting being wrongly lambasted by an ill advised government.  I remove a cellophane wrapper from some long dead flowers and some sweet wrappers from the side of the grave and walk down the road to find the house.                  

There is a green oval plaque on the house, the great man of forecasting, not even deemed worthy of a blue one.  I go round to the back of the house to see if I can see what he might have looked at that fateful morning.  All I can see are the solar panel clad rooftops of swathes and swathes of suburban housing mixed with the incessant drone of traffic and the pap pap papping on a small motorbike in the distance, drowning out the sound of the birds.  

Clouds are starting to gather and the sun is creating a golden haze in the sky.  I feel the first spots of rain on my cheek and the pages of my notebook are gently lifted open.  I stop off in Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum, which seems to have been mostly turned into a kids playground.  When I asked one of the assistants if they had the box that had been carved from the last remaining timber of the Beagle, he looked at me blankly and said ‘no, we wouldn’t have anything like that here’.  Disappointed, I start to make my way back home, thinking of these two colleagues and friends buried north and south of our mutual friend, the Thames.