It’s been an unusual day, the kind that you just need to go with and let unfold in front of you. It started with a visit to a pensioners lunch club in Swanscombe on the edge of the Thames near Dartford, followed by a trip to the House of Lords for Afternoon Tea and topped off by an invite to sit in with one of the announcers on Radio 4 whilst they read the late night Shipping Forecast, a rare treat which I gratefully accepted. The crest of the town of Swanscombe in a viking ship, signalling some deep routed maritime connections in a place perhaps more well known, along with Northfleet and Greenhithe as the place where Portland cement was manufactured. The vikings settled this part of the estuary and various remains of previous civilisations have been unearthed here in part due to the construction of the high speed rail link to France and Belgium. The most notable find is the skull of a 400,000 year old human, Swanscombe man, now thought to be a woman. I’m working on a commission to outline the scale and provision of community infrastructure in the new Garden City being constructed at Ebbsfleet. As part of this, I’ve been meeting with local groups and organisations to gain an insight into local needs. The visit to the House of Lords has been in my diary for a while following an invite from the Churchill Memorial Trust related to my fellowship. Names were drawn through a ballot to attend one of the twice yearly gatherings at the invitation off one of the Lords. I’ve never been to parliament before so it seemed like a good opportunity to have a nose around. I leave my flat dressed smarter than usual with the silver edged invitation tucked inside my jacket. Around lunchtime the same day, I had a call from the newsreader Alan Smith who I’d met a couple of weeks before when I went into Broadcasting House for an interview. We’d talked about the possibility of sitting in whilst he reads the late night Shipping Forecast which it turns out, he’s doing today. Would I like to come? For years I’ve imagined the announcers sitting there reading through the regular rhythm of words and places that form the familiar, gentle and calm tones of the Shipping Forecast. I’d been in contact with Zeb Soanes and Corrie Corfield both of whom have been very supportive of my trip. This was an opportunity too good to miss and a tingle of excitement ran through my spine at the thought of the invitation into the depths of Broadcasting House, late at night to sit in whilst it is read out live.
The church hall is an unassuming brick building set back from the road and constructed with a series of concrete truss frames forming a large double height space. It’s in need of a bit of an upgrade but is well looked after. Trestle tables are set out in rows with the now ubiquitous village hall plastic moulded chairs set around them. It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas and festive decorations and tinsel are distributed around the room. A man selling an assortment of things has a table along the back wall, akin to a type of DIY pound shop. There is a trolley with raffle prizes and a team of volunteers busy around the kitchen. For many of the members of the lunch club, this might be their only social engagement all week and for some, the only time they will leave their house. I spent some time talking to the woman who set the project up wanting to provide a place for people to get together and socialise. She upscaled her family cooking, learned some tips from her son (who had trained as as a chef) and bought a chest freezer. The group has now grown with a team of helpers, summer holiday trips and about 50 guests per week. The guests start to arrive and there is an immediate feeling of warmth as they greet each other, chat, laugh and joke together. Some have helped each other to get here and some arrive by taxi, paid for by the club. I join a couple of women one of whom has lived here all her life and the other a more recent arrival, having moved out from the hustle and bustle of London in search of a quiet life and more space. I listen to stories of the heyday of cement production where the roofs of the houses would have been covered in white chalk dust to the extent that the place would look like a ski resort in the alps (without the mountains) One woman told me of her brother who had lived into his mid 90’s, the secret of a long life, he thought, was the daily inhalation of cement dust into the lungs. I’m not so sure but it had clearly worked for him. The area was targeted in the war and suffered several bomb raids. I hear stories of the roofs being blown off houses and the separation of children and families in the chaos that ensued. Moving tables, I meet a raucous bunch who identify themselves as ‘the rowdy table’ a collective deafness only adding to this as the laughing and joking stepped up a notch. I meet the man who claimed to have invented BINGO (Bin and gone, he says) including a rudimentary machine for selecting the numbers. His friends cajole him onto singing the song ‘Mother’ to me, which he recites perfectly with a warbling concentration in his voice. I hear of the couple that have recently married in their 80’s after meeting at the lunch club ‘they’re having problems starting a family’ one of their friends jokes to the amusement of everyone. Older residents bemoan the loss of industry and the social connections this brought, remembering the now disused ‘Portlands’ venue, the cement works social space. Others miss the connection to agricultural land beyond the town which, aside from the huge scars in the landscape from the chalk pits and industrial mining, has largely been built on. I win a tape measure in the raffle and decide to leave before the food comers out so as not to disturb the meal.
Tying up my tie in the train toilets is perhaps not the most glamorous way to prepare for afternoon tea in the House of Lords but it will have to do. I emerge from the tube at Westminster to flocks of tourists milling around confused by the lack of the famous St Steven’s tower and Big Ben which is shrouded in scaffolding. I grab some lunch and take the call from Alan, leaving with a double spring in my step walking towards Black Rod’s gate to parliament. I queue up with other guests, it’s a sunny, winter day with some wispy clouds in the sky. Security scanners are jammed into the small entrance hall which leads through to a series of internal courtyards. The ornate gothic exterior hiding a warren of parking, broken chairs and temporary fencing. A couple of school groups pass by in fluorescent vests holding hands so as not to loose anyone. We are welcomed into the reception rooms facing the river with a thick pile red carpet lining the route which is peppered with display cases of important artefacts and regalia. Tables are set up on the terrace facing the river inside the marquees that I’m more used to seeing from the other side of the balustrade. From the river, as you pass under Westminster bridge and breath a sign of relief to have left the busy section beside the London eye and South Bank, a series of yellow crosses sit on poles offset from the building line and marking a no go area. These are special marks and river legend has it that should you stray inside the line, you’ll be shot by snipers on the roof. I’m not convinced but have also never tried. Perhaps next time, I’ll arrive by kayak and test out the legend. I spend some time soaking up the unusual view down the river from here sipping from a glass of fizz and feeling a bit of a fraud while hearing of others journeys researching suicide prevention, engineering methods, palliative care and silver smithing, possibly more worthy subjects than my encouraging others to get outside more. It’s always hard to explain my project as there can be several different readings of what I’m up to and what it’s for. I’m often tempted to throw the cards in the air and just say ‘why not?’ Without going into the lengthy backstory of the why. Through all my travels so far it is the excitement of experiencing a wild or unusual place and then talking to people that live in it which interests me the most. It’s sometimes difficult to translate this into distinct findings as the conversations are always looser and more varied than that. A number of three tiered silver cake stands arrive on the table with sandwiches, fondants and cakes which look so perfectly presented it’s hard to believe they are real. Several cups of tea and conversations with fellow fellows later and it is time for the tour of the historic Palace of Westminster. Our guide is Dimitri, a short, lively man with an Eastern European accent, he has a vast knowledge of the building, its content and the processes of parliament. Its a fascinating place with some hugely antiquated processes. It has the feeling of a cross between a cathedral, a private school and a stately home. Pictures, statues and tapestries line the walls depicting key moments in history and the crests of past dynasties that melded together to form the United Kingdom. There is a striking artwork by Mary Branson called ‘New Dawn’ which represents women’s suffrage and changes through the day in response to the tidal flow of the river. We visit both chambers, the lobbies, libraries and halls before exiting via the great hall with its hammer beam trusses, the largest medieval clear span roof in the UK. It has been used for banquets and gatherings as well as a tennis court by King Henry VIII. I emerge into the darkness and am wished goodnight by a couple of policemen before handing in my pass and leaving through the turnstiles into Parliament Square.
Walking back along the river, I’m undecided whether to head home before returning for my last appointment of the day at Broadcasting House. I decide to go for a beer and walk the gangway onto a floating pub that I remember going to with my dad. Sitting on the deck of the Tattershall Castle, I look out over the Thames and stare at the lights of the city reflected in the gently moving water, the ebb and flow of the tideway bearing witness to so much history. It’s a clear night with a new moon which makes the sky darker than normal. I watch the sparkling lights in the water with a light breeze brushing my face. The bar fills up with Friday night drinkers and I decide to go home to change for my alternative Friday night out at the BBC. I’ve agreed to meet Alan around 10.45pm as he has a break then and will be able to step away from the studio to meet me in the lobby. There is a blue glow emannating from the lights of Broadcasting House, spilling onto the plaza where the areas from the Shipping Forecast are inscribed into the ground. The building is not unlike a ship with it’s prow jutting out into Portland Place, the balconies and lines of windows reminiscent of a huge liner. In fact the statues decorating the building, designed by Eric Gill are of Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ which starts out onboard a ship in stormy seas. The building was opened in 1932 with the radio studios occupying space at the heart of the plan, built in brick inside the steel frame which forms the rest of the building. It is clad in smooth white Portland Stone likely to have come from the quarries that form a deep hole in the Isle of Portland, Dorset. Photographs of the construction line the walls in the internal lobby showing the steel skeleton emerging from the hoardings. Two tube lines run under the building and on a subsequent visit to a recording of ‘The News Quiz’, Zeb Soanes points out where the floor has been raised for acoustic dampening revealing just the top of the original lintels of the doors. He also points out the ‘invacuation’ procedures, taking refuge from attack within the building which can store water supplies for up to two weeks. New broadcasting house sits alongside the original building with the glass frontage and reinterpreted stonework creating a U-shape around the courtyard. I walk into the lobby and meet Alan, a friendly man wearing jeans, trainers and a checked shirt. A reassuringly normal outfit compared to the dinner jacket and evening wear instead upon by Lord Reith in the early days of the corporation. I should say now that I don’t want to shatter any illusions so if you are happy with announcer Neil Sleet’s description that the Shipping Forecast is read from an amathyst pulpit or would like to imagine Corrie Corfield aboard a ship on the seas around Britain, you should stop reading now.
There is a calm feeling about the place at this time of night. The open plan atrium of the news floor has a scattering of desks with multiple screens and a handful of people sitting at them. Alan leads me through the space to an editing gallery at the rear, it’s not being used but is exciting to see the wall of screens flickering input from all over the world, accentuated in the dark, black space. There are clocks in different timezones and mixing decks on the desk. I can see the circular news studio on the other side of the room as we walk across the vast open space and up a glass and metal spiral staircase. As we move on, Alan points out the change in ceiling height signalling that we are now leaving ‘New Broadcasting House’ and entering the original building. We move through several security controlled doors and arrive in the Radio 4 offices on the outer side of the building. ‘First things first’ says Alan “let’s have a cup of tea’ he throws a packet of crumpets onto the worktop which he says he’ll have when he goes home. There is tinsel festooned from the ceilings and hanging baubles accentuate the noticeably lower ceiling height in this bit of the building. Several black square boxes sit on the floor marked with the BBC logo but no other identification. I wonder what secrets sit inside, controversial episodes of ‘the Archers’ perhaps. We take our tea and walk down the corridor through several more security doors and suddenly we are standing in a small windowless space in the bowels of the building. Studio 40D is calm, quiet and still, there is wooden panelling along the walls and a large wooden framed window to the adjacent studio. There is a sofa along one wall beneath a large wall print with sayings from the Shipping Forecast and continuity announcements ‘A frank exploration’ sits alongside ‘intermittent slight drizzle’ ‘Strong language from the outset’ with ’Skaggerak’ ‘Crash the pips’ with ‘Violent storm 11’ There is a map of the shipping forecast and a series of weather symbols interspersed with the text. A small bookshelf sits in the corner with a range of books on it including a dictionary and thesaurus. A preserved blow fish sits on the shelves which Alan says belonged to ex announcer Vaughan Savidge, describing him as mad as a balloon and telling the story of having to clear out all the things he brought in to the studio when he left the job. A smiling picture of Peter Donaldson, Radio 4’s longest serving newsreader, is displayed on the opposite wall with some text describing his ‘calm authority, which he could skilfully turn to comic effect’ it goes on to say that ‘He prized clarity and warmth as the fundamental skills of a good announcer’ There is a screen on the wall above the sofa with a digital clock and analogue clock face. Alan tells me that in the past, all the clocks in the building would have been controlled by a nuclear clock in the basement. The screen also displays when we are on air and the mic is live. On the other side of the room there is a large mixing desk and several screens, one with programmes on it that we can cue up onto the faders, one with breakdown announcements, one with links to all studios and another on which Alan can check emails and bring up the news scripts. There is an email from a fan talking about the ‘dream team’ of Alan and Ben Rich who will be reading the weather. I briefly meet Mairead Devlin who is gathering her things to move downstairs to the news studio to read the midnight news. We talk about the benefits or otherwise of the morning and late night shifts.
Alan and I sit down behind the desk and he talks through what everything is and what it does. He shows me how it is possible for Radio 4 to broadcast live from any other studio or to take the feed from another radio station. On one of the other screens is a Cartwall display of pre recorded trails and announcements including emergency breakdown announcements recorded for each of the announcers if for some reason the live broadcast doesn’t work or the studio is evacuated. Virtual buttons with ‘Breakdown Nunes’ ‘Breakdown Soanes’ lead me to imagine the usually calm announcers having a live breakdown on the radio. I quickly realise this is not what it’s for. Alan runs through cuing up programmes and listening to last 30 seconds of ‘tape’ to gauge the tone of it before jumping in with the continuity, there’s a programme by Jo Brand and the pre record of ‘Today in Parliament’. There is a screen with a feed from the BBC news channel with a presenter with prominent sticky out ears which Alan jokes should be pinned back for TV. It reminds me of the relaxed invisibility of radio, the fact that I’m here sitting in but nobody listening would ever know. We have a light hearted chat about architecture, the work of Giles Gilbert Scott and how Alan got into being an announcer. I’m worried that I might put him off. We decide to move my cup of tea away from mixing desk. I don’t want to be responsible for the close down of the station due to a clumsy slurp. My elbow is also dangerously close to the slider for the pips, one slip and millions of confused listeners. As 00.48 draws closer, Alan shows me the script for the shipping forecast emailed through from the Met Office. He prints it out and marks it up with timings and calculations based on working backwards, subtracting in 60’s rather than 100’s to adjust for time rather than decimal. He cues up ‘Sailing By’ on the slider and explains that for shorter forecasts the whole thing can play out, longer, more busy forecasts will see a fading out of the drifting theme so as to fit it all in. At the other end, with a short forecast, the announcer may fill a bit with general weather or trails but for busier ones it is more likely to run right up to the wire. Alan speaks to weather presenter Ben, on the phone to let him know how long he has for the weather update ‘2 big radio 4 minutes’ Alan says and explains he’s got an observer sitting in with him and introduces me to Ben. We have a brief chat but there is work to do. Alan has circled the word Skaggerak in the script and the pencil notes of timings are listed along side the text. There are warnings of gales in all areas except North Utsire, South Utsire and Trafalgar. Before I know it, ‘Sailing By’ is playing out and Alan is announcing in a calm, clear voice “Good Morning, and now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on Behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at 00.15 on Saturday 08 December 2018…’ It’s a long reading with several long pauses, I’m worried that I’ll cough or sneeze part way though and try to stay perfectly still and avoid any shuffling sounds in the background. As Alan reads through area by area my mind shifts to the origins of the Met office, Fitzroy’s original storm warning and the lives saved at sea by this regular rhythmic poem. Alan has explained that after closedown the aim is to get out of there as soon as possible and be first of the stations to hand over to the controller. He has checked that the car has been ordered and once he’s wished everyone goodnight ‘from everyone at Broadcasting House in London’ (seems like only a few people) and passed on to the World Service, we are out of there quicker than you can say Machrihanish Automatic. It’s three minutes past one and I’m walking down the street in the cold night air in a slightly dreamy mood unsure if what just happened was real. It feels like a release to leave the small studio and be back out in in the normality of the Friday night. Before parting company, Alan says ‘Come back anytime’ and in a flash, all the late nights, storms, rough waters, difficult times and personal challenges of my trip so far are wrapped in a warmth of familiarity and friendliness with a new dimension to it.