North Utsire, South Utsire. I always remember listening to those names on the Shipping Forecast and thinking ‘What on earth do they mean? What is Utsire?’. Ask any friends and they have no idea either. This is a tea towel from which there must be a lot of answers to Pub Quiz questions.
Don’t you just love this tea towel? The word to describe it is definitely ‘iconic’. There is big business in memorabilia concerning the Shipping Forecast areas – mugs, fridge magnets, t-shirts, posters, jigsaw puzzles and the inevitable tea towels (and there are quite a lot of different ones about). I saw this tea towel, pinned on the wall of a gift shop in Dartmouth, and knew that I wanted it, just for itself, not to remember any particular place. So what is the Shipping Forecast? “To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed they can imagine small fishing boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170 foot waves crashing against Rockall” (Zeb Soanes, reader of the BBC Shipping Forecast). But what is special about this ‘institution’? I have listened to the BBC Shipping Forecast for as long as I can remember. I am not a sailor; I don’t particularly like sailing. But along with many other people, the BBC Shipping Forecast was the last thing that I listened to, as I dropped off to sleep. I felt comforted by the smooth and mellifluous voice of the Shipping Forecast reader, knowing that someone had the welfare of those people at sea, in the dark, each night; people who earned their living in tough circumstances. I had that thought of men putting on the radio to listen to what the weather was going to do, jotting notes. As I got older, my sleep pattern changed; I no longer went to bed late but became an early riser, so I was able to listen to the Shipping Forecast first thing in the morning. It is strange how the same information can feel different when you hear it at different times of the day. At night, the Shipping Forecast addresses those sailing in pitch darkness, with light only from the moon (if it is visible); in the early morning, it is about what a sailor might expect as the dawn breaks and the sun rises.
In 1859, a steam clipper, the Royal Charter, was wrecked, in a strong storm, off the coast of Anglesey with the loss of 450 lives. Vice Admiral Fitzroy decided that it was necessary to introduce a warning service for shipping. When that happened, in 1861, information was passed by telegraph but was the forerunner of the BBC Shipping Forecast, which was first broadcast by radio transmission in 1911. Today there are four broadcasts a day on BBC Radio 4; “hypnotic listening” is how the Shipping Forecast has been described. What I hadn’t realised was that there is a strict regime to the Shipping Forecast that shouldn’t be deviated from. It has to be read at a slow, measured pace which enables sailors to write down any salient information, information that might be the difference between life and death. The Shipping Forecast cannot exceed 370 words. It always starts with “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at (time) today”; the date is not used. This is followed by any Gale Warnings (winds of Force 8 or more, 9 is Severe Gale, 10 is Storm, 11 Violent Storm and 12 is Hurricane Force). Next is the General Synopsis giving the position, pressure (in millibars) and track of pressure areas. Visibility will be Good, Moderate, Poor and Fog. Wind direction is followed by strength then precipitation and wind direction. Any change in wind direction is described as “veering” (clockwise) or “backing” (anti-clockwise). Bearing in mind the word limit, when this is all strung together it can sound like gibberish: “Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest Gale 8 to Storm 10, veering west, Severe Gale 9 to Violent Storm 11. Rain then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate”. Did it make sense to you?
There are 31 Shipping Areas around Britain, which are clearly outlined on this tea towel. Each Shipping Forecast details the weather for each area, starting with Viking and going clockwise. So how did the names of the Shipping Areas come about? The names of the Shipping Areas have rarely changed; in 1995 Finnistere was changed to Fitzroy, named after the founder of the Met Office. Viking, Forties, Dogger, Fisher, Sole, and Bailey are named after sandbanks; Wight, Lundy, Fair Isle, Faeroes, Portland, Hebrides, South East Iceland and North and South Utsire are named after islands; Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Humber, Thames and Shannon are named after estuaries; Dover and Plymouth are towns; Rockall and Fastnet are islets; Malin is Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland; Biscay is obviously the Bay of Biscay; and Trafalgar, the Cape of Trafalgar. For someone with a background in geography, the Shipping Areas are a challenge to locate but, the fact is, the Shipping Forecast has a much greater audience than sailors out at sea, or those interested in maritime conditions; it has a fascination that is difficult to describe. The Master Singers released a record, in 1966, of the Shipping Forecast in Anglican Chant. There are many parodies of the Shipping Forecast, or lines from it, in songs by groups like Blur. The Shipping Forecast was even read out during the Opening Ceremony of 2012 London Olympics. I have a beautiful book of photographs, “Rain Later, Good” by Patrick Collyer, a challenge he set himself to travel through each of the Shipping Areas to photograph and describe them; it is mesmerising, as well as “Attention All Shipping” by Charlie Connolly, which I loved.
When I hold this tea towel, it takes me to a different world, a world of mystery. The memories this tea towel of the Shipping Forecast Areas bring up are not about where I bought it, but why. The Shipping Forecast “scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you are one of those people bobbing up and down in the Channel” (Mark Damazar – Controller of BBC Radio 4). I don’t want to be bobbing up and down in the Channel but I do want to continue with my fascination of the Shipping Forecast and the Shipping Forecast Areas.
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