Friday, February 21, 2020

Crowsley Park, and how it won the Cold War and killed Doctor Who

It has been more than twenty years since I, the Boy Technician, formed the last wave of staff to work at the BBC's receiving station at Crowsley Park in South Oxfordshire. That's what it looked like back then.

But because of changes in the way TV and radio are broadcast around the world, it has changed a bit since.
Somebody has gone and bricked up half the windows, taken out all the antennae used for radio reception, and added a double-decked gantry of satellite dishes.

And the opening of the new satellite array, plus the refurbishing of the existing big dishes was the reason I went back today. Also, to see if there are still traces of the old Crowsley Park to be found.
Just feast your eyes on the beauties, fellow nerds. These allow BBC Monitoring to pick up signals from those "difficult" countries where a titchy dish on the roof of Broadcasting House just won't do.

And yes, I went up there, because it would be rude not to.
"Do not walk in front of the dishes," we were told.

We only walked in front of the dishes a tiny little bit.
It also seemed entirely possible to install a satellite dish upside-down.

Our technical teams - however - are made of stern stuff, and on close inspection, none of the dishes were installed upside-down.
And yes, dear reader, I did a little squee of delight at the 4.5m dish from where we receive North Korean television.

The pure, undiluted Kimjongilist-Kimilsungist nonsense that this one dish has to put up with. I'm going to nominate it for some sort of medal.
The state of that.

But there's one thing missing when you compare-and contrast the top two photos on this post.

Where - I hear you ask - is the HF Tower? Where is the stonking great structure from which Tom Baker fell in his last ever episode as the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who?

The HF Tower that - somehow, and for budgetary reasons I should think - doubled up as the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, from which the Doc made the ultimate sacrifice in defeating The Master?
Alas, this concrete anchoring block seems to be all that is left of the tower, which came down in 2014.
And this is the lonely patch of grass where Adric, Tegan and Nyssa would have gathered round the stricken Doctor as he regenerated. Except they did that bit in the studio, because dignity.
A production shot from Logopolis taken on the Crowsley Park grounds. One of these characters ends episode four looking like a television vet.

And off we went down the field to look at the 10 metre dishes.

This is Dish One, which back in the day was set loose on chasing Soviet satellites around the sky.

To save money and to increase their useful lives, Soviet Ghorizont satellites weren't particularly geostationary, which meant that a significant part of one's shift chasing after a sparkly TV signal.

All this was done from the comfort of one's vigorously air conditioned control room, and today was the first time I've seen it done for real, out the middle of a not vigorously air conditioned field.

Due to being severely outranked by the person operating the dish, I am not at liberty to comment on the quality of their technique, or the shoddiness thereof. But they're not usually that high up, and that angle is only really useful as a bird bath.

There now follows a section of interest only to the old boys who worked at Crowsley Park (and because the staff was largely drawn from engineers, radio enthusiasts, and former armed forces signals types, it was almost an exclusively male preserve. It was only in much later years after Crowsley was converted to a remotely-controlled site that the patriarchy was finally smashed).

I only knew Sting (who only looked a bit like Sting), and Incorrigible Roger (who is indeed incorrigible). Reliably informed that Ooze still lives locally.

That's just the taster. Because there is no need for people to actually be there these days (but it is still staffed on a fairly regular basis because of engineering REASONS, and BBC engineers are made of stern stuff and can work even under the foulest of conditions), the following are all entitled "What have they done to my lovely..."
...bandscan desk?

...Engineering Interception Room? (before and after) - this was where radio from around the world was received, playing a significant part in reporting on the Cold War and (on more than one occasion) actually saving the planet. It's now the computer room, so doing much the same thing, only faster and in a dust-free environment.
...shift supervisor's office? Once the home of many blinking lights and an exquisitely hand-coloured illustration of HF band occupancy, now the UPS room.

But there are still traces of the old place if you look hard enough.

And exit via the gift shop.
Except there isn't a gift shop, just the mansion. Once home to the Baskerville family with the canine problem, now the beautifully restored domicile of [celebrity who values his family's privacy].

A note on access: The site is privately-owned, but there are several public footpaths so visitors may go see by foot. Please keep to the paths.

Do respect the privacy of the households who live there; and do realise that the Crowsley Park reception building is fenced off with strictly no access to visitors - large and very serious people will come along at all hours and give you a good talking to.

And if the large and serious people do not find you, the wild animals who have evolved untouched by humanity on the site will, and future archaeologists may eventually find your broken corpse down among the cable ducts which still criss-cross the site.

PRO TIP: The lunchtime shift was obliged to bring cake from the shop at Sonning Common. So do bring cake.
CRP was an extraordinary place to work. I was in the last group of people to work there as one of its operators, and only saw it as it faded into the night.

But I've a) never worked so hard in a workplace and b) never had so much fun, and it genuinely has sparked life-long friendships.

So I'm glad to see it's still not dead, and still a vital part of the place where I work. As the misprint says: NO REGERTS.
UPDATE: Here's BBC World Service Group director Jamie Angus cutting the ribbon on the new facility with BBC Monitoring director Liz Howell and members of the tech teams who worked on the project (Photo: Chris Stannard)
UPDATE 2: One from the 1990s, and an example of what might happen to your 11-metre Ku-band dish - already operating at the very eastern limit of its look angle for Iranian broadcast sources - is asked to look even more east and falls off the end of its track. You may be delighted to learn that, yes, it did buff out. (Photo: Martin Peters)

The beverage antennas and the curtain array, all removed by 2014. Walking the lines provided the usually office-bound operator with a bracing walk around the park, if the cows didn't get you. (Photo: Martin Peters)
And the very heart of the beast - the Engineering Interception Room console, where the operator could tune shortwave radios and feed the signals to the monitors back at Caversham Park. The most endearing feature of the desk was that it was exactly the right height to crack your knees, or failing that, spear your thigh on the headphone jack. (Photo: Martin Peters)

Friday, February 14, 2020

On tonsillitis and begging for the sweet release of death

Today marks the final day of my 53rd year on this planet, and - to be perfectly frank - things could have gone better.

I've gone virtually the whole of 2020 suffering from colds, flu, man flu, actual tonsillitis, and now what can only be described as Jamie Oliver Syndrome, whereby one's tongue has grown far too large for the rest of my face.

Yes, the world has more important things to worry about - for eg Wuhan coronavirus - but Jamie Oliver Syndrome is happening to me, personally, now and that means I'm damn well going to whine about it right here right now.

I'm not entirely sure what's caused this bout of illness. But the pattern is clear - it only flares up when I wear my new and entirely cursed hat (below), made out of real witch.

That is, of course, what it known as a "lie". I do not own a hat which is in any way cursed. The true explanation for my misery is self-inflicted: I am a middle-aged slightly diabetic chap who weighs slightly too much who is finding that his 53rd time around the sun has been a tad slower than the previous 52.

Also, life is full of disappointments. In my case, it's the disappointment at waking up every morning with Jamie Oliver Tongue, but not Jamie Oliver Bank Balance, which - frankly - sucks. And blows.

Anyway, just so you know, here is a list of things which are of no help at all when you are dying of tonsillitis:

  • Wishing for the sweet release of death
  • Punching yourself repeatedly in the throat
  • Knitting needle through your eardrum
  • Complaining that when you have tonsillitis as an adult you do not get ice cream and presents like your brother got when he got tonsillitis as a child
  • Being bitter that your brother got ice cream and presents
  • Wishing for the sweet release of death
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Anything at all
  • Wishing for the sweet release of death
  • Posting a photo titled "Dramatic Dmitry" on your social media in the hope of getting at least a single ounce of sympathy

  • Wishing for the sweet release of death

Did I mention it was my birthday tomorrow? *cough* Amazon Wish List *cough*

In summary: