Counting down to The General Synopsis at Midnight…
I stared yet again at my map of the 31 Sea Areas (see Map here). From Iceland and Norway down as far as the coast of Spain, the sea seemed to stretch on forever. And I remembered a many-years-ago edition of Mastermind and the four contestants with their four completely different specialised subjects. I couldn’t recall three of them. (The Moomin books of Tove Jansson perhaps, or something equally learnable; The Walls of Limerick, the Fjords of Killary.) The fourth person had ‘agriculture’ as their specialised subject. I imagined him lowering himself slowly down into Magnus Magnusson’s famous black chair and thinking, uh oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I’ve had what I’ve come to think of as my agriculture moments since I began to properly plan my exploration of the 31 Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast. Too much sea! Too much land! Too many areas! But now that I’m counting down, and getting ready to visit to the Met Office in Exeter to see how the Forecast is prepared, I find that I’m getting excited all over again. Agriculture? A doddle.
The Shipping Forecast is broadcast four times a day on BBC Radio 4: 0048, 0535, 1201 and 1754. An essential tool for those at sea, it has become much more. Recently I met Captain Harry McClenahan of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who talked about the power it has to transcend navigation. ‘At night, in a strange ocean you hear it,’ he said, ‘and it gives you a sense of security, and family.’ The music that precedes the late night broadcast is Sailing By, composed by Ronald Binge in 1963. Many listeners regard this waltz as a soothing lullaby, yet for Harry it doesn’t depict calm weather conditions, but rather is all about movement. ‘It is a painting of the sea,’ he said. Already I owe both Harry McClenahan and John Gore Grimes of the CIL a big thank-you for their help and advice. (For Shipping Forecast novices, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnQ2Lk20n3U is the perfect introduction. Laurie McMillan reads the late Forecast on radio and tv as part of BBC’s Arena night in 1993.). I was on the Marian Finucane radio show on May 31st to discuss the project and again on September 20th with an update about my overnight stay on Fastnet Lighthouse.
For my starting point, I have taken one of the four Shipping Forecasts broadcast on Wednesday May 28th 2014, which was Maeve Binchy’s birthday and the day this travel bursary was announced. (The full Forecast is included at the end of this post). In the photo I’m with her husband, Gordon Snell. In each Forecast, the Sea Areas are grouped by the prevailing/anticipated weather conditions, and in the Forecast broadcast at 0535 on May 28th, the groupings went like this:
Viking, North Utsire, Northern South Utsire
Southern South Utsire
South-West Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger
German Bight, Humber
Wight, Portland, Plymouth
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, South-East Iceland
(Those keen listeners among you will have noticed that Trafalgar isn’t on the list. That’s because it only ever features in the 0048 bulletin. I’m sure our paths will cross at some stage somehow…)
In The General Synopsis at Midnight, I’m going to explore the areas as dictated by the prevailing weather conditions on Maeve Binchy’s birthday. Those areas I can’t literally dip a toe into, I will explore in other ways such as through folklore, culture or a shared history. John Gore Grimes, who is on the Board of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, was one of the first people I met while planning this project. As he rightly pointed out, the challenge of those Sea Areas that don’t touch land is to find what does distinguish them from each other – apart from the weather conditions. And he is a man who knows his weather: he has made 14 successful voyages to the Arctic, and seven attempts to reach Franz Josef Land (every single one of which was defeated by sea ice). He says that the weather in Bailey and South East Iceland can be ‘absolutely terrifying’, while Shannon and Rockall are ‘particularly lively.’ He described Biscay – with what I suspect is typical aplomb – as ‘the gathering place for a gale tea party.’
I am kicking off The General Synopsis at Midnight with a visit to the Met Office HQ in Exeter and a trip the Isles of Scilly. Just north-east of the Isles of Scilly is the common nodal point of Areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet.
Seas, shipwrecks and seals beckon….
Shipping Forecast broadcast on Maeve Binchy’s birthday:
AND NOW THE SHIPPING FORECAST ISSUED BY THE MET OFFICE, ON BEHALF OF THE MARITIME AND COASTGUARD AGENCY, AT 0505 ON WEDNESDAY 28TH MAY 2014.
THERE ARE WARNINGS OF GALES IN SOUTH UTSIRE, FISHER AND GERMAN BIGHT. THE GENERAL SYNOPSIS AT MIDNIGHT: LOW SOLE 1,014 LOSING ITS IDENTITY. NEW LOW EXPECTED SOUTHERN ENGLAND 1,011 BY MIDNIGHT TONIGHT. THE AREA FORECASTS FOR THE NEXT 24 HOURS:
VIKING, NORTH UTSIRE, NORTHERN SOUTH UTSIRE: VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. FOG PATCHES LATER. MODERATE OR GOOD. OCCASIONALLY VERY POOR LATER.
SOUTHERN SOUTH UTSIRE: EASTERLY FIVE TO SEVEN. OCCASIONALLY GALE EIGHT AT FIRST IN EAST, BACKING NORTH-EASTERLY FOUR LATER. FAIR. GOOD.
NORTH-EAST FORTIES: EASTERLY FIVE TO SEVEN, BACKING NORTH-EASTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. FAIR. GOOD.
SOUTH-WEST FORTIES, CROMARTY, FORTH, TYNE, DOGGER: EASTERLY OR NORTH-EASTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. OCCASIONALLY SIX EXCEPT IN CROMARTY AND FORTH. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
FISHER: EASTERLY OR NORTH-EASTERLY FIVE TO SEVEN. OCCASIONALLY GALE EIGHT AT FIRST IN EAST. FAIR. GOOD.
GERMAN BIGHT, HUMBER: EAST OR NORTH-EAST FIVE TO SEVEN. OCCASIONALLY GALE EIGHT AT FIRST IN GERMAN BIGHT. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR. THAMES: CYCLONIC BECOMING EASTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. OCCASIONALLY SIX LATER IN NORTH. RAIN OR SHOWERS. FOG PATCHES AT FIRST. MODERATE. OCCASIONALLY VERY POOR AT FIRST.
DOVER: WEST BACKING SOUTH-WEST THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE AT FIRST. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
WIGHT, PORTLAND, PLYMOUTH: VARIABLE THREE IN SOUTH-WEST PLYMOUTH OTHERWISE WESTERLY OR NORTH-WESTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
BISCAY: VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY WESTERLY FIVE IN NORTH EAST. RAIN OR THUNDERY SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
FITZROY: VARIABLE MAINLY NORTH-WESTERLY THREE OR FOUR, INCREASING FIVE AT TIMES. RAIN OR THUNDERY SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
SOLE: CYCLONIC BECOMING VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE AT FIRST. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
LUNDY: NORTH OR NORTH-WEST FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE IN BRISTOL CHANNEL. RAIN OR SHOWERS. MODERATE OR GOOD.
FASTNET: VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. MAINLY FAIR. MODERATE OR GOOD.
IRISH SEA: NORTH OR NORTH-EAST FOUR OR FIVE. OCCASIONALLY SIX LATER. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
SHANNON, ROCKALL, MALIN, HEBRIDES, BAILEY, FAIR ISLE, FAEROES, SOUTH-EAST ICELAND: VARIABLE MAINLY EASTERLY THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE EXCEPT IN BAILEY. SHOWERS. FOG PATCHES. MODERATE OR GOOD. OCCASIONALLY VERY POOR.