Wight Life

Listening Out

by Walter Fancutt

Picture of Niton Radio

EACH YEAR thousands of visitors take the left fork as they approach Niton on the Undercliff road from Ventnor, seeking the Buddle Inn, the Lighthouse, or Puckaster Cove, but few I imagine continue left along the slip-road marked 'Unsuitable for Traffic'. Ignoring the injunction I followed the track until I saw the masts of Niton's radio station, which started life as a Lloyd's signal station and was taken over by the Post Office in 1909 to provide a telephone and telegraph service for vessels sailing in a three-hundred mile area of the English Channel between Devon and Kent.

This ship-to-shore operation is increasingly important as merchant ships and tankers require closer co-operation between themselves and their shipping offices, as well as immediacy of access to the telephone network on land. Even more important for vessels in distress are the facilities for quick communication with the various organisations geared to help.

It was to learn more about the radio station and its work that I approached Mr S Abram of Godshill, who is officer-in-charge of the unit, and he gladly showed me round the station and explained its main functions. The radio telephone links allow messages to be passed between owners and their vessels at sea and vice versa, as well as offering telephone and telegraph facilities at all times. The need for such a service is confirmed by the fact that there is a 3 to 5% increase in the traffic year by year and, in the month prior to my visit, 3,500 radio telephone calls were taken at Niton. The Morse section of the station, though smaller than the radio telephone service, nevertheless receives about one hundred messages each day and some of them are serious enough to cause all routine work to be suspended so that full attention can be given to them; indeed three-minute silence periods are observed each half-hour so that weak distress signals can have the best opportunity of recognition.

While I was at the Niton station, the operators on duty were trying to contact a whole series of vessels for whom messages, or telephone calls, were waiting and the attempts would continue with studied regularity until contact had been made. Among the more serious calls received that day was an emergency distress signal from Jersey alerting the station with the news that a speedboat was overdue on a journey from Herm to Guernsey. The message was at once transmitted from Niton to all ships in the area, asking for an extra-sharp look-out to be kept for the missing boat, and the message was repeated throughout the emergency. Before I left the Niton station, news came in that the boat had been sighted but its occupants were missing.

Besides Niton, there are ten such medium-range radio stations round the coast of Britain, the nearest to Niton being Land's End to the west and the North Foreland to the east. Over the next two years the Post Office will be spending more than £100,000 in re-siting and modernising the Niton station. It is part of a £1 million programme which will give a new look to this ship-toshore service. The new Isle of Wight station will be at St Lawrence, on the site formerly occupied by the Ministry of Defence and, by transferring to the Down, the station will be able to offer even greater reception and transmission services.

I left the Niton radio station with a tremendous admiration for Mr Abram and his staff and I was proud to feel that the Island has a part in such a network of services. Had I been among the number whose work takes them backwards and forwards along the busy shipping lanes of the Channel, I would have felt, perhaps, that admiration was not the ideal word to use. To them, Niton is a lifeline whose presence and watchfulness is felt in deeds, rather than words.