On the air

The digital switchover starts this week, and with that in  mind I thought I’d feature a couple of prominent features of the local landscape in this week’s pictures from the past feature. This may seem odd, but as a cyclist and outdoors type of person, I often recognise and navigate the landscape by the prominent, striking towers that broadcast TV and radio. Locally, there are currently three masts at two transmission stations – two at Sutton Coldfield, where a temporary one has been built while the existing one is upgraded, the tallest being 270.5 metres high,and one at Common Barn, on the edge of Hints Quarry at 305 metres high, between Hints and Hopwas, referred to as Lichfield.

Like any geek, I find fascination and mystery in any such installation, and keep a keen eye on any changes, and I followed the modifications to the Sutton Mast recently with some eagerness. This also ties in with my respect for people who work at heights. Indeed, if you’re queazy about them, look away now. All of the material here is featured on the wonderful site MB21, an exploration of UK broadcast TV transmission. It really is a fascinating site.

Sutton Coldfield mast as it looked in 1954. MB21 has this to say: This photo shows the original mast with the Band I dipoles (close-up, right) above the Band II slot aerials for VHF radio. The picture was part of an article in Science & Vie magazine in 1954. It was kindly contributed by Louis Feratier.'

Find out more about life at Sutton Coldfield Transmission Station by reading ‘Tales from a Cold Field’ the online biography of Ray Cooper, an engineer at the station.

Engineers working on Lichfield mast, using a helmet cam just like the one I use on my bike. Some bad language, but if they’re prepared to do that for a living, I’ll forgive them anything. Stunning.

I spotted the above film some months ago in an excellent post paying tribute to Lichfield mast by the wonderful Tamworth Time Hikes. Check it out. If Mark is reading this, I’ll be in touch soon mate, promise. 

This isn't the first time there have been two masts at Sutton. In the mid-eighties I remember exploring the area by bike and the two masts haunted me. MB21 says this: 'The last ever 405-line transmissions in January 1985 were also broadcast from here and it was around this time that the current mast entered service, having been built alongside the site of the original' - photo by Mike Smith

Most people don’t realise that big masts like this usually sit on a single ball bearing, often about the size of a billiard ball. The reason for this is that the hawsers that tie the stack to the ground keep it upright, and it can sway in the wind by moving on the bearing freely. Were it fixed, the members of the tower would soon shear off. The above, excellent film shows the laying of the mast bearing at Lichfield  around 1961, set to music played over test cards transmitted from the station.

Find out more about the history of Lichfield Transmitter by visiting Bob Cotton’s Lichfield Memories, a great collection of written, video and photographic media.

How you add bits on to a transmitter - first, get a good helicopter and highly skilled pilot. Assemble all the parts on the ground beforehand. Picture by Reg Hill, posted on MB21.

Lift each piece into position. Make sure you've got lots of fearless technicians up top to bolt it into place. Picture by Reg Hill, posted on MB21.

When you get the antenna up there, make sure the engineers are ready to climb onto it to fix it in place securely. Don't forget the guy on the platform beneath to watch and shout encouragement. Picture by Reg Hill, posted on MB21.

There’s a fine collection of very stiff, utterly clipped BBC accents here on this first transmission from Sutton Coldfield Transmission Station. The increasing ease of the speech is noticeable as the broadcast progresses. I wonder if they realised what a revolution they were kicking off?

Here's why I love these masts. One of my own pictures from 2009, showing the lights of all three transmitters at night. You'll need to zoom in - the picture was taken from Grangewood, some 10 miles as the crow flies from Lichfield.

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2 Responses to On the air

  1. Grande Pablo says:

    Not sure which installation he helped, but my Dad worked for Pye in the late 50’s/early 60’s when he came out of RAF & gets quite gooey-eyed over these.

  2. lorenzor says:

    Think I can see Lichfield Transmitter mast swaying on that ball bearing right now!I’ll be sending another long winded post your way soon, so apologies up front.

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