Ode to Cromarty, Forties, Forth…

The North wind doth blow (though not very hard). Our windmill acts like a weathervane even when it’s not turning and it is facing resolutely north. We shall have snow.

And we do. Snowbound, I’m looking out the window at the blanket of white stuff turning our back garden to wonderland with robins, squirrels and pheasants adding their splash of red in a feeding frenzy round the bird table. For some reason at the same time the shipping forecast is running its thread of poetry through my head.

While our windmill turns north the shipping forecast threatened westerlies, gale force 10. Out at sea they are having it ‘rough or very rough’. Here inland, more or less in line with ‘Sea Area Forth,’ we’re feeling the back end of Storm Clodagh as wintry showers. ‘Visibility good, occasionally poor.’

“Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire…Sea state: very rough, becoming high. Weather squally, wintry showers. Visibility moderate or poor

For fireside travellers there’s comfort in the familiarity of those names. I find a shivery assurance of continuity: ports in the storm – North Utsire, South Utsire, Cromarty, Forties, Forth… (even if I didn’t even know how to spell Utsire until I checked the BBC website – it’s an island off the Norwegian coast, if you’re interested).

The shipping forecast is a litany repeated four times a day on Radio 4, a voice of calm constancy whatever the weather. And for older listeners, perhaps, it also conjures a romantic echo of national fortitude: those wartime movies with dogged Jack Hawkins and Trevor Howard steering a steady course through the perils of the sea, their handsome chiselled features etched in black and white while forces of hell rained around them.

“Tyne, Dogger, Fisher…Sea state, very rough or high. Weather rain or showers, Visibility good occasionally poor

A few rainy nights ago, over a meal with friends, we tried to memorise that litany as it moves down and round the coast. Dogger, Fisher, German Bight…then we got lost, faltering towards Fastnet, floundering at Malin, Fair Isle…then what? Faeroes?

I listened intently driving home last night, as more rain battered on the windscreen, but still couldn’t recite the whole list when I got inside. Maybe, like crosswords and Sudoku, capturing accurately those elusive 33 names in correct order could serve as a daily exercise for the ageing brain.

But there’s better incentive for some. Over dinner – North Sea fish as it happens – one of our friends told his tale. As a young seadog he had spent a month on a four-masted sailing ship (he’s not quite as ancient as that makes him sound – it was a training vessel for personal development and he was an apprentice accountant). On the night watch, one of his tasks was to listen to the forecast and fill in the log for the captain to read in the morning.

Try as he might he could not grasp details beyond the immediate area – the other names and numbers slipped by too quickly. Using his initiative he decided that what mattered was the forecast for their immediate location and dutifully logged the local visibility, seas and wind directions. The captain soon put him right, with a sharp lecture and a punishment of 20 pushups to be carried out over the weather map, as a reminder that ships and weather systems do not stay in one place. If there’s trouble ahead, just round the coast, or further out to sea they need to know it.

shipping

Perhaps I’m also making heavy weather of this, but that seems a good thing to remember on the eve of the Paris Summit, plus the looming EU referendum and all the other opportunities we have to stake out national boundaries. Weather – like climate change – knows no borders.

The shipping forecast, for this fireside wayfarer anyway, is a daily reminder that the coastline of our small lump of rock is shaped by systems beyond our control. Besides, it is pure poetry. Now how does it go?

“Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire,
Cromarty, Forties, Forth, Tyne, Dogger,
Fisher, German Bight,
Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight,
Portland, Plymouth,
Biscay, Trafalgar, Fitzroy,
Sole, Lundy, Fastnet,
Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin,
Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle,
Faeroes, Southeast Iceland.

By now the windmill shows a brisk southwesterly.

Visibility? Moderate or poor. Occasionally (very) good.

A version of this blog can be found on the author’s personal site

 

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