October 2019 – Nic Compton – The Shipping Forecast

The old wooden cutter Valkyrie must have made a picturesque sight buried under 6in of snow in Emsworth creek, during the winter of 1962. It was one of the coldest winters on record, and Nic Compton’s parents had just returned from Bristol with their 2-year-old son and brand new baby Nic. Below decks, the boat (a converted oyster smack) had two living areas: a saloon with galley to one side and a cabin with two narrow bunks; there was no standing headroom but there was, joy of joys, a wood burning stove. Nic was brought up afloat until the age of 14.

This unusual upbringing, with the forces of nature evident every day, obviously instilled Nic with a keen interest in the weather, and sailing winds in particular.

Nic walked us through the origins of the Shipping Forecast, stemming from the days when mariners only had folk law and old wives tales to rely on, my favourite being a frog in a jar with a tiny ladder. It is not surprising that in the 1700’s around the British Isles there were 7400 shipwrecks in 4 years. This inspired Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy to campaign for a weather forecast service, which developed over time to be the broadcast that we rely on today. Initially covering few areas, it gradually increased the sea areas covered, and sub divided them into the 31 that we know today.

The rhythmic lullaby of ‘North Utsire, South Utsire’ has been lulling the nation’s insomniacs to sleep for over 90 years. It has inspired some unusual songs (we were treated to a brief burst of Chumbawamba), poetry and humorous renditions by the likes of Stephen Fry – as well as providing a very real service for the nation’s seafarers who might fall prey to storms and gales. Initially broadcast in 1925 on long wave on the Light Programme it was moved to Radio 4 in 1984. In 1995, a plan to move the late-night broadcast by just 12 minutes caused a national outcry and was ultimately scrapped.

Nic is the author of several nautical books and was the editor of Classic Boat for several years. He was delighted to be asked by BBC Books to write this history of marine weather forecasting, The Shipping Forecast is the official miscellany for seafarers and armchair travellers alike. From the places themselves – how they got their names, what’s happened there through the ages – to the poems and parodies that it’s inspired, this was a beautifully evocative tribute to one of Britain’s – and Radio 4’s – best-loved broadcasts, but even more, a National Institution.