I have a real passion for anything derelict, but when it involves such names as the B.B.C., my interest grows expotentially.
And so it was that when I learned of the former B.B.C. receiving station based just outside a small Surrey village called Tatsfield, I had to go.
I did some digging so that I had something of an outline of what it was the station did, and the following is a precis of some amazing information on the most excellent Derelict Miscellany website.
The B.B.C.'s Tatsfield broadcast monitoring station was built in 1929 to monitor domestic radio broadcasts and gather various tech information about those broadcasts, the idea being to ensure that they were made on the right frequency and to the best possible standards. Because of it's location on the North Downs and it's proximity to London, the station started monitoring news bulletins from several European countries as well as Tokyo and New York by the end of the 1930's. Tatsfield also played a major role during World War II, gathering news and information. It's duties were split into two parts: “M” unit for normal monitoring and “Y” unit for enemy propaganda. All the data that was monitored from foreign services was fed into Britain's propaganda channels, including the so-called “black” stations run by the Political Warfare Executive. Because of it's technical capabilities, Tatsfield had the responsibility of locating foreign propaganda transmitters and to report on any jamming of BBC and British Government propaganda stations overseas. Some of Tatsfield's masts were destroyed during the war, however, there were no casualties.
After the war, Tatsfield had it's budget cut, but the onset of the Cold War ensured it's continued service. During the 1950's, the newly constructed experimental aerials started receiving satellite signals - of note is that Tatsfield was the first place in the U.K. to detect signals from the Russian Sputnik satellite on 4 October, 1957. The staff enjoyed good facilities including a large main receiving building, a small office block, thermally-controlled underground bunkers that housed frequency standards apparatus and radio direction finding equipment, tennis courts, a cafeteria, a social club and a small waste water treatment plant. It is thought that Tatsfield was finally closed in 1974 - its work was merged with that of B.B.C. Monitoring's receiving station at Crowsley Park in South Oxfordshire. The masts were removed and the site divided between a local farmer, British Telecom and SEGAS. A BT repeater station was built on the site of the main block while all of the buildings to the rear of the site were presumably demolished when a new gas compound was built down the hill to the west. The remnants of Tatsfield are still spread out over a fair-sized area, much of which has seriously decayed owing to abandonment and vandalism.
I was in a good place to time my exploration of the B.B.C. receiving station: mid-week, on an early morning in the Spring. I prepared by collating as much geographical data as I could. Fortunately, there is a plethora of information on the Internet, not least maps of the site, which I downloaded and printed off. Looking at these in the days ahead of the mission, really fed both my enthusiasm and my imagination.
The journey from the fine city of Norwich to the village of Tatsfield in Surrey, via the A11, M11 and M25 roads took no time at all. It was a perfect morning with good sunshine, an agreeable temperature and relatively clear roads.
I pulled off of the M25 motorway and headed through the glorious Surrey countryside, traversing the North Downs on this beautiful Spring morning which made the journey so much more enjoyable. I was filled with anticipation, fuelled by maps and photos. The country roads got smaller and very soon I found myself on the approach road to the B.B.C. receiving station.
I parked my little car on a wide grassy bank and after a quick bite to eat and a slug of Asda's finest cherryade, I gathered my gear together and set forth into the site.
I was greeted by a concrete trackway that looked to lead to some mobile phone masts behind the receiving station area. I walked a little way along the track and found an entrance to the receiving station site, lost in undergrowth. Being Spring meant that the forbidding vegetation that takes over the countryside was only just beginning to appear, so it wasn't much of a battle to get through it. My first view of this derelict beauty was breathtaking and I spent a few moments taking in the surroundings, familiarising myself with the layout from the maps that I had printed off and old photos I had found on the Derelict Miscellany website.
I wandered from building to building, taking in the various remnants of a once thriving location, it's vested interest being the communications of far-off places. Water tanks, abandoned tape machines and fire-damaged Bakelite telephones captured the gaze of my camera and the tendrils of my imagination before I started to explore the remaining buildings.
The first building I entered was the Office Building. Sadly, this had been destroyed by fire, but I was still able to wander through the four rooms. Nature was slowly but surely reclaiming the Office Building, and in doing so, was creating the most beautiful scenes. Here and there were charred and/or rusted remains of telephones, mains boards, circuit boards and electrical fittings. As I walked from the Office Building to the Bunker, I spotted an old Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder decaying in the undergrowth.
And then I entered the Bunker. Access was a little tricky because metal pipes, old cabling and penetrating roots lined the short stairway down, but this was nothing new to this explorer. I entered into what was once the Checking and Monitoring Room where I found cabinets full of circuitry and old measuring instruments, still with their graph paper within.
This room led through to the Laboratory where a workbench still lay covered in electrical bits and pieces, decades of abandonment leaving a layer of dust and grit.
I then reached the Frequency Standards Room where I found an old table littered with artifacts and on the floor were burned technical documents. Beyond this room was the emergency exit.
After I exited the Bunker, I sat on it's roof to take a much needed drink as the day had become quite warm. I looked around and thought of the Cold War secrets that would have passed through these old and crumbling remains, I wondered of the importance they had made to the war effort in the 1940's and of the moment the first signal was recieved from the Russian Sputnik satellite in the 1950's. I imagined the personnel wandering around the rooms and across the courtyards, going about their daily duties.
The B.B.C. receiving station remains as one of my most favourite explores, whilst little really remains, what is still in existence paints for me a magical picture of technology and information/data processing of long gone era.