Many people have their own ideas about what is ‘quintessentially British’. These ideas vary of course, and many will not agree with my own list, but never let it be said that I don’t have a list.
Pork pies and beer must be in there somewhere, along with kilts, bagpipes, Welsh mountains and castles, fish and chips, gift of the gab, Gordon’s Gin, stone terraced houses and lofty cathedrals. Police with funny hats, telephone boxes, magnificent views, sheep, coal, large mugs of tea with a dunkable biscuit, The Beatles, rugby. And coming up on the rails would be gassy lager and curry.
The British are also well known for their friendly, welcoming tolerance, except in London of course, where if Yorkshire folk greet a stranger with an enthusiastic, friendly “GOOD MORNING” as they are apt to do, then the Londoner is likely to run away and hide in a darkened, locked room for a fotnit.
Having said that, many parts of the fabric of London definitely form part of what people traditionally associate with‘ Britishness’, such as the chimes of Big Ben, the Bloody Tower, Beefeaters, pomp and ceremony, and the Queen.
As British as the pips
In my humble opinion the time pips (or to give them their proper title, The Greenwich Time Signal) and the Shipping Forecast, both broadcast by the BBC, are also British institutions.
The shipping forecast and the trig points dotted around our countryside are now becoming outdated and unnecessary. Due to satellite photography and navigation, the trig points have been used as a challenge or a focal point for walkers for some time, but the Shipping Forecast is also becoming less and less relevant.
The longest continuous shipping forecast in history can trace its roots back to 1861– save for the two world wars–when it was decided that the dastardly and crafty Germans may be listening in and take some sort of devious advantage.
In 1859, during a storm, the steam clipper Royal Charter was wrecked off the coast of Anglesey killing 450 people, more than 130 ships and a further 800 lives were lost during that storm. Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy of the Board of Trade decided that with a better understanding of the weather, many of these lives would have been saved. Robert Fitzroy was the former captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle. It was he who coined the phrase “weather forecast”, now such a common phrase in our vocabulary that we find it surprising that it wasn’t always there somewhere.
One or more of Robert Fitzroy’s ancestors must have been very friendly with a royal, for the name Fitzroy means the son of the king, and a surname originally given to the illegitimate son of Charles II.
‘Humber: westerly 4 or 5 at first. Rain later in east. Mainly fair’
The shipping forecast, as we now know it, was originally divided into 13 sea areas around Britain in 1921, including the iconic names, many of which are still used. The names mainly derived from geological features such as shallows and estuaries. They expanded over time to include areas used by the larger fishing fleets and oil drilling that was carried out in more distant waters.
Now there are 31 sea areas around Britain and woe-betide anyone messing with our shipping forecast. But in 2002 the United Nations Meteorological Organisation did just that. One of the iconic and much-loved areas was named Finisterre, which was off the coast of northern Spain and had derived its name from the belief that it was finis terre (the end of the earth). The aforesaid organisation renamed Finisterre after the founding father Fitzroy, and though many were unhappy about it, they had to accept it in the end.
Many writers, poets and entertainers including Sir John Betjeman, Alan Bennett, Stephen Fry, Seamus Heaney, Barry Hines, Radiohead, The Prodigy and many others, have included parts of the shipping forecast within their own style of entertainment. The following is my very humble offering.
Forties, Cromarty, Forth and Tyne, should not be lost in the passing of time.
Viking, Utsire North and South, resonate sharply in the mouth.
Shannon, Fastnet, Faeroes, Lundy, in my world that rhymes with Monday.
Portland, Biscay, Dover, Sole, Fair Isle, Thames, Irish Sea, sound like breakfast dinner lunch and tea.
Hebrides, Plymouth, Trafalgar, Rockall, are all much loved we may recall.
Southeast Iceland, ships ahoy, is it Finis Terre or Fitzroy?
And we should not forget the iconic rhythm:
Humber, Bailey, Malin, Wight!
Dogger, Fisher, German Bight!
I know, I know it’s no doubt naff; I’m sure you’re allowed to scorn or laff.