The large cylindrical mast on the summit of Winter Hill is the highest television transmitter in Britain. Viewed up close it is an impressive construction, with large stabilising wires holding it in place anchored to vast concrete blocks, and a cluster of low buildings around it housing the engineering equipment that keeps it broadcasting 24 hours a day.
The Original Transmitter
It is not the first transmitter on the hill. Its predecessor was constructed by the Independent Television Authority to broadcast Granada and ABC Weekend Television, the first commercial television stations for Lancashire. The original tower was 450 feet high and was a thin pyramidical structure, resembling a large electrical pylon. On the 3rd May 1956, it was switched on to broadcast a VHF (very high frequency) 405 line black and white picture.
Working at such a high altitude meant bad weather which could prove difficult for the engineers that ran the station. In 1957 they were snowed in and resorted to camp beds and emergency rations. When a passing horse got stuck in one of the many Winter Hill bogs, they joined forces with police to help free it, the first of what would be a number of rescues, usually of hill walkers, in the ensuing decades.
No one could have prepared the station team for the crash, in the winter of 1958, of a Silver City Wayfarer airplane, bound from the Isle of Man to Manchester. The staff were once again snowed in, and outside mist covered the hillside. They did not hear the impact and were only alerted to it when the First Officer arrived to ask for help. After freeing himself from the wreckage, he had fortunately followed a faint path which led him up to the station. A hastily assembled first aid kit, blankets and a stretcher were taken out into the snow-covered hill. Most of the passengers were dead, but quick action by the staff meant that the survivors did not succumb to exposure in the harsh conditions.
In 1962, the first limited BBC transmissions were made, but when a new UHF (ultra high frequency) 625 line system for both BBC1 and BBC2 was needed for the region, it became clear that the old tower was not up to the job. Accordingly, plans were drawn up for a replacement designed by British Insulated Callender Construction.
The Current Transmitter
The new mast, which is the one in place today, is of a very different structure to its predecessor. A tubular structure, over 1015 feet tall, it is over double the height of the original. It incorporates an internal lift for the engineers, which goes up 600 feet. Above this the mast is a lattice work, covered with fibre glass to keep the weather out but let the television signals pass through.
Before the new mast could be erected, a survey was required to determine the extent of the old mine tunnels beneath the hill. The National Coal Board records showed that a mine was worked between 1861 and 1881, but it was not clear how near to the surface the tunnels were. Peat covering the ground made seismic measurements unreliable, so bore holes were sunk and these showed the mine was around 44 feet below the surface. Some of the mine workings had to be backfilled and strengthened before the foundations for the mast could be laid down.
Foundation holes were dug for the central mast and also for its surrounding anchor blocks which would hold it upright with large cables. The mast itself had a large raft of reinforced concrete to act as its base, which had four corner legs for added stability. The work took 18 months to carry out, much of it done in freezing winter temperatures. The first transmission was a UHF (ultra high frequency) broadcast of BBC2 on 31st October 1965. Broadcasts of BBC1 and ITV began the next year, and the old transmitting tower was then dismantled.
Could Disaster Strike?
The new Winter Hill mast was of a similar design to the one at Emley Moor near Huddersfield. In March 1969, ice built up on the cables holding the Emley Moor structure in place. The weight of the ice became so great that the whole of the mast collapsed, leaving a mere 10 feet upright at the base. Although very shaken by the catastrophe, none of the engineers on duty were injured. To prevent the same thing happening at Winter Hill, the transmitter was modified and strengthened, the work being carried out intermittently over 10 years. However, Huddersfield local counsellors were nervous at recommissioning the same design again, and subsequently commissioned a mast with a completely different structure, using a tall concrete tower.
On the evening of March 4th 1977, engineers William Kay, Mike Ingram and Peter Dennis were on duty at the Winter Hill transmitter station. Mike was making his way to the kitchen when he caught sight of intruders in the entrance hall. He hurried back to tell William, and when they returned to the hall they could see a glass panel had been broken on the front door. William shouted to Peter, who had been busy repairing equipment, to call the police. He and Mike then pursued one of the intruders into the UHF Hall. The room was in darkness, so William switched on the lights. There they saw four young people, two women and two men, with torches. One of the women was turning off switches on the control panel of the ‘A’ transmitter. William told her to stop, but she ignored him and carried on. William went and reset the switches, and noticed the ‘B’ transmitter’s control panel had also been switched off.
With William guarding the control panel for the ‘A’ transmitter and Mike the ‘B’ one, William asked them what their motives were. The four were members of the Welsh Language Society, a non-violent direct action group that were campaigning for the provision of a fourth television channel that would broadcast in Welsh. They had picked Winter Hill as a target, as a protest of Granada programmes that would ‘leak’ into North Wales. William explained to them that transmitters were no respecters of country boundaries.
Police from Horwich, Chorley and Adlington arrived. The four young people were arrested and taken in for questioning. The police did not believe that they were Welsh, but thought they were Irish Republican terrorists. Angharad Tomas, one of the women, writing in a recent article for the Lancashire Evening Post said that the police had never heard of the name Angharad, and thought Sion (pronounced Shaun) and Teresa were Irish names. The officers also believed that the intrusion had been a highly planned operation, and did not believe the four could have just fortuitously found their way to the transmitter room, and turned off the transmitter switches, but this was actually the truth. For two days they were kept under arrest and allowed no contact with anyone outside the police station.
On searching the four the police found 6-inch nails in a handbag of one of the women, and a hammer. The protestors had planned to barricade themselves in by nailing doors shut. At trial, Angharad, Sion and Glen received 6 month suspended sentences, but Teresa was imprisoned for 6 months for the damage to the entrance way door. Writing recently in the Lancashire Evening Post about these events from over forty years ago, Angharad Tomos stated she had no regrets over the direct action, and she is still an active member of the Welsh Language Society. The Welsh version of Channel 4 – S4C – began broadcasting in 1982.
The Digital Age
In the late 2000s, the mast had to be further strengthened when heavier digital transmission aerials were attached to it. The support wires have been made stronger and 152 tons of dampening chains were fitted to reduce oscillations caused by high winds. In 2009, it was the first mast in the UK to broadcast digital television in High Definition.
As it approaches its 60th year, the Winter Hill Transmitter remains a familiar landmark seen right across the Lancashire region. By day, it towers over the array of smaller aerials that cluster around it and, by night, the red airplane warning lights emit their familiar glow. But will it remain for many more years? The future of broadcasting digital television through the air remains unclear, with Freeview licences under review and more and more people using internet streaming services. Many people in the region can no longer receive the digital television signal through their aerials, especially when there is bad weather.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2022
The Winter Hill transmitter complex stands on the top of Winter Hill, and there are numerous public footpaths up to the site. The quickest route is to park at the free car park near Wards Reservoir (the Blue Lagoon) at Belmont, and follow the footpath straight up the hill.
Winter Hill Bronze Age Burial Cairn
Noon Hill Bronze Age Burial Cairn
The Winter Hill Scrapbook, Dave Lane (2007). Published by lulu.com.
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