I visited the site at Washford Cross in March 2004 with Julie and met our important 'MDS975' contributor Martin Watkins and Wendy there. We enjoyed a delicious picnic kindly supplied by Martin and Wendy before having a good look around the site. I took some pictures of the masts, of course, but there is also a visitor centre and radio museum on the site. More of which later!
The BBC and its contractors commenced construction of the two masts at Washford Cross in 1932. The station was completed in 1933. The BBC West Regional service opened for broadcasting on 28th May 1933 while the BBC National Programme commenced transmissions on July 17th 1933.
The site at Washford Cross brought high power transmissions from the BBC National and Regional Programmes to the South West of England and South Wales under the Regional Scheme, and effectively replaced the small network of low power 1.5kW local stations in the area.
The Regional Scheme provided a number of high power 'twin wave' regional transmitting stations around the UK bringing powerful reception of the National Programme and the Regional Programme as an alternative.
The BBC West Regional Programme was transmitted on 310 meters (968 kHz) medium wave at a power of 70 kilowatts from Marconi transmitters. This service took over the frequency previously used by the 1.5 kW Cardiff local station 5WA and so replaced Cardiff 5WA and its 0.1 kW relay, 5SX, in Swansea.
The BBC National Programme was transmitted on 261 meters (1147 kHz) medium wave at a power of 50 kilowatts from Marconi transmitters and supplemented the longwave service of the National Programme from the 30 kilowatt station, 5XX, in Daventry on 1554 meters (193 kHz).
The Daventry longwave station was later moved to Droitwich, and with greater power this provided a much improved service to the South-West. In 1937 the National Programme from Washford was therefore discontinued and replaced with a Welsh Regional Programme.
The West Regional service from Washford suffered poor reception in some parts of the South-West and transmissions were moved to stations at Start Point and Clevedon in 1939.
Around 1978/9 Washford was refurbished by the BBC with new Marconi transmitters being installed for BBC Radio Wales, Radio One and Radio Three. By 1990 after several re-organisations of frequencies since the station was built, the BBC was transmitting Radio Wales on 882 kHz (370m), Radio One on 1089 kHz (275m) and Radio Three on 1215 kHz (247 m) from Washford. However in 1992 the BBC lost the use of 1215 kHz in preparation for the start of an Independent National Radio service (INR2). On 30th April 1993 Virgin Radio commenced transmissions on 1215 kHz from a network of medium wave transmitters which included the use of the Washford facility. Virgin Radio replaced the Marconi equipment and installed a new Harris transmitter for its service from Washford.
In 1994 the BBC lost the use of 1089 kHz in preparation for the start of another Independent National Radio service (INR3). On 14th February 1995 Talk Radio UK launched on medium wave from a national chain of transmitters and Washford was used to transmit Talk Radio UK on 1089 kHz. Talk Radio also replaced the Marconi transmitter with a Harris unit.
In addition to the two main medium wave masts there are two smaller towers, one of which carries a low power analogue TV relay of BBC1 and 2, ITV and Channel Four to Watchet and Washford.
In 1997 the BBC Transmissions section was privatised by the government and sold off to Crown Castle, and American concern, so this site is no longer owned by the BBC, and the transmitters are now operated by Crown Castle on behalf of the BBC, Virgin Radio, Talk Sport and TV companies.
THE AERIAL SYSTEM
When the BBC initially built the station there were two masts, each mast supporting an antenna consisting of three wires spaced at 120 degree intervals radiating downwards and gently outwards from the top of the mast towards the ground (in a similar way to the mast guy wires, but not going as far out from the mast). These aerial wires were secured with a guy wire and insulators at a point a few meters above ground level where the aerial wire returned in towards the mast to the point where the feed was obtained from the transmitters. The same aerial arrangement exists to this day.
Apparently the aerial system on the West Mast was designated the mainsystem and both services were combined and transmitted via the West mast, while the East mast and aerial system was designated as the reserve.
At a later date an additional aerial system was added to the masts. This consisted of a typical 'T' aerial, the bottom of the 'T' being fed from a small building on the ground half way between the two masts. Four aerial wires rise from this building and are attached to four top loading wires suspended between the tops of the two masts.
Martin and I thought that this 'T' aerial might be used for the BBC Radio Wales service, while the original 3-wire aerial system may be used for INR2 and INR3, but we don't know and are endeavouring to find out!
Update February 2010:
I was interested to read your piece on the above. There is an article about the station's building in the 1934(?) BBC handbook which describes the batteries used for power back-up. They were 2000 Ah at 260volts and could keep the transmitter on for an hour. The diesels generated at 260 volts DC and motor-generators used to supply HT, LT and bias. I worked at BBC Skelton short-wave station for a coulple of years in the early '60s but then moved into military avionics.
Best wishes, Jim Maxwell
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