GCHQ Let it Snow

Any newcomer to CSOS Bude is told that snow is a sort of English disease which would never dare to cross the Tamar and invade Cornwall, and it is true that Bude does enjoy its own peculiar climate. Whether anyone else enjoys it is a moot point – it is particularly subject to high winds which come 3000 miles across the Atlantic with nothing much to impede their progress, so trees grow horizontally, the streets are blown free of rubbish, cobwebs have a desperate time, and the children grow up with a permanent list. But snow Bude does not have, generally speaking.

However, much to the astonishment of the natives, the delight of the kids, and the disgust of everyone else, heavy snow began to fall on Wednesday, 15th February 1978, accompanied by gale-force winds which blew the snow into deep drifts in what the Cornish in their dry turn of wit, laughingly call roads. Soon access to CSOS Bude was possible only by a circuitous route, and then only by Landrover.

By Saturday afternoon the roads had become completely impassable, except perhaps by Snowcat (which are a bit thin on the ground in Bude) and the station staff who had gone on duty at 0800 that morning could not leave, and it was impossible for other staff to relieve them. By 1400 the wind had reached up to 80mph, a condition not calculated to be healthy for the station’s 97ft diameter antenna: both dishes were therefore stowed and locked fast against the elements. The station had gone over to emergency power at 1930 on the first day of these events, a precaution which proved justified when the mains supplies became unreliable from 2030 the same day – being interrupted by lengthy outages for the next three days. The emergency supply ensured that operations could resume when the wind abated, and also kept the stranded staff warm. In this respect, they were better off than some of the local inhabitants who were huddled over oil stoves, wrapped in blankets and smelling strongly of paraffin.

Some of the volunteer relief party and the Landrover used to carry supplies (© Crown Copyright)

The Saturday morning staff continued to man the station over the weekend and into Monday when by 1330 the wind had relented and the stranded staff gallantly brought the station back into operation. But by now the small amounts of food which had been available on the site were running out. These had included some vegetables, ham, beef burgers, sausages, chocolate, cake, and chewing gum – from which a remarkable variety of dishes were concocted; there are stories told of a stew being devised using most of the ingredients mentioned, with the possible exception of the chewing gum. Acting on the premise that there is no situation devised by man to which man cannot find a solution, some of the staff, using odd pieces of packing cases and a great deal of ingenuity, together with some more of the chewing gum, set out to build a sledge. Three stalwarts then set off in an attempt to reach a local hostelry some 3 miles distant. The journey, for the main part across fields as the roads were buried under deep drifts, was arduous, but successful, as the licensee kindly supplied a nourishing variety of food including the inevitable and ubiquitous Cornish Pasty. This cornucopia was transported on the sledge back to the station. On reaching the site it was the sledge that collapsed, not the men. They don’t make packing cases like they used to.

On Tuesday, 21st February, the decision was taken by the OIC, who by this time was suffering from acute frustration, to try and get three volunteers to the station to relieve the staff on site. Dressed in the manner of Sherpa Tensing, and carrying food supplies for at least 24 hours, the chosen trio was transported by Landrover as far as possible (Hall’s Farm, Stibb), and then walked over the heavy drifts for the last 4 miles or so. After their arrival at the station, and when the cheering had died down, most of the beleaguered staff commenced the return journey home on foot, very tired after 3 ½ days on duty, but in remarkably good spirits. They were met at Hall’s Farm and taken the rest of the way by Landrover. By the afternoon of the same day, the Cornwall Highways Authority had succeeded in cutting a lane through the drifts, which allowed the Landrover to make further progress toward the station. A second relief party was assembled and in due course succeeded in relieving the rest of the marooned staff.

Conditions gradually improved over the next few days, and perhaps the beginning of the end was marked by the return to mains power supplies at noon on Friday, 24th February. The fact that no operations were lost, other than for the period when the high winds made them impossible, is due entirely to the valiant efforts (and the enviable digestive systems) of the staff who were stranded on-site, and later by the intrepid volunteers who relieved them. Throughout the emergency period, a temporary office was set up in the OIC’s house in Bude from which all arrangements for makeshift watches and transportation were made. It was from here that station management kept in close touch with the station, the police, Cornwall Highways Authority, and other services. It was also the point of assembly for the 2 relief parties. The OIC’s house has now become known as Base Camp, and it’s probably true to say that the hottest piece of equipment in Bude during the days described here was his private telephone.

PS: The locals are now saying that they SOMETIMES get snow in Bude, but it comes only every 30 years, so perhaps we can look forward to a breezy but lengthy period of normality.

GCHQ Let it Snow
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