The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Communications masts disguised as an Indian tower, Wiltshire. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Communications masts disguised as an Indian tower, Wiltshire. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

When Ripon’s Hornblower steps on to the Market Square at 9pm each evening he is undertaking a role that goes back for centuries.

For much of that time he was playing an important role in modern communications – in Ripon’s case, announcing that the watch had been set and that the Wakeman was now responsible for the security of the households and businesses in the city.

The Armada beacon at Compton Pike, Warwickshire.

The Armada beacon at Compton Pike, Warwickshire.

For most of human existence, communication was almost entirely vocal – if you wanted to attract the attention of a distant neighbour, you needed to shout.

There were a few alternatives – bashing on a log or a stone (or later a drum) to alert people to your desire to meet and speak to them.

In the valleys of Switzerland the cowherds developed a special technique for making their voices carry – yodelling. This, though, may not be particularly old; the first mention of the art came only in 1545. There were similar techniques in Norway, called ‘laling’ or ‘huving’.

There is evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle about the way in which people communicated with each other in woodland.

Telephone boxes, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, on Ripon Market Square. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Telephone boxes, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, on Ripon Market Square. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The story of the martyr King Edmund, killed by the Danes, tells that his head was separated from his body, and a search party was sent to look for it in the Suffolk woods.

To keep in touch, they regularly shouted out ‘Friend, are you there?’ They found the king’s head when it miraculously replied ‘Here I am!’.

New communications techniques were developed. Ripon’s various horns are, of course, a good example – maybe from as far back as Saxon times. The Swiss developed the lengthy Alp Horn to produce deep notes that would re-echo among the mountains.

Later, metal horns were used both in hunting, to call the riders and the hounds together, and, in the form of the yard-long post horn, on stage coaches to warn of their approach.

Then there were bells. China had metal bells 4000 years ago, and pottery ones a millennium before that. The use of bells in Western Europe largely developed in the Middle Ages, and churches were built with bell towers to hold them. Their function was both to call the faithful to worship and also to make announcements – special patterns of ringing were developed to announce the age and gender of people who had died, and bells could be used to sound alarms, too.

Alarms could be communicated by beacons – there was a chain of Armada beacons in 1588 (one, at Compton in Warwickshire, is Britain’s oldest pyramid), and others during the wars against France.

These days bonfires blaze on beacons sites during national celebrations.

If you wanted to send anything other than a warning message further than the sound of hearing, though, you needed to rely on messengers. Courts had a hierarchy of messengers, from the humble footman who would carry messages around a palace, to the much-more-important heralds, whose function was to convey the thoughts of his master to another court.

We still have heralds on display in state occasions, dressed in their tabards with the royal arms embroidered on them; and messages to MPs and Lords – and even bills shuttling between Commons and Lords – are still taken by uniformed messengers.

An advance for distant communication was suggested in 1684 by the scientist Robert Hooke, who proposed an optical telegraph that would use reflected light to send messages; it was only tried out in 1767. During the Napoleonic Wars a system of telegraphing using wooded gantries with moveable arms was used to send messages; it could carry information across hundreds of miles in quite a short time.

All this paled into insignificance with the invention of the electric telegraph. The first one to work (there had been earlier trials) was constricted in Hammersmith in 1816. Development was rapid, aided by the needs of the new railways and the opportunities they presented for placing the poles (we still call them telegraph poles) along their routes. By 1850 Britain had more than 2,000 miles of telegraph wires – the US had 23,000 miles. The telegraph, and the need to run trains efficiently, led to the standardisation of time.

There was a strong desire, though, not just to send electric messages in code but to hear real voices at a distance. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone (his claim to its invention has been disputed, and there were certainly precursors, including, once again, Robert Hooke, as early as 1664!)

The telephone revolutionised communications (though the Postmaster General dismissed it by suggesting that the Americans may need it but the British didn’t, as ‘we have plenty of message boys’). Soon telephone boxes (the most famous designed by Giles Gilbert Scott) appeared on our streets. And communications advanced very rapidly.

Wireless communication, developed commercially by Marconi from 1894, was supplemented by the ability, first demonstrated in Brazil in 1900, to send the human voice by radio waves.

Since then we have developed many types of wireless communication – and structures have sprung up to send and receive them. Some are on the top of tall buildings (including Ripon Cathedral), but many of them are utilitarian (some might say ugly) towers. There are exceptions, however. In some forests, communications towers are disguised as fir trees. In other countries, they can appear as exceptionally-tall palm trees. But with some imagination, they can be an ornament to the countryside.

On the borders of Wiltshire and Dorset a telecommunications company needed five new masts in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Rather than build something ugly, they and the local landowner came up with a novel solution – an India-style folly in orange and white, with domes through which the tops of the mast would protrude.

Alien it may be, but it’s an attractive and unusual building, serves it purpose well, and shows that modern communications infrastructure need not always be unsightly. Perhaps that’s something to shout about.