I recently spent a very pleasant summer evening taking a tour of Borough Hill in Daventry, a historic site for many reasons – not least because it was the home of the radio transmitter 5XX. You can find an earlier post I wrote about 5XX following an exhibition at Daventry Museum here. What I didn’t talk about is why Daventry was chosen to be the site of the first transmitter in the UK that could reach most of the country, in contrast with the earlier transmitters that could really only transmit to a city wide audience.
The BBC began transmitting in late 1922, first in London and then rapidly opening a series of transmitters in other cities including Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. It wasn’t long before the BBC wanted to use a single station to broadcast to as many people as possible – their engineers believed that up to 85% of the population could be reached by a singled, well placed transmitter. The search was on for a site that was ‘north of a line between the Severn and the Wash … and placed so that as much as possible of the area served by the station would be land and not sea.’
There were a few sites available, but Borough Hill had a large advantage over other local sites in that the top of it was flat. The BBC moved in and on the 27th of July the Post Master General opened the station at 7.30pm. As part of the opening celebrations the BBC’s Director General, John Reith, read a poem written by the poet laureate John Noyes.
Daventry calling … Daventry calling …
Daventry calling … Dark and still.
The tree of memory stands like a sentry
Over the graves on the silent hill.
Extract from ‘The Dane Tree’ by Alfred Noyes
Daventry went on to be the site of the first Empire Service transmitters from 1932, and in 1935 the site was used for the first practical demonstration of radar. The site continued to be very important until 1992 when the last broadcasts were made from 5XX, the masts were dismantled soon afterwards.
There are still some radio services broadcast from Daventry, but there’s only one mast remaining. It hosts mobile phone services and a booster service for the BBC’s digital radio broadcasting, amongst other private aerials.
Although it’s no longer a major site for radio in this country, one thing is certain. There aren’t many places that can outshine the amazing views to be found on Borough Hill.
For more information about the BBC at Daventry take a look at Daventry Calling the World by Norman Tomalin, accessible here as a PDF.