On one of those lovely summer days when the sky was clear blue and the air gentle and warm my wife took me to Highcliffe Castle. She showed me where she used to swim as a girl and walked me along the cliff top path through the trees with glimpses of the sparkling azure Solent lying between us and the Needles.
We left the woods at Steamer Point and Friar’s Cliff began to descend towards the beach huts of Mudeford, busy with dog walkers children and bathers. I began to feel I had been there before, a feeling of déjà vu. There is a large commercial building surrounded by chain-link fencing.
Yes, I had been there. In one of the first floor offices overlooking the beach. My mind travelled back to 1964 when, as a research student, we had taught ourselves to record signals from inside nerve cells. The cells produced a hissing noise which we could alter by various manipulations.
We tried many sorts of analysis on this noise to try to decode it. This was before computers and our analytic methods were laborious, time consuming and tedious. We were not making progress.
Another students told us that her father worked for Signal Research and Development Establishment (SRDE) at Steamer Point. Perhaps he could help. So it was that we found ourselves in the director’s office discussing Fourier analysis, Signal Averaging and other abstruse things. The rain beat against the windows driven by a sou’westerly gale.
As the afternoon dragged on the rain ceased, the sky cleared and we began to hear the excited shouts of children on the beach. I yearned for a swim in the sea and an ice cream. No, we were trying to be serious scientists solving problems, no swimming or other frivolities. Eventually we ground to an intellectual halt and a cream tea appeared along with the director’s very smelly boxer dog. Eventually the director opened the window – phew, that was better.
It was a fruitful day. My colleague went off to learn how to do Fourier analysis, I learned FORTRAN, now an out-of-date computer program which was useless for us so I had to learn BASIC instead which did the job. Our boss obtained money for one of the first laboratory computers, a LINC 8. The computer had 4 Kilobytes of memory and after a year we asked for another 4K. Our Professor was astonished. How could we possibly need another 4K of memory? Today memory is measured not in Kilobytes but Gigabytes. One Gigabyte is 1,000,000 Kilobytes.
The work we did helped our understanding of how nerve cells communicate with each other.
To the Moon and Back
SRDE was doing a sterling job setting up a worldwide satellite communication system for the forces. At that time satellites and man had been into orbit but the first moon landing was not for another 5 years.
Alongside SRDE were radomes, huge spheres housing aerials like those at Fylingdales. One of their achievements at SRDE was to send a radar pulse to the moon and back making the most accurate measurement of the distance between earth and moon. The pulse was modulated by voice and two and a half seconds later the voice returned from space.
Where did it go?
The Radomes are gone now, replaced by a commemorative plaque. SRDE itself disappeared in 1980 as part of a government re-organisation. Details of the work done there and the people who did it are largely forgotten. The achievements however are part of our everyday lives when we use satnav, the internet, air traffic control and international phone calls.
Back to the Present
Back in the present, we continued our walk down to the beach among the beach balls, dogs and digging children. We avoided the deck chairs strained and bending under the weight of large oiled bronzed bodies. At the end of Mudeford quay we watched children catching crabs. We bought some fish for tea and walked back along the beach.
Highcliffe castle was built in the Romantic and Picturesque style in 1831 by Lord Stuart de Rothsay. Norman and Renaissance stone was brought from France. It is now a venue for weddings and has a café and grounds with wonderful views of the Solent, the Needles and over to Old Harry Rocks near Swanage.
My wife has her own memories of Highcliffe; of cycling there in the mornings, sunbathing and swimming until dusk and then cycling home again to Ashley. She may have been on the beach that day in 1964 but we did not meet until almost 30 years later.
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