The Coastwatch stations at Swanage and St Alban’s Head, near Worth Matravers are reopening to the public from Friday 1st April 2022, after the lifting of Covid restrictions.
With the loss of visitors, donations have slumped, something the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) is keen to reverse.
St Alban’s Head Coastwatch tower near Worth Matravers
“Protect and save life at sea”
Volunteers provide year-round cover to keep an eye on mariners and report any problems to the coastguard. The NCI gets no support from government, so is entirely dependent on donations.
Ann Seedall, manager of the NCI station at St Alban’s Head, said:
“A visit to the station is a chance to find out about the work of the volunteers who help to protect and save life at sea and on the coastal path and cliffs.
“Whilst there, you can enjoy the fabulous view with a piece of cake and a cup of tea. And of course, donations are always welcome!”
Stuart MacMillan-Pratt, station manager at Swanage, added:
“The most important thing about being able to welcome back visitors is communicating about safety along the shore and at sea and to explain how we fit into the country’s search and rescue facilities.”
Swanage Coastwatch tower at Peveril Point
“Really missed the visitors”
Entry to both St Alban’s and Swanage watch towers is still at the discretion of the duty watch, and dependent on the current Covid situation and any emergency incident taking place.
But it’s thought most of the volunteers will welcome visitors.
Peter Boyce, volunteer watchkeeper at St Alban’s Head, said:
“We’ve really missed the visitors, so it’s good that we are finally able to welcome people back.”
On duty watch keepers at St Alban’s Head, Peter Boyce and Jonathan Van Baars
“Great place to be”
The lookout at St Alban’s Head has 45 watchkeepers and eight trainees. Peter Boyce, who worked for Kodak before retiring, lives locally and has been volunteering at St Alban’s Head for five years.
“I used to walk past here regularly, and it sparked my interest. It’s a great place to be for a few hours and it’s doing something constructive with a good group of people.”
St Alban’s Ledge which extends from the St Alban’s (or St Aldhelm’s) headland means the waters can be dangerous.
There was an incident a few years back when a yacht lost its mast with the communications aerial on top, so was unable to send a mayday signal. It was the watchkeepers who sent the mayday to alert the rescue services.
Chart showing the perilous St Alban’s Ledge
Radar and webcam
Alongside the reopening of the Coastwatch stations to visitors, the teams are looking to make other improvements.
St Alban’s Head is soon to take delivery of a £12,000 state of the art Furuno radar system to replace its old radar, thanks to a generous donation.
Swanage station is repairing windows and exploring how to improve its internet connection to reinstate the popular webcam.
Not as old as Dr Penley’s radar, but the outdated system at St Alban’s Head is being replaced
“Fundraising dipped significantly”
When the first Covid lockdown hit, the stations were briefly left unmanned, but it was felt important to keep the service running, so it then went to single operator before eventually returning to two watchkeepers per shift.
Peter Boyce said:
“Throughout all this we weren’t able to welcome visitors as we normally do and consequently our fundraising dipped significantly.”
Memorial to Dr Bill Penley, radar pioneer, with the St Alban’s Head Coastwatch lookout and St Aldhelm’s chapel (right) in the background
“Watch what is going on”
Jonathan Van Baars travels from Tolpuddle in North Dorset to be a volunteer watchkeeper at St Alban’s Head. The retired management consultant said:
“We watch what is going on out in the sea and log the boats that go past. If we see something that’s not right, we can alert the coastguard.
“It is a lovely position on the headland and it’s nice to be able to volunteer and use your time in a helpful way.”
Princess Anne unveiled a plaque at St Alban’s Head during her visit last summer
Princess Anne also visited Swanage Coastwatch
In June 2021, the Princess Royal, as patron of the NCI was able to visit the St Alban’s Head station and unveil a commemorative plaque, a year late for Coastwatch’s 25th anniversary.
Her Royal Highness then travelled by helicopter to Swanage, where she also toured the Swanage Coastwatch station, before heading to Durlston Castle for a reception.
NCI press officer Tim Colquhoun and NCI deputy chairman Ian Whalley, are introduced to the Princess Royal at a reception at Durlston Castle in June 2021