Bury St Edmunds Amateur Radio Society on the thrill of surfing the airwaves
If you want to speak to someone on the far side of the world – or even in the next town – most of us pick up a phone or connect on the web.
But there is another way. It might involve state-of-the-art technology... or old tape measures and offcuts of overflow pipe. And to devotees it is way more exciting.
The world of amateur radio is a very broad church, according to members of a local club.
It embraces everything from the simplest radio and home-made antennae to the most complex equipment capable of bouncing signals off the moon.
But however you choose to hit the airwaves, one of the most important things – judging from a recent meeting of Bury St Edmunds Amateur Radio Society – is enthusiasm. And they have that in bucketloads.
It seems the attraction of radio versus a phone is the challenge, and the idea of going on air not knowing who will answer... they might be just down the road, or on a remote island thousands of miles away.
And on radio any number of people can join in a conversation, which is known as a net.
The group meets monthly at Rougham Control Tower Museum. Among the few clues outside are a whip-thin aerial and a wire running from the building.
Inside, the room is buzzing ... they did not meet for well over a year because of Covid and for most of them this is the first catch-up in person.
Paul Stallibrass is demonstrating how to build a beam antenna – used to improve signals – out of surprisingly mundane materials.
Everything you need to transmit and receive can now be bought, but making your own adds an extra dimension.
“It’s made with metal tape measures, fixed to overflow pipe,” he reveals. “Buying something ready made could cost £100. This costs £8 or £9.
“There are a lot of young amateurs with a foundation licence who are only allowed to use 10 watts of power, but they can transmit further with something like that.
“It concentrates the energy in one direction,” says Paul, a member for 20 years who trained in electronics and is attracted to the technical aspects of the hobby.
The club, known as BSEARS, is believed to have started in the 1960s or early ’70s.
Every operator has a unique call sign, and the club has one that is very special.
Its founder was T F Townsend who had been a radio operator since the 1920s. “His call sign was G2TO which was one of the very earliest,” says club chairman Melvin Green, "and he donated it to us.
“Five years ago the club was a bit quiet, but in the last couple of years, due to Covid restrictions, people who have been at home or have licences but hadn’t been on the air for some time have made contact with us.
“Also a lot of younger people are coming into the hobby so that has been a big benefit for the club. It’s a hobby that went out of favour a bit but in the last 10 years it’s coming back.
“I think it’s a case of challenging yourself. There are so many different modes of communication. You can use a digital mode that’s connected to your computer.
“In the past we would just have been using high frequency radio. Conditions would have had to be right and you’d be juggling all the equipment to get the best signal.”
There are all kinds of enemy to a clear signal... but one of their biggest bugbears is the Christmas blow-up Santa.
“Things like LED lights and phone chargers create interference.
"A lot of problems at Christmas are caused by blow-up Santas. They have little electric motors in them.
"Because they are made cheaply they don’t have the same standards as EU stuff.”
But you cannot just buy the equipment and start transmitting. Every radio amateur must be licensed.
“The frequencies we use are quite tight and are governed by OFCOM,” says Melvin, who works as a gardener and got his licence about six years ago.
“I got into it after hurricane Katrina in America. With communications down it was the amateur radio operators in that area calling out to the rest of the world that they needed help.
“I thought that was a very useful part of amateur radio. In the same way operators helped out during the terrible floods in East Anglia in 1955.”
In the old days of amateur radio things were very different. Learning Morse code was compulsory.
George Wood, 94, lives in Hunston and is the club’s oldest member. “Morse was used a lot in the old days, you can get further with it than with speech,” he says.
“I was a radio officer at sea in the last few months of the Second World War, then stayed in the Merchant Navy for five years.
“I got my amateur licence in 1957. I’d been round the world with the Merchant Navy and it was a way of still talking to people all over the world.”
Another veteran of the airwaves is Doug Durrant, 91, who like George got his first licence in 1957. “Then to get your licence you had to do 12 words a minute in Morse,” he says.
“When I was at school during the war, we had a Mallard radio at home with short wave.
“It had some bands on it that were for amateur. I didn’t know what they were but I could listen.”
Hearing people talking from all over the world sparked a lifelong interest, which led to a career in telecoms with the Civil Aviation Authority.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends through radio,” he adds.
Derek Haden, from Brandon, took a 21-year break from amateur radio, before rediscovering it.
“I found all my documents and was going to shred them, then I thought no, I’ll get my licence back.
“I do a lot of digital stuff. It’s a broad church. A lot of people come into it from CB radio because they enjoy talking to people.
“Yesterday I spoke to two Danish operators, one in Scotland, one in Perth Australia and one in Oklahoma."
Mike Draper from Bury got his licence in the 1970s, then ‘life takes over and you go away from it’.
“I was out of it for 45 years during which amateur radio had changed a lot. When I first started radios used to be really big and heavy. It was either ex-government stuff or you made your own in the 1960s.
“Now you can buy it off the shelf. They mostly cost £1,000 to £3,000, but secondhand is cheaper.
“To me it’s more for socialising than anything else. We have regular nets on the air.”
Amateur radio tends to be a men’s world ... there are no women to be seen at the meeting, although they have one woman member whose husband is also in the club.
“We’re a bunch of nerds, really,” Derek says, and fellow member Bob Barker calls himself a radio geek.
Printer Bob, who lives near Ixworth, says: “I’ve always liked radios. My father worked for the BBC so I suppose I got a feel for it from him.”
Bob, who is newly-licensed, admits his normally very tolerant wife did look slightly askance when a home-made J-pole antenna appeared in the loft. “I’ve got three, each for different bands,” he says.
He holds a foundation licence. There are three grades and each level allows you to use more power – up to 400 watts for a full licence.
American Air Force pilot Justin Munger took up the hobby during lockdown and now has his full licence. It was his first visit to BSEARS.
“I like things that are mechanical and seeing how things work and what makes them tick,” says Justin, who flies tankers from USAAF Mildenhall.
“I’m also learning Morse code. It’s almost a rite of passage. I think some of the older generation believe the younger ones have it too easy.”
Moz Moret is not only an operator but also has a collection of more than 20 vintage radios in his shack ... that’s what those in the know call the place they keep their equipment.
He specialises in military radios. “The MoD sell them off, I give them a second life,” he says.
“I’ve been into this ever since I could work a radio. My grandad had an old short wave radio, and you could tune in to all sorts of things, like the police and ambulance service.”
Paul Holman, from Bressingham, who used to be a gas engineer, graduated into the hobby from CB radio. “People here gave me so much help when I first started,” he says.
“I always get enjoyment out of making things and electronics, I make all my own aerials.
“If you put a call out and someone comes back from half way across the world you have achieved something.”
To contact the club, go to bsears.co.uk.
Meanwhile, Sudbury and District Radio Amateurs – known as SAnDRA – are planning their comeback after a Covid-enforced break.
The group, which began more than 30 years ago, was meeting at Wells Hall Old School in Great Cornard.
“We’re a relatively small club with about 10 members,” says spokesman Tony Harman.
Tony says amateur radio attracts a great range of ages and occupations, and with advances in electronics can involve anything from a very small radio to hugely complex equipment capable of bouncing signals off the moon.
“Many years ago to get a licence you had to prove you had the ability to build your own gear,” he said, explaining that now getting into the hobby can be relatively easy and cheap.
“And with a mobile phone, there are just two of you talking, whereas with amateur radio you can have people from all parts of the world taking part in the conversation,” he adds.
For more information and contact details for SAnDRA, go to sudburyradioamateurs.co.uk.