We made our way along a road/track that initially appeared to be a long driveway linking a series of detached houses, before it turned and snaked up into some woods. There was a car park adjacent to the Heath so we parked up. As we did so a couple of other cars appeared, the sinister black sort that always have their lights on in the daytime. For a split second I thought we had turned up at the rendezvous point for some sort of pre-arranged dodgy deal or violent interaction between shady characters. Or only marginally less worrying, a dogging hotspot.
Although the cars turned out to contain nothing more dangerous than middle aged dog walkers, the uneasy feeling I had developed stayed with me as we walked out of the trees and onto the heath. I'd imagined the place would be deserted and have a calm surreal atmosphere. It did although the calm was an ominous one, that produced a feeling of being slightly on edge. An anti-calm.
Almost immediately we found ourselves underneath one of the immense wires that hold the transmitter in place like giant guy ropes. From the main road the transmitter didn't look particularly big, but in close proximity it was gargantuan in height, if not girth, such that it brought on a sort of inverse vertigo. I felt slightly dizzy with a sort of unpleasant tingling feeling spreading from my stomach up to my face and down my arms each time I looked up at it. This added to the already sinister atmosphere, as dark grey clouds welled up behind the mast , as if summoned by it . I was at the same time repelled but facinated by it. My partner expressed similar feelings of revulsion.
We edged slightly closer to the transmitter and it's base as we began our circumnavigation, and within a certain radius could feel/hear a low level and persistent hum. We made our way around through the vegetation on the heath. The brambles in particular had a sort of ominous quality, the leaves holey and withered, as if they had somehow been affected by the strange energy that the transmitter seemed to impose on the Heath.
It was easy to forget that this is the epicentre of television and radio broadcasting in East Anglia. Or more accurately the Western half of East Anglia, which I'm told frequently by the presenters of Look East and Anglia News is 'your part of the Region'. The trades test transmissions I remembered seeing as a child, usually with an image of the transmitter accompanied by light music, had not prepared me for the the reality, as bizarre and sinister as they had been. While there, I didn't have flashbacks to Sale of the Century, About Anglia or Programmes for Schools and Colleges, which are things I'd usually associated with it. Instead there was a sort of nothing, as if the broadcasts were beamed beyond its immediate vicinity leaving a sterile void around it on the Heath.
I'd seen a clip on YouTube of the day before the analogue signal was turned off, and West Anglia went fully digital. The presenter was allowed into the building under the transmitter where the equipment did indeed have a British TV science fiction quality about it. He got to pretend to operate the switch that would turn off analogue at midnight while talking to the excitable engineer who would actually be doing it, and evidently spent considerable amounts of time in the compound. The engineer had the slightly unsettling and derranged air of someone who was about to launch an untested and dangerous manned space flight, rather than boost the digital signal so more people could receive multiple shopping channels on Freeview TV, in addition to the 5 channels already adequately provided by the disappearing analogue signal.
As we neared the end of of our semi-circular navigation, we could see in the distance the single wind turbine at the RSPB reserve, beyond the Heath separated by the main road. This structure lined up with the transmitter and was parallel to a row of pylons that crossed the reserve. I always thought people who objected to wind turbines cited the danger to birds as one of the reasons not to build them. That the RSPB should have one on their own reserve shows that either I've got this wrong or that the nimbies are hopelessly off the mark. They also cite the ugliness of the structures, but I think they have a sort of liminal beauty. I'd be more sympathetic if they were objecting to having the Sandy Heath Transmitter built behind their backyards. Who knows what the long term effect of the low level hum and the absorbtion of concentrated regional and local TV broadcasts might be on their children?