Finis Terrae

I’ve just read the very sad news that, as of twelve and a quarter hours ago, the Met Office got rid of Finisterre. There’s a useful page of links over at the Guardian‘s website about this change — apparently now we are supposed to call it FitzRoy.

Non-UK readers of the weblog will not have the slightest idea what this is about, but BBC Radio Four (the worthy, news-heavy, not-terribly-exciting British equivalent of NPR which the educated middle classes listen to fairly religiously) carries the Shipping Forecast a few times a day. The Shipping Forecast gives detailed weather reports for the various chunks of sea off the coast of Britain and Ireland, which, although of no direct relevance to those of us in landlocked university towns, provides a fixed reference point for, a set of shared understandings in, a calming influence on our busy, fragmented, postmodern lives. “Finisterre” was one of the bits of the sea, off the North-Western corner of Spain, and apparently as part of some international coordination exercise, we’ve agreed to get rid of the name, one of the most evocative names in the litany of the Forecast.

Here’s the press release from the Met Office, issued on 31 January:

At noon on Monday 4 February 2002, listeners to the Shipping Forecast broadcast by the BBC will have a new name to conjure with. The area Finisterre is to be re-named FitzRoy after Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who was the first ever professional weatherman and founded the Met Office in 1853.The change has become necessary following an international agreement that Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco will use a co-ordinated set of sea areas in forecasts for shipping. In the discussions, Spain requested that the area that they have called Finisterre be retained in the co-ordinated set of areas.

The area Finisterre used by the Met Office is a considerably larger area than that defined by the Spanish Meteorological Service (Instituto Nacional de Meteorologia), and, as the area is not strictly in the United Kingdom’s area of responsibility for the issue of forecasts and warnings, a new name was required.

Some 53 years have passed since the name Finisterre was first heard on the shipping forecasts; the familiar rhythmic pattern will no longer be Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Finisterre, Sole, Lundy, Fasnet� as FitzRoy replaces Finisterre.

“The Met Office operates on an international scale; by working with the meteorological services in other countries we are making it easier for listeners to interpret shipping forecasts,” explained Martin Stubbs, specialist consultant in marine matters at the Met Office.

“The last major changes in sea area names was in 1984 when the countries bordering the North Sea agreed a co-ordinated set of areas. These changes demonstrate the effectiveness of the World Meteorological Organization in bringing countries together and ensuring the best possible services for the mariner,” added Mr Stubbs

The Shipping Forecast is a British institution broadcast by the BBC four times a day and also disseminated via HM Coastguard Stations and other marine communication services attracting many thousands of listeners.

FitzRoy is set to become a household name both in and outside the sailing fraternity.

This is no good. How will future generations make sense of the splendid poetry of Carol Ann Duffy?


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer —
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

No-one will be writing poems about bloody FitzRoy in years to come, I can tell you. Please send your protests and reminiscences to the weblog.

Katherine wrote [7.2.2002]: In my A-level Italian oral, I was asked what my favourite radio programme was (this now seems to me to be a suspiciously Radio 4 type question, indeed) and I got into all sorts of difficulties trying to explain the shipping forecast. I now explain to my own language students that it is important to lie in such situations.

Jess wrote [8.2.2002]: As a lover of the shipping forecast for nineteen years, I join you in mourning the passing of Finisterre. The forecast won’t be quite the same without it — though Admiral Fitzroy deserves a sea area named after him if anyone does. (I still regard North Utsire and South Utsire as upstart interlopers…)

I asked Jess to elaborate on this last, slightly worrying thought, and got this reply [8.2.2002]: North Utsire and South Utsire were born on 1 August 1984, at the instigation of the Scandinavian countries. Previously the adjacent sea areas (eg Viking) extended right up to the coast. The list of the coastal stations has changed beyond recognition since I began listening in ’82 – remember Sumburgh, Bell Rock, Goeree Light Tower Automatic Weather Station…?

One thought on “Finis Terrae”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.