Jodrell Bank Observatory, Macclesfield, Cheshire
Jodrell Bank Observatory, Macclesfield, Cheshire © Historic England
Jodrell Bank Observatory, Macclesfield, Cheshire © Historic England

100 Places Podcast #4: Radio telescopes & interferometry

This is a transcript of episode 4 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett and category judge Professor Lord Robert Winston as we continue our journey through the history of science and discovery in England.

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Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series we’re exploring the amazing places that have helped make England the country it is today. We have been asking you which places you think should be on the list and we’ve already received hundreds of nominations from people across the country. You can still nominate at

Together we’ll find out just why our panel of expert judges, including Professor Robert Winston, George Clarke and Mary Beard, selected these hundred locations from your nominations to tell the story of England. We’ll be travelling across England visiting some well-known wonders and some lesser-known places on your doorstep all of which have helped to make this country what it is today. So are you ready? Buckle up - let’s find out more of the places you and our judges have chosen as irreplaceable.  

Today we have one more place to visit in our Science & Discovery category and I’m joined by Jane Sidell, Historic England Inspector of Ancient Monuments. Now, we began our science and discovery tour with one observatory looking to the stars to better understand and navigate our planet. It seems fitting that we bookend our top 10 with another - one that allows us to imagine life beyond the realms of Earth and see into our future from the heart of the Cheshire countryside. It is of course, Jodrell Bank Observatory, home to the Lovell Telescope which was built between 1952 and 1957. This telescope was listed at grade I in 1988 but its little brother, the Mark II radio telescope, was also listed grade I in August 2017 on the 60th anniversary of the Lovell Telescope’s first light - when the dish collected its first radio signals from the universe. This working observatory continues the incredible breakthroughs made here for radio astronomy, modern astrophysics and our understanding of the universe. The Director of Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Professor Teresa Anderson, says that science is part of the cultural DNA of the UK. She kindly shows us around the site.

Professor Teresa Anderson:
Jodrell Bank is really important to science because it’s the one remaining site worldwide where all the choices of the emergence of the new science of radio astronomy are still to be found on the site. That is quite a rare thing. It is a working observatory, part of the University of Manchester’s School of Physics, and it has a number of radio telescopes - four radio telescopes on the site. But if anyone who’s visited or gone past or flown over remembers our biggest dish is the huge Lovell Telescope which is 89 metres high and that dish has a diameter of 76 metres so it’s absolutely massive. When it was built and first used in 1957 it was the largest telescope in the world and remained so for many decades, and it is now still the world’s third largest and is still in use doing world-leading research every day. We’ve got another Grade I listed telescope on the site which is the Mark II telescope but there is also a visitor facility as well so people can come and visit and find out about the site.

People often say why Jodrell Bank? Lovell (Bernard Lovell), who founded Jodrell Bank Observatory came back from the war where he had worked on radar to the University of Manchester School of Physics which is in the centre of Manchester and started work with recycled army radar kit trying to look for reflections from cosmic rays. And he found that the sparks from the trams that went up and down the road outside the School of Physics caused interference with his radar kit so he said to the University authorities: “Is there anywhere I can go where there is no interference from the trams?” They said: “We have got these botany grounds at Jodrell Bank.” He was originally told that he could come there for two weeks but he never left! And the result really, this massive observatory, has happened in quite a serendipitous way. Now we’re in a rural area, which is absolutely fantastic for radio silence and we have a special radio silence zone around the site that protects the work here and the observations. OK so if you follow me we’ll go outside and have a look at the telescope and the site.

We just left the Planet Pavilion and heading towards the Lovell Telescope which dominates the landscape here. It’s parked today so it is pointing straight upwards because there is working going on so you might be able to hear a little bit of drilling in the background. We do a lot of maintenance work over the summer months when it’s fine and the days are quite long. Apart from that, it works 24 hours a day every other day of the year, scaling the heavens really and picking up signals that have travelled for millions and billions of years at the speed of light, really, to reach us. So at the moment we can’t get to the Mark II Telescope. It’s down on what we call the green area, the south side of the site but we are currently working on setting up an access program where we can take people on guided tours. We’ll be able to look at the whole area of the site which has some listed buildings which are really important to the development of the science down there.

As we turn left, opposite the Lovell Telescope, there’s the control building which controls not only the Lovell Telescope but the other big Mark II Telescope on site and also our network of telescopes across the UK. Because Jodrell Bank is the host of the UK’s national radio astronomy observatory, which is actually a network of telescopes called e-MERLIN – that’s seven radio telescopes. What happens here is signals from all the telescopes point at the same thing at the same time are combined and then behave as if they are a telescope that is 200 kilometres across. That technique is called interferometry. And Jodrell Bank was a pioneer of a type of interferometry called ‘very-long-baseline interferometry’ which is basically combining these telescopes at really massive distances.

So we’re standing here on the Telescope Lawn at Jodrell Bank and we’re looking at the Lovell Telescope. What is always really breathtaking for me - and I’ve got a doctorate in engineering - is the engineering is so spectacular and it was so innovative at the time. These people dreamt up this thing and created it and it was the first one that was ever built and it’s quite remarkable if you go through the archives and read about all the other observatories around the world who are saying things like - ‘I think we need one of those’! The inspiration from a colossal structure of this scale that actually moves with the absolute precision of a Swiss watch is just fantastic.

The idea was a twinkle in Sir Bernard Lovell’s eye in about 1948, when he decided that the transit telescope, which is the big mesh telescope that was fixed beforehand would be great if he could move it and point it to different parts of the sky. The story goes that he tried to get a number of engineers to build it for him, most of whom snorted at him, and then came across this sort of have-a-go bridge builder called Charles Husband. He basically said yes, I think I can do that and this partnership was sort of born between the two of them and it was brought into action in 1957 to track the carrier rocket of Sputnik 1 which was then launched in October. It was the very first human-made satellite launched into space. So there is a momentous point really where the Lovell Telescope swung into action to witness the dawn of the space age. It was the only place in the world then capable of doing so.

Following that it did a lot of work tracking and the space programs for both the USSR and the USA which were then working together so there’s that whole connection with the space race. And then the telescope was poised to be the ‘West’s’ early-warning system in the Cuban Missile Crisis which of course was a great moment in history and that said, really, that was only 1% of its work.

When it snows we have to tip the bowl up so the snow avalanches out of it and it doesn’t happen very often. The water doesn’t collect when it rains because it actually has drain pipes and a drainage system but of course snow doesn’t drain so when it starts to build up, the telescope controller - there’s a controller on duty 24 hours a day, every single day of the year - has to tip the telescope and of course we’re all on speed dial for that! We all dash down and get our cameras out. It’s very exciting!  

I am so proud to work here and I love it. It’s a unique place - there are a couple of radio telescopes in the world that are bigger but you can’t get anywhere near them so it’s rare to be able to get up close to a scientific instrument that’s picking up signals that have travelled for billions of years at the speed of light from distant objects far across the universe. There’s something exciting about the fact that you can be here while it’s picking up these signals. The future is really, really interesting and one of the things that’s always fascinating for me about this as a physicist you know - having an instrument that is 60 years old that still works is absolutely ridiculous and wonderful!

Emma Barnett:
Professor Teresa Anderson there, the Director of The Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre. Well with me in the studio is Jane Sidell. Just to pick up on that final point - it still works and it is a working environment - I don’t think I had taken that in as a child when I went.  

Jane Sidell:
It is the greatest thing about that. We have been able to list these telescopes but they are performing a daily job. They are looking back over billions of years. This is way beyond the scale of human history but we have to have this knowledge to understand how the universe works.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, and I don’t think we can stress almost enough what a huge feat of engineering this was.

Jane Sidell:
Absolutely fantastic! The precision needed, the need to calibrate these pieces of incredibly sensitive equipment and yet the size and scale they have to be to look that far into the universe and that far back in time.

Emma Barnett:
I think what’s great about putting this together, these science and discovery locations, is that when we are looking at England there are many firsts when it comes to engineering. It is quite extraordinary.

Jane Sidell:
We have an amazing tradition of people that have seen challenges and been desperate to answer questions, and they have gone away and they have often made the tools to make the things.

Emma Barnett:
How important do you think being able to go (I mentioned I went on a school trip) but going to these sorts of places as a child actually is that people can see what has been achieved in England.

Jane Sidell:
Oh it’s vital. The trill, the buzz you get from being able to go up to something and realise what it’s doing is irreplaceable. The fact that people can go there and stand there, they can see these things is really important and I think it is something that we have to cultivate because people tell us ‘Oh you can make a 3D scan of things, you can digitise it, you can look at it on the computer’ - no, you don’t get a buzz from it like looking at something like an enormous telescope.

Emma Barnett:
Plus Jodrell Bank is massive. I mean, that’s what’s so brilliant as a child. Anything big just ‘gets you’.

Jane Sidell:
But it is also beautiful. It’s also graceful and elegant as well as being a precision piece of kit.

Emma Barnett:
Well, on that note of beauty, that is it for our Science & Discovery category. Our Top 10 places, to recap, have been: The Royal Observatory, Greenwich; the Brown Firth Laboratories in Sheffield; the ICI factory in Widnes, Cheshire; Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire; Ouse Washes in Cambridge; Calder Hall in Cumbria; Dr Jenner’s House in Gloucestershire, the Broadwick Street pump in London; the former Medical Research Council Biophysics building in London; and Jodrell Bank in Cheshire.

What a list! We’ve been to places that have brought us nuclear firsts and lifesaving theories; we have explored chemical reactions and found ways of harnessing our natural landscapes to better human life and biodiversity. I wonder what modern locations will shape England’s science and discovery in the future. Of course, we can only pick 10 of the amazing locations you have nominated but before we go we caught up with our category judge, Professor Robert Winston, to hear about a place he thinks deserves an honorary mention.

Professor Robert Winston:
The building at Hammersmith - the Reproductive & Developmental Biology building - was built after we knocked down the hut which existed before that. Hammersmith after the Second World War was the leading medical research centre in Britain. I mean, very clearly, it was where we would translate basic research into the patient at the bedside. And in women’s diseases there were several measures of answers in that hut, one of which was the first attempt to make an ultrasound machine which now of course has revolutionised the whole of medicine right across not just to look at babies under water in the womb but to look up muscle injuries and brain damage and so on.

The other great person there was Erica Wachtel. And Erica Wachtel’s story is very interesting. Erica was a refugee from Austria who got out just at the time of the Anschluss - just in time. Erica’s family were destroyed, of course, but Erica as a teenager or actually as a young doctor (she’d been to university) she came to Britain on one of the last transports to get here. The people at Hammersmith recognised there was something interesting there and she got an appointment as a junior researcher. And Erica has probably save more women’s lives then almost anybody else that I know of because of course she developed the cancer smear test and made the first national survey of cancer smears - and that was done really in that building and that building really emanates from that site. Since then, of course, a whole range of work that the Genesis Research Trust does involves small babies and brain damage; my own work on genetic disease and embryos went on there; the improvements on IVF; much work on cancer of the ovaries has gone on there. So, in fact, it has been scientifically a very important agglomeration of hundreds of scientists all working for women’s diseases who come from all over the world.

Emma Barnett:
Thank you Robert and thank you Jane Sidell and thank you to you for joining me, Emma Barnett. You can still vote for the places you find irreplaceable to be featured in a future episode of our history of England at We do love hearing from you so make sure you do that. You can also join the conversation on Facebook and on Twitter with the hashtag: #100places. Please rate, review and subscribe to this podcast then you will never miss an episode. I’ll see you next time for another episode of Irreplaceable: a History of England in 100 Places as we venture into a whole new category - travel and tourism no less - with our judge, Bettany Hughes.

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