This weekend, the 25th and 26th of February 2012, saw the opening of the brand new RSGB 'National Radio Centre', the showpiece for the amateur radio hobby in the UK.
The new Centre is located in the grounds of the historic Bletchley Park, home of the codebreakers, close to Milton Keynes. Two of the Essex Ham team took a trip to Bletchley Park this weekend, and stopped in at the new Centre to meet the team, have a look around, and take a few pictures. Here's our report of what we discovered.
If you've not been to Bletchley Park, and you have any kind of interest in radio - then you should go. The emphasis is, quite rightly, on codebreaking, with lots of material on the Bombe, Enigma machines, Colossus and the pioneering work of Alan Turin. At the weekends, there's a display of various radio and communications equipment, including sky radio transceivers in Hut 1, plus a reproduction of the Y Station outpost and all sorts of radio and early computing equipment. It's a great day out for anyone with an interest in radio, WWII or computing.
You can find more information on visiting the site at www.bletchleypark.org.uk
National Radio Centre
The new RSGB complex is very close to the main Bletchley Park entrance, and one of the first buildings to catch our eye on the way in. It a single-storey green building close to the car park and the main Block B building.
On entering, we were greeted by two very friendly chaps, who on finding out that we were both hams, let us through the magic curtain without needing to introduce us to the hobby explain what the RSGB offers.
On going through into the Centre, we were struck by the clean and professional feel. The first stop is a small video presentation area, where you can sit and watch a short film about how important radio communications is to us all. The video presentation looked very slick, but I must confess that we didn't sit through the presentation, as we were keen to see what else was on offer inside.
On rounding the corner, we were able to see "The History of Radio Communications", a small area documenting the history of radio and radio amateurs, with some early ham equipment right up to today's amateur radio, with topics such as ham satellites and ISS contacts.
Around the next corner, we found a few interactive displays. Kids love playing with buttons, and taking a leaf from London's Science Museum, there's some perspex boxes with various controls to play with. You can experiment with tuning, and see a waveform of your voice from a fixed mic.
Running along the wall is a depiction of "The Radio Spectrum" with an explanation of what can be found where, with touch screen panels showing more information - ideal for educating young minds into the basics of radio, and what the spectrum is used for.
The final stop for us, was GB3RS, the amateur radio station, where those new to the hobby can get an introduction to today's hobby, and let the public try their hand at an assisted QSO.
A lot of work has clearly gone into making this the centrepiece of the National Radio Centre. The main station area is decorated with a backdrop series of images representing callsigns and QSL cards, with the station itself being a visually-appealing black work area with two large monitors showing scrolling messages with the working frequency and band.
The configuration we saw was dual operation, and at the time we visited, the team were swinging the beam around to pull in a station from Latvia on 15 metres. I took a short video clip which I'll try to upload in the next few days.
Sarah, little Kathryn and I were made to feel very welcome by the team, and to discuss the Centre and the plans for its future. We got the impression that anyone not familiar with what amateur radio is all about, would be able to get a good feel for how to make contacts with stations around the world and to get hands-on with the hobby.
Overall, we were certainly impressed. The Centre has a very clean and professional feel, and it does an excellent job of extolling the importance of radio communications, and selling the hobby.
As it's the first week of operation, there are still things to do ahead of the National Radio Centre's formal opening later this year. At the moment, the centre is only staffed and operational on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and this is due to expand as and when more volunteers become available.
Hopefully as work continues, the Centre will see more promotion for the hobby - for example, we noticed the absence of any literature on how to take your first step to get a licence, or information on Foundation courses. We didn't notice any RSGB merchandise, books and membership forms on display, but no doubt these are all things that have been considered and will be in place ahead of the formal opening.
As the Centre is so new, it doesn't yet appear in the main Bletchley Park guide or maps, and so there's a danger that until there is reference to the Centre in a few strategic places, plus some signposting, many visitors to BP may not notice it's there, or that it's open to the public, free, and a place worth exploring.
On the positive side, we did see a number of "RSGB National Radio Centre" leaflets (pictured here) at all of the information desks and leaflet racks, which will no doubt help to get the Centre to be discovered, and the leaflet does contain information on how to contact the RSGB.
Entrance to Bletchley Park is £12 for adults, but the National Radio Centre is free, and you're not obliged to pay for entry to Bletchley Park if you just want to check out the National Radio Centre.
More on the NRC at www.nationalradiocentre.com