Tthey may live in one of the most picturesque parts of the country, but the inhabitants of the small village of West Witton in the Yorkshire Dales are facing the loss of a different kind of sight: their television signal has ceased to operate a month ago after a Fire.
“The woman is not happy,” said Eddie Hammond, a retired transporter, sitting in the Fox and Hounds pub. “She hasn’t seen Emmerdale in weeks. Notice, one of the actors lives in the village, so at least she sometimes sees him walk past the house.
Newly arrived owner John Walker was more optimistic that the lack of television was driving the people of Wensleydale to have an extra pint of Theakston’s. “This could be one of the main reasons we’ve been so busy… It’s a pretty old demographic and people here rely on their TV, but they are more than happy to come here to chat and have fun. the company, ”he said. .
They are among the nearly one million people in the north of England who have spent the last month unexpectedly learning to adapt to life without television. The cause of their woes is the Bilsdale transmitter, the 10th tallest structure in the UK. Sitting atop a secluded hill in the North York Moors, its slender tubular steel structure rises 314 meters above the surrounding heather and, since 1969, has provided the television signals that serve much of the county. from Durham and North Yorkshire.
After catching fire on August 10 for reasons still unknown, it is out of order and is likely beyond repair – meaning some homes could be without a DTT signal until a replacement is completed at some point in 2022.
Charities, local councils and housing associations are deeply concerned about the impact on loneliness during the winter months, especially if there is a return to lockdowns linked to the coronavirus.
“I admit I speak on TV and I bet I’m not the only one in this situation,” said Ganka Swailes, 72, at her home in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. “Some might find it strange or even funny, but for people like me television is a companion, it’s the voice you hear when you wake up and I often fall asleep in front of it at night.”
The retired social worker from Bulgaria said her family lived abroad and her television was her route to the world. She is desperate to be relieved of her new never-ending routine of reading John Grisham novels and to return to watch Magnum PI. “I miss it so much because I feel it keeps me connected to people and to life when sometimes at my age you feel like it’s happening without you. It’s a little sad, but that’s how it is for a lot of us.
Swaies is one of many who feel the issue has been neglected nationally. “If it had been in London, it would have been settled in a week. “
Even in an era when online streaming services are booming, traditional TV viewing levels remain high among an older and less affluent audience. Media regulator Ofcom estimates that around 6% of UK households do not have internet access, meaning a significant minority have no other way to access television.
“It’s a black swan event,” said Paul Donovan, the boss of Arqiva, the company that owns most of the UK’s transmitter network. “We are absolutely devastated. Our goal is that you never have to worry when turning on your TV or radio whether it is working or not.
He says the temporary masts mean around 500,000 homes are getting the signal again, but despite being given a blank checkbook, it could take months to connect the remaining homes. The remote hilly terrain makes it one of the most difficult areas in the country to provide a signal. “If we were in East Anglia, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he said.
Many villages are buried in deep valleys that signals cannot reach. The location of Bilsdale National Park means restrictions on building disturbing local wildlife. The roads cannot support the weight of the trucks, forcing Arqiva to use helicopters to fly through metal and concrete to build a temporary replacement mast.
“It’s not a question of cost,” said Donovan, who offers to install free satellite dishes for some of the most affected households and worries about the impact on single mothers on benefits that cannot. not afford other entertainment. “It’s our responsibility to live up to why my business exists. “
After a campaign by the Northern Echo newspaper, an unprecedented deal was struck to partially reimburse the BBC’s license fees for some of those affected. Until then, they have to find alternative distractions.
In West Witton, this included last month’s unique ‘Burning of the Bartle’ ceremony, which involves 100 locals parading an effigy – believed to be based on a 14th century sheep thief – through the village while singing a German Shepherd traditional before cheering it on by setting it on fire at Grassgill End. “You don’t see that kind of thing on TV,” said a local from the Fox and Hounds.