British Icons: The Archers and the Shipping Forecast

It made sense to lump these two British icons together since they are both heard on BBC Radio 4 and truth be told, I couldn’t settle for blogging about one and not the other.

Each icon has a distinctive place in British culture and is the subject of a great deal of nostalgia for listeners.

The Archers

The Archers is a radio soap that debuted in 1950 (pilot episode) and is now the world’s oldest running soap, producing more than 17,000 episodes (American soap Guiding Light started on radio in 1937 and was the oldest running soap until its cancellation in September 2009.)  Set in the fictional Midland village of Ambridge, The Archers centers on the comings and goings of farmers David and Ruth Archer, their family, and neighbours.

Each episode is 13 minutes long and airs every day on BBC Radio 4 at 7pm. An omnibus of the week’s episodes can be heard on Sunday at 10am. Lucky for us, BBC radio is available online to people outside of Britain, unlike BBC television, so give “The Archer’s” a listen. It’s a throwback to the days when radio was king.  (Also, be sure to listen to this introduction to The Archers from Stephen Fry.)


The Shipping Forecast

You can set your watch by it. It’s as regular a part of British life as a cup of tea and a sit down. Each day on BBC Radio 4 you can hear the shipping forecast read at 0048 hrs, 0520 hrs, 1201 hrs and 1754 hrs GMT. Issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the shipping forecast gives weather details on the different sea areas surrounding the United Kingdom. BBC Radio 4 broadcasts in long wave which means its signal can be clearly received at sea.

You may wonder why such a seemingly mundane thing would be considered a British icon but all you have to do is listen to understand. The forecast opens with the music “Sailing By” composed by Ronald Binge and the weather details are read by either a male or female broadcaster. The sea areas have romantic names like Dogger, German Bight, Forties and Faeroes.


I listen to BBC Radio 4 from time to time and enjoy hearing the shipping forecast, especially at night. My favourite reader is the female; her voice has a haunting yet strangely comforting tone. She reads the forecast in a cadence that is almost hypnotizing and conjures up imagery of life at sea. I imagine myself in a lighthouse on the edge of the water listening intently to the long wave, cup of tea in hand.

American Britophiles may recognize the shipping forecast as Mrs. Bale’s obsession on As Time Goes By. You can listen to the latest shipping forecast yourself by clicking here.

Melissa is the Britophile-in-Chief of Smitten by Britain, the world’s first blog for Britophiles. When she’s not blogging here you will most likely find her on Facebook or Twitter whilst enjoying a cup of tea.


  1. Liz says

    I started following The Archers in the late 1960s and only stopped when I moved to Canada in 2004. In the mid ’70s I worked for BBC Radio 4 and our programme aired immediately after The Archers each weekday. During that period, of course, I had to rely on the Sunday omnibus to catch up with the goings-on in Ambridge.
    As for the Shipping Forecast, I couldn’t go to sleep until I’d heard the sweet sound of Sailing By and the rhythmic, almost prose-poetry of the forecast’s recital.

  2. Brumlad says

    I doubt if I understood a half of what the forecast was about when I first started listening to it, but there was something ‘captivating’ about it for all that. Fortunately, I think I understand it a bit more now. :D

    As for ‘The Archers’ who can’t resist it? Altogether now, “Da Da Da Dara Dadaa, Da Dara Da Dadaa…’ (And repeat) :D

    Sorry for the silliness.

  3. Melissa says

    The Shipping Forecast is hypnotizing. The names sound like they could have been from a J.R.R. Tolkien book.

  4. Joanna says

    Thanks to my recently acquired copy of “Watching the English” (which I learned about from another Smitten by Britain post) I now understand Mrs. Bale’s AND Brits’ obsession with the Shipping Forecast. That it’s not so much what it contains, but that its format never changes. Seems there was such a kerfuffle when the SF changed the name of one sea area that no one has ever dared to do THAT again! ;-}