One of the most interesting parts of the first training trip to Lyndesfarne was a visit to a communications tower on the far side of the crossing. Tom, Alistair and the others had already had an opportunity to inspect the corresponding facility on the England coast, during one of their trainee sessions with the Guardians, and Tom was fascinated by the differences between the two sides.
The earlier trip had been low-key: just another visit to one of the anonymous quasi-military (and very often ex-military) installations along the coast to north and south of the crossing. This was one of their many trips as a group to the crossing itself, which were an apparently essential part of their education.
On this occasion, the entire intake had been transported in trucks and, unusually, had been led by Major Markham himself. Tom had not had very much contact with the Major and had indeed been making a conscious effort to keep his head down around the Grange. The entire group had debarked close to the causeway entrance and had marched in twos along a well-used pathway along the coast. After a few minutes, the trainees were instructed to draw up in ranks, and were addressed by the Major himself.
Markham explained that contact between the Guardians in the two Worlds was maintained by light semaphore, similar to the Aldis lamps used for communications between ships at sea. Guardians on both sides would send up a flag as an alert that a message was to be delivered; in an emergency or at night time, a flare would be used. The signal stations were always manned and a three-man team would scramble. One team member used binoculars to see the light flashes and shout out the corresponding symbol, a second would act as a scribe to write down the message, and the lamp operation would be performed by a third.
Messages were coded as a sequence of long and short flashes not unlike Morse code, although there were different sequences for the letters in the English and Lyndesfarne alphabets. There was also a "Q-code", using a special character to indicate the start of a code, then two other letters to give the meaning. Given that there were fifty-five characters to choose from - twenty-six in the alphabet Tom had been taught as a child and twenty-nine in the Lyndesfarne equivalent - the number of meanings that could be conveyed by a two-letter code was huge. Of course, it was sometimes necessary to send a verbatim plain-text message in either language, or encrypted messages where even the language used could not be determined.
Following another instruction, the group marched onwards again, further along the coast, until the squat tower of the semaphore station came into view. The communication post was a square of grey-painted steel latticework located on the shore to one side of the causeway. Even from this range, Tom could see that, half-way up, there was a platform with a steel railing for the operations team which could be reached by steel stairs from the ground. He could even see that the spotter's binoculars were firmly fixed to a stand attached to the tower, for stability and ease of use in windy weather.
The troop drew up again, and the Major addressed them. He pointed out the light housing itself, fixed to the very top of the tower. It was a bulky cylinder painted the same grey colour as the rest of the structure. Shutters on the lamp were operated by mechanical linkages from the platform below. Markham explained that the tube itself contained a powerful electric arc lamp, plus a series of glass lenses and mirrors to produce an intense narrow beam of light which could be seen day or night, and was intended to cut through even the densest fog.
The tower was also used as a general look-out post, since it gave an excellent view across the straights in almost all weather conditions. It also sprouted a magnificent collection of radio aerials, used for short-wave communication, both within Britain and abroad, including links with Cliviger Grange. Apparently, the barrier between the worlds prevented the passage of radio waves, in much the same way that light was blurred and distorted by its mysterious properties.
The trainees were instructed to divide into groups of two for a tour of the tower itself. Tom found himself paired with Ifor, about half-way along the waiting line. Major Markham himself climbed the ladder first, then shouted for the first pair to ascend. Charlie and Sophia, who happened to be first in line, moved quickly up the narrow staircase, which looked to Tom more like a companion-way on a ship than part of a building.
The others stood waiting patiently in line for their opportunity to climb the latter to the upper level. The operations platform was presently unmanned. The crew who would normally have been on duty had decamped to the base of the tower, where a secondary observation point was located. Low walls of thick stone blocks provided some protection from the elements for the crew, one of whom was patiently scanning the shore opposite with binoculars.
When it came to Tom's turn, he scampered rapidly up the steps, easily outpaced even the lightly-built Ifor. At the top, he could see that there was not a great deal of space on the platform, and he could understand why they had been paired up for this exercise. The Major pointed out the various features and pieces of equipment with military efficiency, and then asked if there were any questions. Both Tom and Ifor declined, and they were dismissed quickly.
They dull-grey steel tower looked as if it had been there for a long time, although Tom wondered if this was illusory. Surely, he mused, it had been constructed much more recently than the causeway, perhaps during the war years. Even so, around the concrete foundations, rough grasses were now growing, and Hawthorn and other bushes had taken root in sheltered spots in the vicinity. Tom guessed that the cover story for this installation was that it was just a navigation light to guide boats safely to harbour. He wondered how many of the other lighthouses around this part of the coastline were actually more than they seemed.
After breakfast on the second day of their visit, the party followed Sergeant Brasham back to the portal terminus, and through the same portal they had used the day before. Emerging from the building adjacent to the causeway, they followed the Sergeant along a rough track just above the shoreline. Tom had been thinking about the steel tower as they marched along.
The Lyndesfarne tower was a very different kind of edifice than the one of the English coast. It was a circular construction of heavy stone blocks which seemed as ancient as the bridge itself. Again, it had a platform about half-way up, reached by an internal spiral staircase, and with a stone parapet surrounding a conical central spire culminating in a globe. The source of light was mystifying: despite its globular shape, the projector at the apex of the tower emitted a narrow beam of light directly at the tower across the water.
Once again, the trainees visited the operations platform in pairs. In this tower, the platform was slightly larger, and there was room for the Sergeant and two trainees as well as the regular crew. When it was Tom's turn to climb the tower, he was treated to a demonstration of the operation of the signalling system, given by a trio of people who seemed to operate in total silence, except for a few softly-spoken instructions and the sing-song of the received characters called out as the message arrived. The threesome moved fluidly to transcribe and respond to the message that flashed out from across the straights. Impressive discipline, Tom considered privately.
The controls to activate the lamp were operated (as always, mused Tom) by gestures made on the platform. Viewing the signal from the far side was assisted by what was described as a "viewing plate", a flat disc fixed to a stand whose surface gave the appearance of burnished metal. Normally, the plate seemed to be opaque, but a magnified image of the tower opposite appeared on the surface when invoked by a gesture.
The way in which the incoming message was captured was fascinating. As each character was called out by the observer, the scribe made the corresponding mark on the surface of a slate tablet. These magical slates were in widespread use in Lyndesfarne, Tom understood, and they had been briefed on them during one of the classroom sessions. This was, however, the first time he had actually witnessed one in action.
As he watched, the message was completed, and the scribe made a fluid series of gestures over the surface of the tablet. The writing faded instantly, Tom understood that the transcribed message was now on it way to its recipient, using a magic he did not yet understand.
Tom was spellbound by the workings of the Lyndesfarne tower, especially since the tower here seemed much older than the one in his own world. He wondered how these paired signalling towers had been established, and how long ago that had happened.
In the absence for Major Markham, Tom felt less inhibited about finding out more when the opportunity arose. Once everyone had inspected the tower and returned to ground level, he was the first with a question when Brasham invited them.
"How long had the towers been in place?"
"Centuries," the Sergeant answered directly, "There've been means of rapid communication across the straights for a long time. In the olden days, they used to use semaphore flags during the day, and they could light a beacon at night as a warning. And there's a warning bell, which can be rung to sound an alarm."
Indeed, the bell itself was still clearly in place on the tower behind them, although Tom could not quite recall whether there had been one on the opposite side. Perhaps a modern electric siren was fitted instead.
"But the tower over there" - Tom indicated the coast opposite - "Surely that cannot be more than a few decades old?"
"True enough," the Sergeant replied, "There used to be a stone tower on our side of the crossing as well."
"What happened to it, Sarge?"
"It blew up, under what are still unexplained circumstances, back in the Thirties. You can still see the stones of the foundations close to the new tower."
Tom realised that the low walls that had sheltered the tower crew were in fact the remains of the old tower. The Sergeant's reply had raised more questions that it had answered. He remained intensely curious and he wondered if there was still some untold history here.
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