Nothing, but nothing, comes between a weather observer and their Stevenson Screen

The view from Fran Lockyer's lighthouse is spectacular. A great sweep of ocean and sky greets her as she climbs the steep spiral staircase to the viewing deck each morning.

A bulky telescopic gunsight, originally from an aircraft carrier, is mounted in the middle of the circular floor and trained on a patch of sunlight touching the waves. From her cliff-top eyrie among the gulls at Portland Bill in Dorset, she watches the weather. Every hour of sunshine, every drop of rain - even the height, type and amount of cloud is fastidiously recorded.

Ms Lockyer, 59, is an amateur weather observer - one of an eager band providing crucial information to the Meteorological Office to back up readings from automatic stations and satellites.

Details recorded with pencil and paper in their back gardens and potting sheds end up as hi-tech graphic images on weather charts for airline pilots, ships' captains and television and radio weather forecasters. Indeed, without regular reports from these stations, the weather map for the British Isles would lack important detail.

Ms Lockyer has been studying the skies over her corner of Dorset for more than 20 years, 14 of which have been spent running the Portland station from her B&B at the disused Old Higher Lighthouse.

It is a year since the station went partly automatic and readings for temperatures, wind speed and direction, and barometric pressure began to be taken by computer.

But she still records manually the visibility, cloud conditions, sunshine and rainfall every three hours from 8.45am to 8.45pm, in between seeing to her guests and tending the salt-resistant plants in her garden. Squinting up into the sky, she can identify cloud formations with ease - the result of years of practice.

"The lowest we've got here now is some cumulus over there at round about 3,000ft," she says, pointing north towards Weymouth, "some strato cumulus at about 4,000ft to 5,000ft," - her arm swings round and out towards the Channel - "and all that other white stuff up there is all cirrus between 20,000ft and 30,000ft. Visibility's about 25 miles plus, which is excellent. You picked a nice day."

Nice days here, however, can be rare, and over the years Ms Lockyer and her lighthouse have braved some awesome storms to send back information for the nation's benefit.

"You know about the waterspout?" she asks. "Came in from out in the Channel on the 12th of September 1993 and came straight towards us. If it had come ashore here, this place would have been a mess."

As her photographs prove, the waterspout was a real twister, a bruised grey spiral hundreds of feet high with a fury of spray at its base. "Enough to lift a small fishing boat clean out of the water." As it skirted the Isle of Portland, about 300 yards off shore, she alerted the Dorset coastguard, but shortly afterwards it lost its power and died, minutes before touching land.

Although waterspouts are infrequent, winds of 100mph are quite common at the lighthouse. "You can't stand up in that," she says. "Which makes doing your readings rather difficult.

"When you've got a gale blowing you get a lot of noise, but just before you get one of those 100mph gusts you hear a high-pitched whistle and you know it's coming."

Risk of injury from the elements is a potential hazard of weather watching. Carl Matthews, a 41-year-old observer from north Cumbria found himself dodging thunderbolts to get his readings.

"A storm had passed over and it had just stopped raining when I thought I'd better go out," he recalls. "I remember looking into the Stevenson Screen at the bottom of the field and then there was this flash right behind my back. I thought: that's it, and I ran back inside. I got my readings done, though."

But rather than putting people off, such danger seems to be attracting them to this pursuit of the elements. Earlier this year the Met Office calculated that the number of amateur weather observing stations had dropped by about a third since September 1990, from 122 to 88. Concerned at the number of weather blind spots this was causing around the country, they advertised for more sky watchers.

They expected mild interest - say 50 or so weather buffs with some time on their hands - but were deluged with almost 700 letters.

The success of respondents will depend largely on where they live and how many other stations are in their area. Those selected will be trained by the Met Office, given the latest computerised monitoring equipment and paid a nominal rate (pence rather than pounds) for their trouble.

But what makes these people want to spend up to 14 hours a day measuring the elements to feed the country's addiction to forecasts? "You've got to love your weather," says Peter Loweth, who runs Brede 881, a station near Hastings on the Sussex coast. "I'm very interested in the seasons. I'm basically a countryman at heart. I love a good wind, it's very exhilarating, especially if you are on the cliffs."

To him the British obsession with the weather is perfectly understandable: "It's because we are an island and so much of our trade used to be dependent on the sea. Weather was very important to us."

It still is. To mariners bobbing about in the romantically named sectors of sea around Britain and Ireland, Radio 4's shipping forecast crackling over the airwaves is a lifeline.

Warnings of gales in Fair Isle, low visibility in Malin or a deep depression approaching Stornoway are likely to have been composed from information supplied by observers monitoring instruments outside their kitchen windows.

The BBC's weatherman Ian McCaskill has always relied on these observations coming in from the more remote parts of the country. "I have to confess they have been a blinding revelation," he says.

"There we are in the morning at five to seven, not really knowing what's going on with the weather in certain parts of the country, and then we get a report from an observer. Oh my God, you mean there's snow up there?"

The recent lack of observers has caused him and his colleagues problems with forecasting. "There are now whole counties of the British Isles without observers' weather reports, which is dreadful," he says. "On many occasions the only indication we get of a patch of weather is from these observers. Most of them have been doing this for 30 years, so there's nothing amateur about them."

Although age and experience are not prerequisites for becoming an observer, the Met Office admits most tend to be middle-aged or older and one couple is in their 80s.

But its successful recent recruitment drive will boost their ranks considerably, ensuring that younger observers are on hand to sustain the UK's weather habit for several years to come.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Travel
travel
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
News
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
news
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a dynamic En...

SAP Data Migration Lead

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Experienced Lead SAP Data Manager Requir...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Graduate Recruitment Resourcers - Banking Technologies

£18000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Huxley Associates are looking...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform