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Arbury and Cable TV in the 1960s and 1970s: The British Relay Years...


1962: Cable Television arrives in Cambridge! Coming to you straight from a one hundred and seventy foot aerial mast on King's Hedges Road...

Coming into Arbury via the original Arbury Road junction with Histon Road in the early to mid 1970s would have given you a view of electricity pylons, hedgerows, allotments, perhaps a few sheep, and the fields of Arbury Camp Farm. If you were hoping for a romantic view of lovely orchards from the Chivers days (Orchard Park) or the ancient Arbury Camp, well, you would have passed the site but they were long gone. Particularly the Arbury Camp, of course, being prehistoric - at least a couple of thousand years before the Chivers orchards.

Ahem. I think I'm beginning to get off the point...

The impact of the A45/A14, including the major extension and redirection of King's Hedges Road, would render the Arbury Road junction and that stretch of Histon Road unrecognisable before the end of the 1970s. A semi rural spot would become an awful concrete and tarmac eyesore. It looked like alien vandals had run amok across the landscape, leaving a massive ugly structure behind them.

It was horrible.

Total change.

Still, back to a few years earlier, and going on down Arbury Road, on the right you would have come to Mansel Way (not nearly as built up as today), and if you'd popped down there, onto Alex Wood Road (nice patch of waste ground on the corner - lovely scrubby hedge in the middle for building dens in), you could then have cut through into Cunningham Close. 

And there you would have found me. Watching telly probably.

Telly was immensely important in the 1970s and we were pretty well glued to it. ITV began afternoon transmissions early in the decade and, although there were no all night channels and video recorders were an unthought of luxury (we all wanted colour TV sets, which were becoming affordable), we still eagerly sought out the 'goggle box' (as my step-granny called it) for all our favourite programmes - of which there were many.

In the 1970s, we had three TV channels in Arbury: BBC's 1 and 2 and Anglia. BBC2 was looked on by some of us as being rather posh and obscure. I always seemed to encounter some bizarre film with subtitles, Open University stuff, or a kaftan and love beads type 'academic' agonising over the malaise afflicting our postmodern society. Whatever that meant.

But Anglia and BBC1 brought us all our favourites like Upstairs, Downstairs, Thriller, Bless This House, The Dick Emery Show, Josie and the Pussycats, Follyfoot, Crossroads, etc, etc, etc.

Dora of 'Follyfoot' was adorable, but she did cry a lot.

TV was a huge shared experience in those days because of the lack of choice, but some of us had more than three TV channels even then.

Some of us had British Relay.

And British Relay was cable TV! And the sets had an inbuilt radio!

When the Arbury Adventure Playground was established, there was much to enjoy - it was a wonderful (and fabulously ramshackle) enclosure in the field beyond Nun's Way - the field so hard fought for by the likes of Mrs Lark and other Arbury residents in the 1950s and 1960s, and whether you fancied yourself a pirate, Tarzan, or a goat keeper it had everything.

'The trouble is we found here on Arbury, everything you want you've got to fight for.' - Mrs Lark, King's Hedges Road, 'Arbury Is Where We Live!', 1981.

But beyond that, on King's Hedges Road, stood another place of fascination: the British Relay TV aerial. Whenever I visited the Adventure Playground, I always spared a glance or two for the aerial. It stood one hundred and seventy feet tall and had aerials attached at different heights. I think the further away the signal, the higher the aerial needed to be.

In the 1970s, British Relay supplied us not only with BBC's 1 and 2 and Anglia, and BBC Radio stations 1,2,3 and 4, but also the Thames and London Weekend ITV stations and, as one of its radio channels, Capital Radio, the ILR station for London.

And for me, out there in early-to-mid '70s Arbury, with its pylons and its unbuilt-on patches, with its areas of rutted and pitted ground from builders' vehicles roaring across mud, with its soon-to-be-reality prospect of a dreadful ring road and motorway, with its feeling of newness and rawness and distance from the city centre, it seemed very exciting to be able to watch television and hear radio from the great metropolis.

You could watch the news from London, instead of hearing about a crafts fair in Bury St Edmunds or the Great Norfolk Show on About Anglia.

A select group of thirty subscribers on the Arbury Estate had been the first to see the new miracle vision back in 1962...

The Cambridge News (28/8/1962) reported:

Piped television begins in Cambridge on Saturday when 30 Arbury Estate subscribers tune in to receive three television and four radio programmes via a 170ft mast in  King's Hedges Road. The British Wireless Relay Company says the cost of laying a complete underground network was prohibitive but whenever possible the cables were being put in the least conspicuous places. People can hire sets for between 7s 6d [seven shillings and sixpence] and 13s a week.

In 1962, three television channels were one more than conventional telly watchers had. BBC2 was yet to begin. Its debut year was 1964. 

British Relay was not confined to Cambridge. You can, no doubt, find more details of the company online.

The service worked via cables, running between the streets and along the fronts or backs of houses, punctuated by small round adaptor boxes. If a person subscribed to the service, the adaptor was activated and connected by cable to a TV set, via another adaptor which was fixed indoors (usually on the skirting board).

The cables did move underground in certain places later - take a look around Milton Road. There used to be a 'B. Relay' manhole cover opposite the old Milton Road School. There are bound to be others dotted around.

'Cambridge Evening News' pic of the Arbury Court flats in 1987 - showing British Relay cables and adaptors. You could tell which flats had the service by whether or not a wire led to their window! By 1987, British Relay had had its day and the 'glittering new era' of satellite television would soon begin.

In the 1970s, it seemed wonderful to me. The TV Times listed 'regional variations' and it always seemed that Thames and London Weekend, the London ITV services, had 'better' programmes than we did whenever these variations occurred.

Anglia tended to opt for things like Bygones Visits Holkham Hall, while Thames would pop on a film or an American police drama, or something equally enthralling.

Around 1978, British Relay was bought out by a company called Vision Hire. They continued to maintain the BR service, but the 1980s brought with them Channel 4 and the first vestiges of satellite TV and affordable VCRs so the system fizzled out.

Memories! Ah, well... time moves on.

Does anybody know when the giant aerial disappeared from King's Hedges Road?


  1. Cable TV in Cambridge in the 1960s is something I find surprising - and the first viewers being on Arbury! What was reception like for Thames/LWT, the 'out of area' channels?

  2. The reception was fine as we remember. Might have been very slight double vision at times, but nothing of note. Excellent otherwise.

  3. I was wondering when the British Relay aerial was removed? I was born in North Arbury (Nun's Way) in 1980 and don't recall it.

    1. We think around the early to mid 1980s. According to our information, British Relay's successor, Vision Hire, substituted the new Channel 4 channel for London ITV in 1982, so ending the out of area reception era.


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