Hold a seashell to your ear and you can hear the sea. Countless children (and their parents) enjoy trying out this timeless experiment. The roaring sound of vibrating air conjures up all the romance and adventure of a trip to the coast. This charming audio illusion has extra resonance this summer. For many of us, putting a shell to our ear may be the nearest we get to the seaside.
Lockdown led to empty beaches around the UK. On the north Cornish coast, however, one remained lively with chattering crowds. If anything, it was busier than ever. Even before 2020, activity was so great that the site was apparently monitored by British Intelligence services.
Widemouth Bay is a broad, gently sloping beach framed by dark sandstone cliffs. It’s a popular spot for bathing and swimming. Low tide reveals a vast expanse of tantalising rock pools. In centuries past this natural harbour attracted Welsh traders. Boats brought cargoes of Welsh coal and limestone, then returned with Cornish copper, tin and slate. More recently, surfers rode the waves. Widemouth faces directly west, towards the North Atlantic, making the bay perfectly placed to catch the ocean’s ‘Atlantic rollers’.
Widemouth’s location and layout also help another kind of surfing. The beach is ideal for bringing ashore transatlantic submarine cables. The first landed at Widemouth in 1963. This underwater telephone line still runs to Tuckerton, New Jersey some 3,518 nautical miles away. Today seven cables lie buried below the sand. Among them are the Europe India Gateway (EIG) and the GLO-1 line with western Africa.
Another is the TAT-14, which carries up to three terabits of internet data - equivalent to 250 million phone books – every second. Analysts have estimated that Widemouth now carries a quarter of the world’s internet traffic. Countless emails, texts, videos and photos pass through twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.
The cables are unseen, but maybe not unheard. Six miles north of Widemouth Bay is GCHQ Bude, a British Intelligence satellite station. In 2013 The Guardian newspaper reported that GCHQ Bude can tap into the data at Widemouth. Rumour has it that one cable carries the telephone hotline between Downing Street and the White House. Widemouth’s telephone repeater station is an underground bunker built to withstand nuclear attack.
The idea of families paddling in the sea while spies listen in to networks hidden below their feet is rather eerie. Especially these days, when less of us can visit the beach yet more of our daily life passes through it.