Norfolk

Offshore workers still get tea and cake at three

An old red phone box bolted to the deck of the platform
Image caption Some calls are made from old red phone box bolted to the deck

For the past decade production in the North Sea has been dwindling but a new boom in gas extraction off the east coast may soon reverse that downward slide.

Companies like E.ON are ploughing millions into this part of the Southern North Sea, extracting gas from wells that were once too difficult to exploit.

On the Babbage platform 55 miles off the east coast they produce enough gas in a day to fill the Olympic Stadium in London four times over.

A core crew of 20 men live and work here, split into two shifts of ten. They spend two weeks at a time on the platform, handing over to their opposite number - or 'back-to-back' - before heading home for a fortnight's break.

Stewart Purcell, 40, from Lowestoft, is the senior operations technician. Married with a young son he's been offshore for more than two decades.

Like most on board though, he has multiple roles, able to act as crane driver, helicopter landing officer, firefighter and lifeboat coxswain if needed.

"It's difficult when you first come away. Everything always seems to go wrong at home when you're offshore rather than when you're at home," he said.

"And it can feel like you condense a month's home life into a fortnight sometimes, going out, having meals and sorting stuff out. But I've been doing it for 22 years so I'm used to to it now."

As a steward, keeping this place habitable is the job of Louis Farquhar, 26, a father of one from Aberdeen.

Image caption Stewart Purcell has been working in the offshore industry for 22 years

"My job's basically to make sure the living spaces are clean and hygienic" he said. "I want to work my way up to chef and this works well for me. If I was on shore I could be working six days a week. With this I get two solid weeks with my little boy. It's great."

The £400m platform has three levels. On the lower deck is the operations room complete with a small gym.

Above it sits the accommodation block with room for 30 men.

Normally the crew is much smaller meaning they have a room to themselves complete with en-suite bathroom.

In the lounge area there is satellite TV, a games console, and an endless supply of motoring magazines.

Babbage has internet access and even a landline telephone allowing the men to ring home easily.

Image caption A core crew of 20 men live and work on the platform

Many make video calls to their wives and children.

Some though prefer the privacy of Babbage's other unique feature: an old red phone box bolted to the deck.

"It's the first place the German managers want their photo taken when they visit the platform," joked one worker.

Running the galley is ex-RAF chef Andrew Bullivant, 43, from Doncaster. There is also a baker who works through the night preparing food and baking bread for breakfast.

"After 22 years in the military this sort of life is pretty normal for me," said Andrew. "I'd often be away for four or six months at a time so two weeks is pretty easy. I absolutely love it."

Fresh food arrives once a month by sea from Great Yarmouth and is craned aboard. Newspapers arrive with the helicopter flights a couple of times a week.

As well as healthy options, offshore tradition dictates there are 'tab nabs' - tea and cakes - at three o'clock every day.

"There's two types of big people on board," said Chris West, 22, a communications technician from Coltishall, in Norfolk: "Those who work out, and the ones that raid the cakes!"

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