A valuable aid to maritime safety, Britain’s lighthouses are also marvels of engineering; Ettie Neil-Gallacher explores five of The Field’s favourites
Despite advances in technology, Britain’s lighthouses retain a critical role along the British Isles’ most treacherous stretches of coast. Ettie Neil-Gallacher take a look back at their history, their relevance today and picks five of the best lighthouses.
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MARVELS OF ENGINEERING: BRITAIN’S LIGHTHOUSES
For such plain-looking structures, lighthouses are a mass of contradictions. Simple, yet complex; romantic, yet solitary; historic, yet current. For it’s as clear as one of their beams that, far from having been rendered obsolete by advances in technology, they retain a critical role – symbolically and literally – in the seafaring life of this island nation.
There is something stirring about the image of a lighthouse keeper, working to ensure the beacon stays aflame in all conditions to protect those poor souls tossed about at sea. But this is an anachronism. All lighthouses are now electric. Indeed, it was back in 1858 that the first electric one was built, at South Foreland, on the Kent coast. While many continued to use oil into the 20th century, the advent of electricity meant there was no longer the same need for them to be manned. Automation began in the 1960s, though the process only accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. The last lighthouse to be manned was North Foreland, on the Kent coast, which became automated in 1998, in a ceremony attended by the Duke of Edinburgh.
While this might provoke pangs of nostalgia in many landlubbers, most mariners seem sanguine about such developments. Ian Hogarth, media and publicity officer for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, says that although “it’s fantastic to reminisce about the days of manned lighthouses, automation was an inevitable part of keeping them relevant and ensuring they’re cost effective”.
Those at sea understand all about this relevance and can’t afford to indulge in sentimentality about the lighthouses of yore. Although we may think that boats navigate solely by GPS these days, any old sea dog will testify to the critical role lighthouses still play along the British Isles’ most treacherous stretches of coast. Diccon Rogers, the owner and director of Keynvor Morlift, a marine contracting and consulting firm, jokingly describes himself as “still enough of a crusty old bugger to navigate by navigational lights” and ensures his crews take their bearings using lighthouses, all of which have unique signature beams. Rogers argues that because GPS is susceptible to interference, as well as being controlled entirely by the US military, it can only be as comprehensive as it’s allowed to be. “It’s a great service the Americans provide, but it’s difficult to hack a lighthouse.”
There is something comforting about the steadfast reliability of lighthouses, the history of which goes back to antiquity. The first proper one was the Pharos of Alexandria, which was finished in 280BC and stood some 110m high. It survived in part until the 14th century, and French marine archaeologists discovered remnants lying on the seabed in 1994.
Today, the coast of Britain counts more than 300 lighthouses, many of which come under the auspices of Trinity House, which is the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar (the same role is performed in Scotland and the Isle of Man by the Northern Lighthouse Board, and in Ireland by Irish Lights). Trinity House was founded by Royal Charter granted in 1514 and, in a wonderfully archaic fashion, it is financed from Light Dues levied on commercial vessels calling at ports in the British Isles.
Britain’s oldest lighthouse, however, pre-dates its governing body by more than 1,000 years – it was built by the Romans at Dover. Although it no longer exists, its Eastern Tower can still be seen in Dover Castle. The lighthouses with which we’re familiar started to appear around the beginning of the 18th century, as the British Empire grew and increasing international trade demanded safe passage for sailors and goods. This was the Golden Age of lighthouse construction, with pioneers such as John Smeaton, Sir James Nicholas Douglass and the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’ — relatives of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Two main types of lighthouse emerged: those built on rocks and those based on the shore. The lighthouse keepers for the latter would generally live in an adjacent keeper’s cottage with their families and were very much part of the community; sons would follow their fathers into the occupation.
Rock lighthouses were altogether a greater challenge: how to build a structure on an outcrop or hidden reef that threatens to render any passing vessel asunder? The first rock lighthouse was at Eddystone Rocks in 1698, but it took four iterations to construct something that could withstand the might of the sea and more than a century for the feat to be attempted elsewhere. Life on a rock lighthouse was also much harder and tales of madness, suicide and catastrophe abounded. A particularly eerie episode was the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy of 1801.
Keepers Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith were stationed on this remote lighthouse, 20 miles off the Pembrokeshire coast. They didn’t get on and when Griffith was killed in a freak accident, Howell was terrified he would be accused of murder. So he built a coffin and tied it to the lighthouse. But the coffin was so buffeted by the elements that it began to fall apart and, as it did, the dead man’s arm slumped out. The wind would blow the dangling limb in such a way that it appeared to beckon to Howell and by the time he was collected from the rocks, he was a broken man. As a result of this, it was decreed that rock lighthouses needed three keepers.
Then there was the story of the disappearance of the keepers on Flannan Isles lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. In 1900, a steamer on its way from Philadelphia to Leith, reported that the light wasn’t flashing. When the Northern Lighthouse Board went to investigate, the beds were unmade and the clock had stopped; at least one of the keepers had jettisoned his oilskins and no trace of the three men was ever found.
Such unsettling tales are, of course, unlikely to occur in the age of automation. The keepers who remain simply need to conduct routine maintenance at regular intervals. With the arrival of LED lighting, the role of humans will be further diminished. But not that of lighthouses themselves: centuries of technology and engineering have gone into refining them, and that such innovations continue to be introduced underscores the crucial role they play in our seas.
TOP 5 LIGHTHOUSES
It is difficult to pick a top five from more than 300 lighthouses, but here’s The Field’s view from the crow’s nest.
The four engineers behind Eddystone’s four iterations laid down the principles for rock lighthouses to be replicated around these shores. Eddystone Rocks lie 13 miles south of Plymouth; the reef is submerged in high spring tides, which made entry into one of the country’s most important ports highly perilous. Henry Winstanley, a 17th-century merchant, smarting from the loss of two ships, was outraged that boats weren’t warned of this hazard. Funded by Trinity House, in 1696, the confection that arose out of his febrile imagination and from the seas was almost a maritime folly: an octagonal structure of Cornish granite and wood, bolstered by a dozen mighty iron stanchions, with a lead-domed, octagonal glass lantern at the top; an external stair wound round the base and up to the gallery. Eddystone survived four harsh winters. Indeed, Winstanley, so convinced of its strength, demanded to stay in it during the fiercest possible storm. With tremendous difficulty, he was rowed out to the rocks. But the storm grew and the lighthouse, and all its occupants, were cast into the sea. Perhaps the most important incarnation, however, was its third. James Smeaton’s pioneering design used hydraulic lime (mortar that will set under water) and dovetailed stone construction (which created a smooth surface in the masonry, preventing the lashing waves from getting any purchase on angled brickwork). All rock lighthouses henceforth were based on his principles.
The oldest standing sea-washed lighthouse was completed in 1811, 11 miles off Arbroath. This sandstone reef is 600m long and only exposed at low tide. Legend has it that a bishop ordered a bell to be attached to the rocks, which would sound with the movement of the waves, and it became known as Bell Rock. In 1779, during what must have been a particularly powerful storm, 70 ships were wrecked here. The Scottish lighthouse pioneer Robert Stevenson designed and built a lighthouse so superior that it is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Stevenson was the patriarch of a lighthouse engineering clan: three of his sons, Alan, David and Thomas, and David’s sons, David Alan and Charles, also became lighthouse engineers. Alan’s greatest achievement was the remote Skerryvore lighthouse, 11 miles south-west of Tiree, though he was responsible for 12 others. David and Thomas worked together on Muckle Flugga, which is Britain’s most northerly lighthouse. Grandsons David Alan and Charles worked on 26 and 24 lighthouses around Scotland respectively.
Eight miles off the coast of County Cork on a skerry in the Atlantic Ocean, the second lighthouse at Fastnet was designed and built by William Douglass in 1904. Writer Tom Nancollas describes it as “the last of the great rock lighthouses and pitch-perfect in its form and details”, reflecting that it was the last thing emigrants would have seen as they set sail for America and, conversely, the first sighting of anything structural that those coming from the US would see after an almighty crossing. It gives its name, of course, to the sea area for the Shipping Forecasts and the thrilling Fastnet Race. William Douglass was an engineer for Trinity House and the commissioner of Irish Lights for more than 20 years. His brother, Sir James Nicholas Douglass, was the more influential, however, designing more than a dozen lighthouses, including the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse and Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Wales.
Bishop Rock is a small, rocky islet in the North Atlantic, 32 miles off Land’s End, at the western end of the Isles of Scilly. It’s a symbolic spot due to its association with the classic Blue Riband Transatlanic race and as one end of the route from America during the heyday of liners. The first design was somewhat experimental: a cast-iron frame on stilts, essentially. The conditions were terrifying: the men were harnessed to the rocks so they wouldn’t be swept away. It was cheaper than building it out of masonry but simply not strong enough and was largely washed away. The lighthouse was then duly renovated by Sir James Douglass in the 1880s, though the work was overseen by his son, William Tregarthen Douglass. Today, it is badly weathered and even shudders with the elements, but the integrity of the building seems unaltered.
The tallest lighthouse in Scotland, some 11 miles off Tiree, this elegant structure was the magnum opus of Alan Stevenson. It is an engineering marvel, rising out of a small rock in the roughest of seas. Its construction encountered several soul-sapping setbacks. Stevenson and his men worked 18-hour days to construct a barrack for the builders to live in while working on the lighthouse, only for it to be destroyed in a gale. Their tools were washed out to sea on another occasion. But they persevered and when Stevenson was appointed engineer to the Lighthouse Commissioners, the job was finished off by his younger brother, Thomas.