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Light the beacons

Lighthouse during storm

Words: Joan McFadden

The first recorded lighthouse dates to 280 BC in Ancient Egypt, while the British Isles with its maritime traditions and coastal communities has depended on them for centuries. We shine a light on these beacons of safety, from Stevenson’s Bell Rock triumph – which still stands today – to the shift from manned to automated lighthouses.

Lighthouses have fascinated people since the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built in 280 BC. That first guiding light to keep seafarers safe has been replicated many times over the years, and lighthouses have become indispensable in ensuring the safe passage of vessels through hazardous waters and dangerous coastlines. In the UK and Ireland, coastal fishing communities and merchant shipping still rely on their steadfast presence.

Safeguarding shipping and seafarers

Many of the UK’s lighthouses were privately owned, with the owners leveeing tolls on all merchant shipping that made use of the lights. By 1936, most English lighthouses were already under the jurisdiction of the Corporation of Trinity House, a charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers. When Acts of Parliament made all lighthouses the responsibility of Trinity House, the corporation was handed the power to use compulsory purchase orders on all privately owned lighthouses.

An everlasting light

In the early days, lighthouses were humble structures, crowned with flickering flames, but as maritime technology advanced so too did the design and functionality of these beacons.

Bell Rock is a treacherous reef in the North Sea off the Angus coast in Scotland, in the fairway of vessels sailing to and from the firths of Tay and Forth. The building of a permanent structure on the Bell Rock presented not inconsiderable problems; for one thing, the surface of the rock is uncovered only at low water, while at high water it is submerged to a depth of 16ft. Workers began on the first stages of building work – excavating the reef’s solid rock – in 1807 but it was not until February 1811 that the light of the Bell Rock lighthouse was first lit. Designed by the Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson, the world’s oldest working sea-washed lighthouse has shone ever since, dimming only for short periods during the two World Wars.

Succeeding against the odds

The Eddystone Lighthouse, standing proud off the coast of Cornwall, is another testament to the relentless pursuit of innovation in the name of maritime safety. The Eddystone Rocks are an extensive reef about 12 miles off Plymouth Sound, one of the most important naval harbours of England. The rocks are submerged at high spring tides, and the current structure is the fourth to have been built there. The original, constructed from wood, was erected in 1699 but was swept away in a huge storm in 1703; the architect and five other men were lost to the sea.

Undaunted in the teeth of a storm

The prevailing image of great bravery in the face of danger is illustrated by the countless stories of keepers battling nature to keep a light burning and sailors safe in the stormiest of seas. Grace Darling, the 22-year-old daughter of the Longstone Lighthouse keeper, William, became part of maritime legend when she helped her father rescue nine people in 1836 by rowing a small boat through terrifying waters after a steamship came to grief on the rocks.

The mystery of an empty lighthouse

The Flannan Isles Lighthouse mystery is still pondered more than 120 years since a lighthouse tender vessel stopped off at the tiny island of Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides to investigate a reported problem. No trace could be found of any of the three lighthouse keepers, either in the lighthouse itself or on the island, although one of the men appeared to have left in a hurry – he hadn’t taken his oilskins. Speculation about what might have happened ran wild, including suggestions that the men were suffering from cabin fever and had been fighting a fatal clifftop brawl, or that they had been snatched by a giant sea monster. It’s a puzzle that may never be solved.

Getting every element right

Ever wondered why lighthouses come in different shapes, sizes and colours? These distinctive buildings are painted differently to help mariners identify them during the day, so may be painted all white if their surroundings are dark, such as fields or woodland. Red and white stripes help identify a lighthouse set against a pale background, such as cliffs. The height of a lighthouse takes the curvature of the earth into account, so the higher the light, the further away it can be seen at sea. However, a sailor a mile out at sea may not see the light if the beam is too high, so shorter lighthouses are often on the top of cliffs and taller lighthouses near the surface of the water.

Embracing technology while remembering the men who made it possible

Historically, at the heart of every lighthouse was the keeper – often solitary – who ensured the flame was always burning bright. With the advent of modern technology, manned lighthouses gave way to unmanned counterparts, with all keepers replaced by 1998. The legacy these people and their families left behind is a testament to the enduring spirit of those who braved the elements to keep the flame alive and save thousands upon thousands of souls.

The Bell Rock beacon

Take a boat trip to the Bell Rock Lighthouse and find out more about its remarkable story – and its engineering.

A lighthouse keeper’s story

Watch keeper Peter Halil’s video diary of life on a sea-washed lighthouse off Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, in 1994.

Stevenson’s Bell Rock lighthouse
Stevenson's Bell Rock Lighthouse in the North Sea

Light the beacons

Words: Joan McFadden

The first recorded lighthouse dates to 280 BC in Ancient Egypt, while the British Isles with its maritime traditions and coastal communities has depended on them for centuries. We shine a light on these beacons of safety, from Stevenson’s Bell Rock triumph – which still stands today – to the shift from manned to automated lighthouses.

Lighthouses have fascinated people since the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built in 280 BC. That first guiding light to keep seafarers safe has been replicated many times over the years, and lighthouses have become indispensable in ensuring the safe passage of vessels through hazardous waters and dangerous coastlines. In the UK and Ireland, coastal fishing communities and merchant shipping still rely on their steadfast presence.

Safeguarding shipping and seafarers

Many of the UK’s lighthouses were privately owned, with the owners leveeing tolls on all merchant shipping that made use of the lights. By 1936, most English lighthouses were already under the jurisdiction of the Corporation of Trinity House, a charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers. When Acts of Parliament made all lighthouses the responsibility of Trinity House, the corporation was handed the power to use compulsory purchase orders on all privately owned lighthouses.

An everlasting light

In the early days, lighthouses were humble structures, crowned with flickering flames, but as maritime technology advanced so too did the design and functionality of these beacons.

Bell Rock is a treacherous reef in the North Sea off the Angus coast in Scotland, in the fairway of vessels sailing to and from the firths of Tay and Forth. The building of a permanent structure on the Bell Rock presented not inconsiderable problems; for one thing, the surface of the rock is uncovered only at low water, while at high water it is submerged to a depth of 16ft. Workers began on the first stages of building work – excavating the reef’s solid rock – in 1807 but it was not until February 1811 that the light of the Bell Rock lighthouse was first lit. Designed by the Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson, the world’s oldest working sea-washed lighthouse has shone ever since, dimming only for short periods during the two World Wars.

Succeeding against the odds

The Eddystone Lighthouse, standing proud off the coast of Cornwall, is another testament to the relentless pursuit of innovation in the name of maritime safety. The Eddystone Rocks are an extensive reef about 12 miles off Plymouth Sound, one of the most important naval harbours of England. The rocks are submerged at high spring tides, and the current structure is the fourth to have been built there. The original, constructed from wood, was erected in 1699 but was swept away in a huge storm in 1703; the architect and five other men were lost to the sea.

Undaunted in the teeth of a storm

The prevailing image of great bravery in the face of danger is illustrated by the countless stories of keepers battling nature to keep a light burning and sailors safe in the stormiest of seas. Grace Darling, the 22-year-old daughter of the Longstone Lighthouse keeper, William, became part of maritime legend when she helped her father rescue nine people in 1836 by rowing a small boat through terrifying waters after a steamship came to grief on the rocks.

The mystery of an empty lighthouse

The Flannan Isles Lighthouse mystery is still pondered more than 120 years since a lighthouse tender vessel stopped off at the tiny island of Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides to investigate a reported problem. No trace could be found of any of the three lighthouse keepers, either in the lighthouse itself or on the island, although one of the men appeared to have left in a hurry – he hadn’t taken his oilskins. Speculation about what might have happened ran wild, including suggestions that the men were suffering from cabin fever and had been fighting a fatal clifftop brawl, or that they had been snatched by a giant sea monster. It’s a puzzle that may never be solved.

Getting every element right

Ever wondered why lighthouses come in different shapes, sizes and colours? These distinctive buildings are painted differently to help mariners identify them during the day, so may be painted all white if their surroundings are dark, such as fields or woodland. Red and white stripes help identify a lighthouse set against a pale background, such as cliffs. The height of a lighthouse takes the curvature of the earth into account, so the higher the light, the further away it can be seen at sea. However, a sailor a mile out at sea may not see the light if the beam is too high, so shorter lighthouses are often on the top of cliffs and taller lighthouses near the surface of the water.

Embracing technology while remembering the men who made it possible

Historically, at the heart of every lighthouse was the keeper – often solitary – who ensured the flame was always burning bright. With the advent of modern technology, manned lighthouses gave way to unmanned counterparts, with all keepers replaced by 1998. The legacy these people and their families left behind is a testament to the enduring spirit of those who braved the elements to keep the flame alive and save thousands upon thousands of souls.

The Bell Rock beacon

Take a boat trip to the Bell Rock Lighthouse and find out more about its remarkable story – and its engineering.

A lighthouse keeper’s story

Watch keeper Peter Halil’s video diary of life on a sea-washed lighthouse off Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, in 1994.

Stevenson’s Bell Rock lighthouse
Stevenson's Bell Rock Lighthouse in the North Sea

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