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Guiding lights

Words by Dan Warden

Cornwall’s lighthouses remain steadfast in their duty, even in the worst Atlantic storms.

We at DRIFT are obsessed with the water. Our very name hints at the idea of floating, of currents, of the endless flow of rivers and the irresistible push and pull of the tides. We love the water because it is such an integral part of Cornish life, of our history and our heritage.

Today, the word ‘coast’ conjures up dreamy oases of ice cream and shoreline paddles, however historically it has represented something of a double-edged sword. Whilst entire communities have, for generations, forged their livelihoods from it by fishing, the ocean is nonetheless fickle, unpredictable, and dangerous by its very nature. At the very least, it is a neighbour to wary of.

Arguably the most iconic and visible reminders of this are Cornwall’s lighthouses. Interestingly, the first such structure in Cornwall wasn’t built until the early 17th century, and yet just a quick search of Cornish shipwrecks yields a long list of incidents dating as far back as the 1200s. We can only guess as to how many went unrecorded.

The reason for so many tragedies? Cornwall, nowadays, is celebrated for its rugged coastline. On any number of coastal walks you can look out to sea and watch breakers rolling across sharp, treacherous reefs, many of which lie hidden beneath the surface. In centuries, even millennia gone by, without the accurate sea charts and navigational equipment that today is considered ‘standard’, these hazards were points of peril for anybody forging a livelihood at sea.

It was, then, a huge relief to seafarers when the first lighthouses were built. Not only did they warn sailors of dangerous stretches of water, each lighthouse’s individual signal allowed their location to be determined too. And whilst, to begin with, they were no more sophisticated than coal fires at the tops of towers, as technology improved, they gradually evolved to utilise oil lamps, then bulbs, and are now entirely automated and unmanned, some even making use of solar power. Cornwall is home to nine lighthouses in total, not including those at the end of harbour piers in Penzance, Newlyn and St Ives. Each is an icon, and each has its own intriguing, and often tumultuous, history.

Lizard Lighthouse, built 1752

In fact, the first purpose built tower here was erected in 1619. Cornishman Sir John Killigrew applied for a patent, which was granted on the proviso that the light be extinguished should enemy vessels or pirates be seen approaching. Unfortunately Killigrew’s hope that passing ships would contribute financially to the upkeep of the lighthouse was proven ill-founded, and when James I imposed a fee of one halfpenny per ton on all vessels passing the light, such was the uproar from shipowners that Killigrew’s patent was withdrawn, the light extinguished, the tower demolished. The lighthouse as we now know it was built by Thomas Fonnereau, supported by The Corporation of Trinity House, which is now a charity dedicated to the safeguarding of shipping and seafarers.

Lizard Lighthouse, ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Longships Lighthouse, built 1795

Victorian art critic John Ruskin described the motion of the seas around the cliffs of Land’s End as “an entire disorder of the surges”, comparing it to “the defeated division of a great army, throwing all behind it into disorder”. Up until the 1790s, the area was devoid of navigational aid. On 30th June 1791, Trinity House obtained a patent after a petition from seafarers, giving a lease to Lieutenant Henry Smith, who would erect a lighthouse on the Longships islets. A three-storey circular tower, designed by Samuel Wyatt, was erected soon thereafter on Carn Bras, the largest of the islets. Rising 12 metres above high tides, it stood for almost a century, however the lantern was often obscured by water during stormy weather. For this reason, in 1875 Wyatt’s tower was replaced by the present circular tower of grey granite. Built by Sir James Douglas, Trinity House’s Engineer-in-Chief, that tower still stands today. In 1988 it was automated, and is now controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Essex.

Longships Lighthouse, Land's End, Dan Leonard

St Anthony’s Head Lighthouse, built 1835

According to Trinity House, a large red flag was flown here to aid navigation as early as the 17th century, however it was taken down in 1779 to prevent its use by invading fleets.

The lighthouse that now occupies the position sits at the entrance to the waterways of Falmouth harbour and the renowned sailing waters of the Carrick Roads. These waterways are of great historic importance; in fact, King Henry VIII had the castles of St Mawes and Pendennis built to defend them.

The lighthouse was commissioned by Trinity House in 1835 to warn ships of ‘The Manacles’ – a set of treacherous rocks off the Lizard peninsula – as well as the dangers of Black Rock, which lurks right in the centre of the harbour entrance. What were once the keepers’ cottages have since been converted into holiday lets, offering a truly unique place to stay.

St Anthony's Head, August Schwerdfeger

Trevose Head, built 1847

A lighthouse was first proposed for this stretch of the north coast as early as 1809, and was considered again by Trinity House in 1813 and then 1832, but it was not until 1st December 1847 that a light first shone from the headland at Trevose. Towering 150 feet above the water, the lighthouse underwent extensive alterations and work in 1911 to install a fog signal – an ‘enormous trumpet’ – which was later replaced in 1963. The structure was manned by keepers until 20th December 1995, when the lighthouse was automated.

Trevose Head, Visit Cornwall – Adam Gibbard

Godrevy Lighthouse, built 1858

Godrevy Island stands what feels like a stone’s throw from Godrevy Headland. Beyond it lie ‘The Stones’. During the first half of the 19th century there was a significant increase in the coastal passenger and commercial trade, which in turn brought many ships along the north Cornish coast to St Ives. While the town flourished, the natural path for ships sailing there lay dangerously close to The Stones, and as you might expect, without a lighthouse or any means of warning ships of the dangers, the reef claimed more than its share of victims. It wasn’t until 1854, when screw steamer SS Nile was wrecked – with the loss of all passengers and crew – that Trinity House decided to take action. Consultant engineer, James Walker, provided the design, and the first light shone on 1st March 1859. 26 metres high, the white octagonal tower is built from rubble stone bedded in mortar. While the structure still stands, it was automated in 1934 with a new lens; in 1995 it was converted to solar-powered operation, then in 2012, the light was moved from the original tower to a new steel structure on the adjacent rock.

Godrevy Lighthouse

Wolf Rock Lighthouse, built 1869

Tacking back towards Land’s End, Wolf Rock Lighthouse is a tower built into a steep, craggy rock around eight miles off-shore. Thanks to gargantuan swells in the area, the rock is rarely out of the water, and such high seas would designate a number of attempts to erect a beacon here throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, to fail. To add scale to the difficulties, during the years 1836-40, an iron beacon was positioned on the rock, designed by James Walker. During those five years, it was recorded that there were only 302 hours during which work could be carried out. That said, Walker’s beacon was to be a success and even today, remains part of the present landing. The granite tower that now defines Wolf Rock Lighthouse was also designed by Walker, work on which began in 1861. True to Wolf Rock form, by the end of 1864, only 37 stones in the second course of masonry had been laid, and it wasn’t until 1869 that the tower was completed, the light being brought into service early the following year.

Wolf Rock, Alvaro, CC BY-SA 3.0

Eddystone Lighthouse, built 1882

Eddytone’s is a tale of four towers, their history dating back to 1698. The first – Winstanley’s Tower – lasted until the Great Storm of 1703, which erased almost all traces of it. Its construction took place while England was at war with France, and such was the importance of the ‘Eddystone Project’ (given the reef’s ill repute in the maritime world), that the Admiralty provided Winstanley with a warship for protection during the days that work took place. One morning the guard did not arrive, and in its stead came a French privateer, which took Winstanley to France against his will. When Louis XIV was advised of the events, he ordered Winstanley’s release, saying that France was at war with England, “not with humanity”.

The second beacon to be built here was Rudyerd’s Tower – a wooden structure that would stand for 47 years, patented by Captain Lovett and built by architect, John Rudyerd. Its demise came about on 2nd December 1755, when the roof caught fire. Henry Hall, who was on watch, did his best alongside his fellow keeper to put the fire out, but the fire remained above them, cremating the structure from the top down. In the fray, as he looked up at the inferno, a piece of molten lead is said to have fallen into his throat, which meant that despite he and his companion’s rescue from the rocks in high seas, Hall died 12 days later with a post-mortem revealing a 7.5oz piece of lead in his stomach.

Accustomed to the benefits of a light atop the Eddystone Reef, mariners were keen to have Rudyerd’s Tower replaced as quickly as possible. As a temporary measure, Trinity House placed a lightvessel in the area until a permanent tower could be built, then in 1956, on the recommendation of the Royal Society, Yorkshireman John Smeaton was assigned to the job. Basing his tower on the shape of an English oak tree, but using stone instead of wood, Smeaton employed the toughest labourers he could find, many of whom were Cornish tin miners. Local granite was used for the foundations and facing, for which Smeaton’s newly invented quick-drying cement – which is still used today – would prove invaluable. Other ingenious methods of construction were pioneered during the tower’s construction, including the use of dovetail joints and marble dowels, as well as a device for hoisting large blocks of stone from ships to the dizzying heights the tower’s crown. Smeaton’s Tower first shone on 16th October 1759, and held firm until the 1870s when cracks began to form in the rock beneath. After 120 years, the top half was dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the builder.

That brings us to Douglass’ tower, of 1882. After the dismantling of Smeaton’s, no time was wasted. That said, the task of building a new tower did represent a great opportunity to incorporate many of the day’s most advanced ideas in lighthouse construction, which, by 1877, had become a far more scientific endeavour. William Douglass built the present lighthouse using larger stones, dovetailed to each other on all sides, as well as to the courses above and below. The structure was complete in 1882 and was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh, who laid the final stone. In May 1982 – a century later – it became the first Trinity House rock lighthouse to be automated.

Douglas's Tower stands on the Eddystone reef, beside the remains of Smeaton.

Pendeen Lighthouse, built 1900

One word that seems apt along much of Cornwall’s coastline, at least for sailors, is ‘inhospitable’. This is certainly the case for the shoreline between Pendeen and Gurnard’s Head. Without any form of guiding light and with the high cliffs blocking out any view of other lighthouses to the east or west, many ships have foundered along this stretch, particularly on the groups of sunken and exposed rocks near Pendeen Watch. No surprise then, that at the close of the 19th century, Trinity House decided to erect a lighthouse and fog signal here. The facility was automated in 1995, with the keepers leaving their station and relinquishing control of the signal to Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Essex.

Pendeen Lighthouse, Nilfanion, CC BY-SA 4.0

Tater Du Lighthouse, built 1965

Opened by HRH The Duke of Gloucester in 1965, Tater Du is Cornwall’s most recently built lighthouse. Its construction was prompted in 1963 by the tragic loss of Spanish coaster, Juan Ferrier, and the lives of 11 on board. It was built as an automatic installation, to warn ships of the deadly Runnelstone Rocks to the west of Penzance. Modernised in 1996, it’s now monitored and controlled from the Trinity House Planning Centre.

It is difficult nowadays to imagine the coastline at night without the recognisable signals of these iconic Cornish structures. Similarly to our engine houses and historic stone circles, they are a visible reminder of our heritage – specifically, of our historic relationship with the ocean. Despite the known dangers of our coastlines and the countless lives lost at sea, they are nevertheless recent additions to the landscape, and by virtue of their being present, remind us of a time when they weren’t.

Tater Du Lighthouse, August Schwerdfeger CC-BY-4


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