England has many lighthouses, a few are still used to warn boats, but most are now museums or holiday homes. Invented before electricity, lighthouses required a full-time live-in lighthouse keeper to keep the fires burning, in order to give lights to warn ships of impending rocks and shipwrecks.
It was a dangerous job (a recent Scottish mystery was solved when the sudden disappearance of three lighthousekeepers, is now believed to be due to the two other keepers trying to rescue one lost in a storm, and all three tragically lost their lives). The different colours and shapes, are simply due to them being in different locations. For instance, red-and-white striped lighthouses are usually due to being easily seen against white cliffs. And some are short and squat, one in Southwold (Suffolk) is in the middle of the street, as back in the day, there were no surrounding houses.
Trinity House is in charge of upkeep of all the lighthouses and vessels (lighthouse ships). You can read up on all of them and donate to their charity which supports seafarers and their families.
Recently, a rare job came up as a lighthouse keeper. The job description was pretty funny:
- Good head for heights!
- Exeterior decoration experience
- Must be able to change lightbulbs
- Happy to enjoy working alone
- Likes seagulls!
A different type of lighthouse is the Greenwich Lightvessel, a bright red ship that is situated off the Sussex coast. The data from it is used by the Met office to bring the daily forecase on BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast. It reports in every 12 hours and marks the English Channel Traffic Separation zone (France is north, England is south).
They may look like the Caribbean, but the Isles of Scilly has treacherous rocks, as known by the many shipwrecks there. The oldest was built in 1680 and the newest in 1911. Nearly all were built by the 19th century Douglass family, who lived on-site. One local museum expert says ‘They never lost a man, they were phenomenal engineers and extremely brave men who could plan, build, sail, row and jump into the sea to rescue anyone if they got swept away. They were real Victorian heroes’. The family also built Longstone Lighthouse (Northumberland) and the famed red-and-white Eddystone lighthouse in Plymouth.
The family actually were from the Scottish borders then lived in Northumberland, and in 1839 Nicholas Douglass was employed as an engineer for Trinity House, and was selected to build Bishop Rock lighthouse near St Mary’s (due to over 100 rocks and islands surroundings, posing danger to ships). 2000 people in ships had perished in these dangerous waters.
The first version was actually swept away in a storm before it was even completed. The new granite tower was inspired by Eddystone in Plymouth, built by men who were carried to the site from an uninhabited island where they lived, while it was built. Even then, one night a storm tore off the 550lb fog bell. It was eventually finished in 1887 costing £66,000 (masses in those days). It continued to have human lighthouse keepers until 1992, and today is monitored from Harwich, Essex via the planning centre.
Thankfully there are hardly any ship disasters these days, they all seem to have got less during the centuries. However, there have been quite a few disasters in recent decades including:
- In 1970, a French trawler was lost on Western Rocks. 13 crew were never found and one body washed up on Tresco.
- In 1977, another French trawler was lost at Western Rocks. Although the lifeboat heard the crew, all drowned in the waves before they could be rescued.
- In 1997, a cargo ship en-route to Ireland was wrecked while the crew slept, and the ship was on automatic pilot. Fortunately all 9 crew were saved by St Mary’s Lifeboat.
- In 2005, another French trawler sank 60 miles off the coast of Scilly Isles.
In 1967, the worst environmental disaster of our times happened (like England’s version of the Exxon Valdex oil spill) when a tanker struck Pollard’s Rock. The Torrey Canyon oil spill spilled around 25 to 36 million gallons of crude oil, which also affected hundreds of miles of coast in France, Guernsey and Spain.
In recent years, something even more surreal happened down the coast. On a Cornish Beach on Lizard Peninsula, 4,500 containers of Vanish stain remover washed up, after they fell off a container ship (over 18,000 went missing, meaning the rest are still in the sea somewhere). It finally solved the issue of why the local sea had turned pink.
The happy story was many volunteers went to clean up the mess, to help local wildlife. The sad thing was that many others faced fines, as they visited the beach literally to pick up free bottles of Vanish, and drive them home.
discover ancient hidden harbours
A traditional harbour is simply a place where ships and boats can shelter, and were often used to load and unload ships (Liverpool and Bristol are two cities with big maritime histories). Ships would often moor up at piers (the reason they were built) and afterficial harbours were even built during the 1944 D-day operations. Today many harbours moor luxury yachts. Many harbours are not dog-friendly for safety, so check before visiting.
If you sail, read tips to be a greener boater. Many creatures (including seahorses) are at risk from boat anchors (advanced mooring systems have developed an alternative to boat anchors that is safer for seagrass beds and marine wildlife).
Some of our most beautiful harbours include:
Mousehole (Cornwall) is a tiny harbour on the west side of Penzance Bay, just 7 miles from Land’s End. It’s so tiny it can only take tiny boats! It’s also tricky to get in, due to weather and rocky islands.
Lynmouth (Devon) has a funicular powered railway (cliff-lift) nearby and is stunning beautiful. It has a tragic history, when 34 people died (and 100 buildings were destroyed) during a bad flood.
Weymouth (Dorset) is a well-known seaside resort with a nice harbour, the coast faces the Channel Islands, with ferries running from the town to Jersey and Guernsey (at time of writing).
Lymington (Hampshire) is an affluent town with a ferry to Isle of Wight and boats sheltering in two marinas in the Solent.
Whitby (Yorkshire) is a good harbour. Take 199 steps up the hill to visit the ruined abbey, while you wait to sail out again. With a strong Dracula connection, this town also has a sad history, as it used to be a whaling port.