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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 90: Knodishall to Harwich via Orfordness

by | Jan 31, 2023


Simon is the friend who cycled to every York City football match, home and away, over the course of an entire season. I met him in the pub car park early the next morning. Ever the adventurer, he had slept on the beach, and had endured a night involving a seafront brawl, a missing person, an air ambulance and lots of police. But he seemed cheerful enough, despite the broken sleep, and he arrived clutching cups of coffee and egg and bacon rolls.

It felt strange at first to be cycling with a companion. I had pedalled in silence for eighty-nine days, so having someone to talk to felt novel. It felt good, in fact. I envied Simon’s calm, laid back approach to life. Where I was tied up in knots worrying that we would miss the boat across to Orford Ness, or that there wouldn’t be any places left on it, he took the view that both scenarios were unlikely, and that there was always the perfectly satisfactory option of waiting fifteen minutes for the next one.

He was right, of course. We reached Orford village an hour before the first boat of the day, and ours were the first two tickets booked. Why can’t I learn to relax more?

Unlike the many other boat trips of my journey, there was no need for safety briefing or life jackets, and our skipper seemed dressed for the country club rather than the water. The briefing from the warden on the Ness, however, was exhaustive, and nearly fifteen minutes long.

Although an internationally important site for nature conservation, Orford Ness was out of bounds for much of the twentieth century, and home to a Ministry of Defence testing facility. The site was used in the testing and development of radar in the 1930s, and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment also had a base on the site in the decades following. Simon and I might have come here to see a lighthouse, but the former defence buildings, containing relics from the Cold War including all but the most lethal parts of an atomic bomb, made compelling, if somewhat shocking viewing.

Over a New Year holiday in 2000, we mistimed a long walk near Orford, and got hopelessly lost. It was perishingly cold, and my daughter Zoe, who was only eleven weeks old at the time, was turning an alarming shade of blue. It was only around five o’clock in the afternoon, but it was a totally dark, starless December early evening, and it was thanks to the light from Orfordness Lighthouse that we were able to keep the coastline in sight all the way back to the car.

With that memory in mind, I knew that I would find the current state of the lighthouse particularly hard to accept. Decommissioned in 2013 as a result of rapid coastal erosion, it had months, possibly a few years, of life left before it would fall prey to the tide. As we approached, I noticed the shingle and sandbags piled up in front of the tower, an attempt to shore up the structure following the most recent damage. One of the Trinity House buildings I remember from photographs is already lost to the sea.


There were a pair of leading lights at Orford Ness as early as 1637, and records exist showing at least five other attempts to build lights here during the eighteenth century. All were eventually either washed away, or destroyed by fire.



In 1792, Lord Braybrooke built a new lighthouse, designed by architect William Wilkins. It served as a new ‘high light’ of a pair of lights, with the previous high light subsequently serving as the low light. The new light had a slightly tapering brick tower, ninety-eight feet tall, painted in red and white bands, with lantern and gallery. For most of its life it displayed a flashing white light that was visible for twenty-five miles.

When the low light finally succumbed to coastal erosion in 1887, red and green sector lights were added to the 1792 tower, and a new lighthouse built at Southwold to compensate for the loss.

When the 1792 Orfordness lighthouse was first built, it was nearly 1,500 yards away from the shore. However by 2013, fierce coastal erosion had cut the distance down to just fifty yards, and the lighthouse was decommissioned. Various attempts were made to protect the site, or even to move the lighthouse, but it was inevitable that it would eventually be lost to the encroaching sea. It was still standing when I visited, surrounded by sandbags, but was eventually demolished during the summer of 2020.

I wanted to believe that something could still be done to save the lighthouse. After all, the Belle Tout lighthouse near Beachy Head had been underpinned and winched away from the cliff edge to relative safety some years earlier. Here, however, there was an air of inevitability that the lighthouse would perish. The land all around was protected, and there was an unwillingness to disrupt the landscape in an attempt to salvage the tower. There was talk that the lantern, and other artefacts, would be removed before too long to a museum somewhere on the mainland.

I shouldn’t feel regret. As I had discovered on this journey, this was the same fate as many a lighthouse has suffered around our coast, and it surely won’t be the last. Moreover, this would be at least the fifth lighthouse close to Orford to be washed away by the sea.

Between Orford and Harwich, there are two rivers to cross, each with its own regular passenger (and bicycle) ferry service. The River Deben ferry between Bawdsey and Felixstowe is tiny, and the crossing takes just a few minutes. But crossing the mouth of the River Stour between Felixstowe and Harwich involves booking tickets and phoning ahead to make sure there is room on board for one of the handful of spaces for bicycles. I’m sure I don’t need to say that I found the whole process very stressful, while Simon seemed to take it all in his stride.

Even Simon had to admit that we’d cut it a bit fine. We arrived minutes before the last ferry of the day, and secured the last two tickets. There were already too many bikes on board, but we were able to stand alongside ours in a gangway at the bow.

Across the water in Harwich itself, we passed the main Trinity House Operations Centre, from where all the principal lighthouse around the English and Welsh coast are monitored and controlled. Simon insisted on taking a photo of me and the bike in front of the main entrance, but the building only reminded me of the email that Trinity House’s PR Manager, Neil Jones, had sent me before I set off, reminding me that I would be trespassing on my expedition if I entered the grounds of any Trinity House property. I smiled for the camera, reflecting on the thought that I had probably visited more Trinity House properties than Neil Jones had.

Harwich is an odd sort of place. It feels like a sizeable town, with quite an elegant seafront, but it appears to have absolutely no shops whatsoever. There are a couple of pubs, and a hotel or two close to the harbour, but if you want so much as a pint of milk, you have to head over to neighbouring Dovercourt.

Harwich does boast two lighthouses, however. They are both long redundant, but they were once a pair of leading lights marking safe passage into Harwich Harbour. We were due to meet up with my friend (and former lighthouse keeper) Neil Hargreaves at the High Light at the end of the day. So we hugged the waterfront to make our way to the former Low Light, which is now a maritime museum. It was closed for the day, but we sat under its canopy shelter for a rest, and took heaps of photographs.

Neil was waiting for us at the High Light, and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. As well as being a former Trinity House lighthouse keeper, with stints at Smalls, Portland Bill and Inner Dowsing under his belt, he is also the founder of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers. Despite being early evening, he was happy to give us a guided tour. As well as plenty of archive material about the lighthouse itself, the tower is now an art gallery and creative space, with six storeys of hanging wall space.

Harwich High and Low

The first pair of leading lights at Harwich were built in 1665. The High Light was installed on the old Town Gate, while the Low Light was a simple wooden tower on the foreshore. Together they marked the safe passage into Harwich Harbour. Their lights were said to be feeble, and both were replaced in 1818 by the current High and Low lights.

Harwich High

Harwich High

The High Lighthouse is a seven-storey, nine-sided brick tower, ninety feet tall, with lantern room and unusual half gallery. It was designed by prominent architect and engineer Daniel Alexander, and its construction was supervised by the famous English engineer John Rennie, later responsible for London Bridge. The Low Lighthouse is an elaborate ten-sided brick tower, forty-five feet tall, designed by John Rennie himself.

Both lighthouses were powered by Argand oil lamps and reflectors, and the light from the High Lighthouse was visible for thirteen miles. Following shifting sands, the two Harwich lights were decommissioned in 1863, and replaced by a pair of cast-iron leading lights at nearby Dovercourt.

Harwich Low

Harwich Low

Following decommissioning, a canopy was built around the base of the Low Lighthouse to offer shelter for walkers on the seafront. Both lighthouses were sold in 1909 and the High Lighthouse was used as a private house until the late 1960s. Its last tenant was well-known local character known as Lighthouse Lil’, who is said to have offered sailors services unrelated to navigation.

The Harwich Society took over the Low Lighthouse, and opened it as a maritime museum in 1980. In 2014 they also took on custodianship of the High Lighthouse, which now houses a museum and creative arts space.

Neil lived in a typically solidly built Trinity House cottage on the cliffs above the promenade at Dovercourt. He directed us to a pub called The Riverside, where the three of us met up for a pint at the end of the day. It was the perfect venue, because we were able to sit outside and look out directly at the pair of Dovercourt lighthouses in front of us.


Dovercourt High

Dovercourt High

After shifting sands meant that the two Harwich Lights could no longer be relied upon to mark the safe passage into the harbour, a pair of lights was built at nearby Dovercourt to replace them.

Built in 1863, they have cast-iron, screw-pile frameworks, with white-painted wooden lantern rooms above. They were designed to be moveable so that they could be realigned if necessary. The High Light is on the beach alongside the Dovercourt promenade, while the Low Light stands in front of it, about 200 yards out to sea.

Dovercourt Low

Dovercourt Low

They were originally oil powered, and showed fixed white lights, the High Light visible for eleven miles and the Low Light nine. In the early 1900s, when they were converted to gas, they were changed to a flashing light pattern. By 1917, the safe, deep-water channel was marked with a series of lighted buoys, making both Dovercourt lighthouses redundant.

They were restored in the 1980s, but are now in poor condition, and in 2019 they were placed on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register.

Neil’s Trinity House career encompassed both light vessels and lighthouses, including Souter, St Mary’s Island, St Ann’s Head, and Inner Dowsing. But it was his two-year stint at Smalls that fascinated me. I have seen for myself how remote the lighthouse at Smalls is, and I remember reading the story of the lighthouse keeper who had died, and his colleague who had gone mad. So a stint at Smalls must have been a tough posting at the best of times. For Neil, though, it was nearly enough to break him. His first Principal Keeper was an alcoholic, and his second so bigoted and racist that Neil wrote to Trinity House to say that unless he was transferred to a new posting, he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions!

I would happily have talked with Neil all evening, but we hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, and we needed to press on. I’m bound to say, though, that Neil’s account of his working life, particularly the sanitary arrangements at many of the offshore lights, had little in common with the lighthouse keeper of my childhood’s imagination.


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