It seems strange to be writing these words now that I am home. I made this journey a couple of summers ago, and only started writing about it during some fairly lean working months during the pandemic.
Since my return we have lost, or will lose imminently, at least three lighthouses of historical importance.
The Wyre light, the one that vies with Maplin Sands for the title of the world’s first screw-pile lighthouse, has almost entirely collapsed following heavy storms in July 2017. The basic metal framework remains, but only a seasoned lighthouse enthusiast would recognise it for what it once was.
In August 2020, the Association of British Ports (ABP) issued an official warning for mariners to navigate with caution when entering Fleetwood Channel, as the remaining structure is now being covered by the sea during the higher tides. As the former lighthouse is now a hazard rather than an aid to navigation, it can only be a matter of time before the remaining framework is removed altogether.
Just off the Sussex coast, Trinity House have started work on a project to decommission Royal Sovereign Lighthouse. Built with an anticipated working life of fifty years, back in 1971, there is now evidence of concrete fatigue in the platform on which the tower stands. Asbestos removal has begun, and dismantling will take much of 2023 and 2024. The role the lighthouse played will be performed by a combination of lit buoys, as well as by increasing the range of the Beachy Head lighthouse closer to the shore. At the time of writing there is at least one heritage body bidding to acquire the tower itself, with the goal of rebuilding it on the seafront at Bexhill.
Perhaps saddest of all is the fate of the famous lighthouse at Orford Ness. Following winter storms at the start of 2020, the encroaching tides finally reached the lighthouse compound itself, and only the tower itself remained undamaged. Any hope of continuing to keep the water at bay was lost, and the lighthouse was demolished in August 2020. The lantern and certain other artefacts were saved, and there is talk of them being exhibited in a lighthouse museum somewhere on the mainland.
These will not be the last lighthouses to be lost. Belle Tout lighthouse, renowned for being winched seventeen metres back from the eroded cliff edge in 1998, is now close to the cliff edge once more, following cliff falls in August 2021 Its current owners are confident that they can move the building for a second time, rather than allow it to succumb to the elements.
The pair of leading lights at Dovercourt are now in a very poor state of repair, and were recently added to English Heritage’s register of buildings at risk. Following a structural survey, the cost of restoration work has been estimated at £400,000. Agreement on where the money will come from is needed before any work begins.
At Hurst Castle, heavy storms in March 2021 undermined the foundations of the castle’s east wing, causing a large part of the sea wall to collapse. Although the damage is some distance from both the current and pair of former lighthouses, it is a worrying sign nonetheless.
The news does not all focus on decay and the demolishing of lighthouses that are beyond saving, however. As lighthouse enthusiasts, we should be pleased that so many are being maintained properly, and applaud efforts to modernise them so they are fit for the twenty-first century.
There is good news at Whitehaven, for example, where a funding bid to repair and refurbish Whitehaven’s historic harbour lighthouses was given the green light towards the end of 2018, and the work was finally completed last year.
Good news, too, at Shornemead, where the former lighthouse, unloved for so many years, has been restored and now stands proudly at the entrance to the Port of London Authority’s depot at Denton, on the outskirts of Gravesend.
Inevitably some of these modernisation efforts will alter the character of the light or building. Like at Trwyn Du Lighthouse, on the Isle of Anglesey, where plans are underway to replace the beautiful and haunting fog signal bell, which has rung every thirty seconds since 1922. A modern, standard electronic foghorn will take its place. The Facebook Group ‘Save the Trwyn Du Lighthouse bell’ has vowed to fight the decision, through the courts if necessary.
Haunting fog signal bell, Trywn Du lighthouse
At Portland Bill, a modernisation programme has involved the installation of a modern, non-rotating LED light source. The lantern which gave the lighthouse’s beam its broad sweeping motion has been switched off and its optics have been removed.
These modernisation efforts are regrettable, but for the lighthouses, this is what progress looks like. I would sooner have a ‘non-rotating LED light source’ than no light at all. In an age when GPS units can give a vessel’s precise location to within a metre, we must be grateful that we retain as many working, maintained lighthouses as we do. Their days must surely be numbered.
On an even more positive note, there are several lights whose prospects have brightened since my journey’s end. At Spurn Point, for example, a complete restoration programme has been completed since I was there, and the lighthouse has now reopened as a visitor centre.
The lighthouse at Plover Scar, in Lancashire, might well have been replaced by a simple lit buoy after it was struck by a passing commercial vessel. Instead, the stone tower was rebuilt and the lantern renovated, giving the lighthouse a clean bill of health for another hundred years.
Closer to home, I was honoured to be invited to an extremely moving event at South Foreland in November 2018, where the lantern was brought back into service, for one night only, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.
And what of my health? It has been a mixed picture. Successive MRI scans of my brain and spinal column in 2017 and 2018 showed increasing numbers of plaques or lesions, the areas where the protective myelin sheath is stripped away from the nerves. It prompted a change in medication, in the form of a daily pill rather than the invasive injections that became part of my daily cycling adventure ritual. I don’t really understand how it works, but the idea is that it slows or prevents movement of lymphocytes out of lymph nodes, thereby limiting inflammation in the central nervous system. Make of that what you will.
Since the change in medication, I have had very few further relapses. Like many people with MS, I do battle with anxiety and depression at regular intervals, and I’m not always good company for Emily and my children. My legs are often unreliable, where a flight of stairs can defeat me one week, but a five-mile walk is perfectly manageable the next. What gives?
Perhaps strangest of all, cycling is much, much easier and less painful for me than walking. So perhaps the Scottish lighthouses are still there for the taking.
Thank you for following me on my journey.