Put a light on a reef
Our friend and fellow blogger Jules planned to buy a lighthouse in Old Blighty. Those plans fell through for different reasons but it got me thinking about lighthouses on England’s Southern Coast.
I must admit that writing novels in a lighthouse on the windswept beach and rocks in rural England has a significant appeal. I might not buy, but I could be persuaded to take a sabbatical for the summer perhaps? Pay extortionary rent for a summer cottage on the ocean close enough to drive to a market – and maybe treat myself to fish and chips? Could be. Or not. In any event, as the subtle, silken, sad, uncertain, rustling of each purple curtain (Poe) draws closed on the sunshine of my life, I can dream of that. Perhaps a lighthouse?
Until the end of the 17th century, one of the threats facing shipping heading to Plymouth on the southern coast of England was the isolated and treacherous Eddystone reef, 23km directly offshore. Much of the hazard is underwater, creating complex currents, and extraordinarily high seas are often kicked up when conditions are very windy. In 1620 Captain Christopher Jones, master of Mayflower described the reef: “Twenty-three rust red […] ragged stones around which the sea constantly eddies, a great danger […] for if any vessel makes too far to the south […] she will be swept to her doom on these evil rocks.” As trade with America increased during the 1600s a growing number of ships approaching the English Channel from the west were wrecked on the Eddystone reef.
King William III and Queen Mary petitioned that something be done about marking the infamous hazard. Plans to erect a warning light by funding the project with a penny-a-ton charge on all vessels passing initially foundered. Then an enterprising character called Henry Winstanley stepped forward and took on the most adventurous marine construction job the world had ever seen. Work commenced on the mainly wooden structure in July 1696. England was again at war, and such was the importance of the project that the Admiralty provided a man-o-war for protection.
The Winstanley Lighthouse, by English School, 17th century
One day HMS Terrible did not arrive for its picket duty and a passing French privateer seized Winstanley and carried him off to France. When Louis XIV heard of the incident he ordered his release. ” France is at war with England, not humanity,” said the King. Winstanley’s was the first lighthouse to be built in the open sea. It was a true feat of human endeavor. Work could only be undertaken in summer and for the first two years nothing could be left on the rock or it would be swept away. There was some assistance from Terrible in transporting the building materials, but much had to be rowed out in an open four-oared boat in a journey that could take nine hours each way. Winstanley’s lighthouse was swept away after less than five years, during the great storm of 1703.
John Rudyerd’s wooden lighthouse of 1708, by Issac Sailmaker, c. 1708
Winstanley was in his lighthouse at the time supervising some repairs. He said that he wished to be there during ” the greatest storm that ever was.” (RIP)
The next lighthouse was built by John Rudyerd and lit in 1709. Also made largely of timber and with granite ballast, it gave good service for nearly half a century until destroyed by fire in 1755. During the blaze, the lead cupola began to melt, and as the duty keeper, 94-year-old Henry Hall, was throwing water upwards from a bucket. While doing that he accidentally swallowed 200g of the molten metal. No one believed his incredible tale, but when he died 12 days later doctors found a lump of lead in his stomach.
Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse, by John Lynn (active 1826-1869)
John Smeaton, Britain’s first great civil engineer, was the next to rise to the challenge of Eddystone. He took the English oak as his design inspiration – a broad base narrowing in a gentle curve. The 22m high lighthouse was built using solid discs of stone dovetailed together. Work began in 1756, and from start, to finish the work took three years, nine weeks, and three days. Small boats transported nearly 1000 tons of granite and Portland stone along with all the equipment and men.
Sir James N. Douglass’s Eddystone Lighthouse, Plymouth, England, photochrome print, c. 1890–1900. The remnants of John Smeaton’s lighthouse are at left.
The Smeaton lighthouse stood for over 100 years. In the end, it was not the lighthouse that failed; rather that the sea was found to have eaten away the rock beneath the structure. In 1882 it was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was re-erected stone on the Hoe as a memorial, and where it still stands.
The Eddystone lighthouse today
It had already been replaced by a new lighthouse, twice as tall and four and a half times as large, designed by James Douglas, which now gives mariners a beacon of light visible for 22 nautical miles (40,78km).