A Light in the Fog

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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).

18 thoughts on “A Light in the Fog

  1. “It’s not impossible, just hard work.” The feats, whether great or small, that can be achieved when it is decided “this must be done.” Often, it only takes one person.

      1. I can see the permit office:

        Them: “Sooo, by our calculations the structure is 100,001 sq. ft which bumps you into the commercial level price list, plus, this is an historic site so requires a separate permit from them, 3 floors up at the end of the hall.”

        You: “Are you calculating ‘footprint’ or “habitable” residential space…because this will be a home and most of it is walls and courtyard, and that part sticking up won’t be heated space, just a lookout. Plus, it’s not listed as a historical site.”

        Them: “Well, your project triggered the local Historical and Preservation club and we’ve gotten a lot of emails requesting you restore the Fort back to its original state – AND – we’ve determined the courtyard could be used for agriculture which bumps it into an entire other department…you need to see them down the hall, and those other spaces “potentially could be” later used as rental spaces and heated, so we’re including them for you rehab permit fee. That’ll be $1,361892.27.”

        You: “Tell you what, how much for a demolition permit?”

  2. After I read your desire to take refuge in a lighthouse and fore your mention of those treacherous rocks off Plymouth, I already thought Eddystone. A side business would be salvage rights when you rig a GPS jammer and spoof the light a few miles west of actual location. Now there is treachery! and constant source for writing material, among other things.

    Re: The lighthouse in the header
    I want to know which group of engineers thought it wise to perch a lighthouse on a narrow pillar rather than the flat rock reef. And which politicians benefitted from the same.

    1. I don’t know where it is, nor the facts, but I bet that when they built it, it wasn’t a narrow pillar of rock.


  3. Perhaps a lightship is more suitable. Bikini clad crew, all trained in the martial and culinary arts, and perhaps a moon pool. The whisper heli slings supplies fortnightly. Whisper as to not disturb cognitions of your next plot.

    Offshore so you could also host the baddies in sound isolated cells. What’s such a contract pay?

    1. A prison hulk? It’s a good idea. I have no idea what the taxpayers pay for Camp X-Ray at Gitmo, but I’m sure I could do it cheaper.

      Haha- yeah, when did the government ever try to ACTUALLY cut a cost?

  4. My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light
    Slept with a mermaid one fine night
    Out of that union there came three
    A porpoise, a porgy, and the other was me

  5. I’ve always been fascinated with lighthouses, and always thought they would make neat homes. Just a few things kept me from exploring them.

    1. They are always in really shitty locations for a reason.
    2. Rehab and maintenance costs on an old lighthouse are extraordinarily high.
    3. I don’t do heights. Not at all. Nope. Hate hights. Vertigo and all that.
    4. And I hate stairs.

  6. Know a guy who, on occasion, takes vacations as a lighthouse keeper/tour guide.
    Doesn’t cost him anything except traveling there and back again.

  7. Last time I was in Portsmouth, we visited Smeaton’s light and climbed up to the light. Tight spaces, and rather claustrophobic, especially for any length of time… And when you add in the monotony and isolation, that really had to be less than fun.

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