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28 October 2014

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You are in: Devon > History > Local history > The history of Devon's lighthouses

Hartland Point lighthouse

The lighthouse at Hartland Point

The history of Devon's lighthouses

Devon's coast is dotted with lighthouses - helping to save lives by guiding shipping and aiding navigation.

"A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day" is how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the beacons which dot our coastlines, protecting shipping and guiding marine travellers.

Many of those pillars of fire which punctuate the Devon coastline are well-known with the earliest dating back to 1759.

Plymouth Hoe's Smeaton's Tower - one of the city's best-known landmarks - once stood about 14 miles out to sea.

Built nearly 250 years ago and made from 1,000 tons of granite and Portland stone - it stood 22m (72ft) tall on one of the most notorious reefs in the English Channel - the Eddystone Rocks.

The lighthouse protected shipping for 120 years and when it was replaced in 1882, it was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe - where it stands as a permanent reminder of the Yorkshire born engineer who created it - John Smeaton.

Eddystone lighthouse (Trinity House)

The Eddystone Lighthouse was built in 1882

Its replacement is called Douglass's Tower and work was completed on the 49m(160ft)-high structure in 1882.

It was the first Trinity House rock lighthouse to be converted to automatic operation and to enable the work to be carried out a helipad was built above the lantern.

The Eddystone Lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from the Trinity House Operations Control Centre at Harwich in Essex.

Douglass also directed the construction of the lighthouse built by Trinity House in 1874 at Hartland Point.

Before switching to automation in 1984 the station was manned by four keepers, who lived in homes attached to the lighthouse with their families. Those buildings were demolished when the station was demanned to allow for a helipad to be built next to the tower.

Since it was built in 1906 the lighthouse at Berry Head in Brixham has become renowned for having the smallest, highest and deepest light in the British Isles.

The building is positioned at the end of Berry Head - a limestone headland - beyond the coastguard station.

Start Point lighthouse

Start Point is a very exposed peninsula

The optic was originally turned by the action of a weight falling down a 45m (147ft) deep shaft, now made redundant by a small motor.

A bit further down the south coast is the lighthouse at Start Point.

Sited at the very end of the headland it has guided vessels in passage along the English Channel for over 150 years.

Dating from 1900 the Lynmouth Foreland Lighthouse was built as a further aid to navigation in the Bristol Channel, 20 miles east of the lighthouse at Bull Point - which was first established in 1879.

It operated at its original site for 93 years until one day in September 1972 when the Principal Keeper reported ground movement in the engine room and the passage leading to the lighthouse, and that  fissures were opening up.

A week later 15m (49ft) of the cliff face crashed into the sea and a temporary solution had to be found.

So for the short term an old Trinity House light tower was borrowed back and the optic installed on top of it. Work began on a new lighthouse in 1974 - using much of the equipment from the old one.

Another of North Devon's lighthouses is at Crow Point and guides vessels navigating the Taw and Torridge estuary.

Lundy South lighthouse

Lundy South was converted to solar power in 1994

A 1.5m (5ft)-high small tubular steel structure was established in 1948 and was converted to solar power in 1987.

The island of Lundy 13 miles off Hartland Point now boasts two working lighthouses.

But back in the 19th century the island had only one - on the rocky summit of Chapel Hill. Two lights shone from the 29m(96ft) high tower but the lights revolved so quickly that no period of darkness was detectable between the flashes giving the impression of a fixed light.

The effect is said to have contributed to the Jeune Emma - a ship travelling from Martinique to Cherbourg - going on to rocks in 1828.

The vessel arrived in Carmarthen Bay in thick fog and mistook the Lundy lights for the fixed light of Ushant and of the 19 people on board 13 were lost - including a niece of the Empress Josephine.

The lighthouse was abandoned in 1897 and two new lighthouses were built on the North and South extremities of the island.

The South Lighthouse - a white circular tower - was automated and converted to solar power in 1994.

The North Lighthouse - on the cliffs where colonies of guillemots, razor bills and herring gulls nest  - was automated in 1985 and modernised in 1991 when it was converted to solar power.

Both Lundy Lighthouses are now monitored and controlled from the Trinity House Central Planning Unit at Harwich in Essex as are many of the other operational lighthouses in Devon.

last updated: 11/07/2008 at 11:00
created: 10/07/2008

You are in: Devon > History > Local history > The history of Devon's lighthouses

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