L is for….

27 October 2013

…. Lighthouses…. amongst the most unusual structures in Britain.

When man began to travel by sea, one of the earliest obstacles encountered was safe night time travel. It was impossible to travel by night by ship without the risk of crashing on nearby rocks. The earliest civilisations would light fires on beaches and near the shore to warn of jagged rocks and shallow water. But this became more and more impractical as the number of ships increased. It was during this time that the Egyptians invented the lighthouse. This was followed by the Phoenicians, Greeks and then the Romans.

A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses and used as an aid to navigation for maritime pilots at sea or on inland waterways.

Lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, reefs, safe entries to harbours, and can also assist in aerial navigation. Once widely used, the number of operational lighthouses has declined due to the expense of maintenance and replacement by modern electronic navigational systems.

The oldest lighthouse here in Britain still stands on the grounds of Dover Castle. It was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Caligula, when Britain was still a member of the Roman Empire in 90 AD. Lighthouses throughout the world did not change much however, until the building of Smeaton’s Lighthouse at the Eddystone Rocks.

The Smeaton Lighthouse was considered a miracle of modern innovation for the time, and marked a huge leap forward in the design of lighthouses. It was designed by civil engineer John Smeaton of the Royal Society and stood at the Eddystone Rocks. It was the third lighthouse built at that location. The first having been destroyed in 1703 by a treacherous storm and the second having caught fire and burning down. The Smeaton lighthouse was the first to be built from granite, and was designed to resemble an oak tree. It was built using a new material known as ‘hydraulic lime’ which settles in deep water. Dovetail joints and marble dowels where also used to help to secure the granite blocks.

It was later replaced in 1882 by James Douglas. This lighthouse still stands today. The tower was later automated in 1982 and had a helipad installed.

The 1911 census shows many lighthouse keepers across England and Wales including Edmund Kernan Ball who worked and resided at Portland Bill, Portland, Dorset.

There are currently over sixty-six lighthouses of note in England and Wales and over eighty in Scotland alone. The oldest in Wales is the Point of Ayr built in 1776. The Bell Rock lighthouse, eleven miles from Angus is the oldest lighthouse not only in Scotland, but also the oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse in the world, dating back to the fourteenth century. The oldest still standing in England is the Flamborough Head lighthouse built in 1674 and Northern Ireland’s oldest lighthouse is the South Rock (Kilwarlin) lighthouse.

For over 2000 years, lighthouses have made the oceans, rivers and lakes safer and although the basic structures and technology used continues to evolve, the need for lighthouses will always be there.

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