Guardians of our coast: Kent's lighthouses
PUBLISHED: 17:43 01 February 2014 | UPDATED: 17:43 01 February 2014
This year marks the 500th anniversary of a Royal Charter granted to improve the safety for mariners off our shores
The year is 1513. The busy port of Deptford is the main entrance for London’s foreign trade, but it’s becoming more and more dangerous to navigate in nearby waters.
The problem is a rise in unqualified pilots bringing their vessels onto the Thames and causing a crisis for the experienced tradesmen.
They’re not going to stand for it, so the local seamen start to petition King Henry VIII and, one year later, he grants a Royal Charter giving Deptford Trinity House the task of regulating pilotage on the river.
And so the long history of Trinity House began, with the task at hand being just as important some 500 years later.
Today, Trinity House (www.trinityhouse.co.uk) is responsible for maintaining 69 lighthouses, 10 lightvessels and scores of buoys and beacons that help boats navigate the dangerous rocks off the coast.
Funded by Light Dues that shipping firms have to pay, Trinity House also does plenty of work to support mariner’s charities and the training of some wanting to embark on a career in the Merchant Navy.
Although Trinity House has a responsibility for all English and Welsh coastal areas, the waters off the Kent shore are perhaps among its most challenging.
This is, after all, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with many boats needing to be aware of their bearings every minute of the day and night.
There is also the issue of shifting sands that can make journeys treacherous and render lighthouses uselessly out of place in just a few decades.
Although the use of satellite navigation equipment is on the increase, available technology is not yet at the stage where all lighthouses and beacons can all be turned off: pilots still need the reassurance of seeing the light. And that is the mark of the towers Trinity House has built.
At the southernmost point of the county
stands Dungeness Lighthouse, a circular concrete tower some 131ft high, issuing a flash of light every 10 seconds that is beamed 21 miles out to sea.
But the tall black and white-hooped tower, lit up at night to make it visible to ships and reduce bird loss, is not the only lighthouse at Dungeness. This area is one of the most fruitful in the country when it comes to lighthouses, the idea of putting one here dating back to around 1600.
It was a Sir Edward Howard who was granted permission for a Dungeness light from King James I, initially marking the spot with a coal-fired version and charging one penny per ton from all ships sailing by.
As you can imagine, monitoring and collecting all these pennies proved tricky so customs officials were later enlisted to help out – much to the annoyance of the ship owners, who could no longer avoid the charge.
So the companies, along with Trinity House, complained about the light, which gave off a very poor beam, and Parliament asked for a better one to be displayed.
A new tower was built in 1635, but there were still complaints about the light and an improvement had to be made in 1638. However, due to the ever-shifting shingle on this coastline, the lighthouse tower found itself further and further away from the sea, so Samuel Wyatt built a new stone tower in 1792.
For a time this became one of the first electrically powered lights, but the problem of the moving coastline again became an issue and the tower was demolished in 1904.
And so we come to the tower that’s still found today at Dungeness – The Old Light, as it’s now known.
Built between 1901 and 1904, it’s one of the tallest lighthouses in Britain at 143ft, but was only useful as a navigational aid for 57 years until the nuclear power station was built a few hundred metres away, unfortunately obscuring it from view.
So the lighthouse construction at Dungeness had to start again, this time on the current tower that was automated in 1991 and is now controlled by Trinity House at its Harwich headquarters.
Both lighthouses are visible from one another, making this one of the few places in the world with two tall lighthouse towers on its dramatic skyline.
South Foreland lighthouse
Further east along the Kent coast you come to one of the most-visited lighthouses in the UK. Owned by the National Trust, staff at South Foreland give visitors the chance to see what life was like as a Victorian lighthouse keeper, while making sure there is also the comfort of tea close at hand.
Indeed, Mrs Knott’s Tea-room, set in the former lighthouse keeper’s cottage, gained the accolade of Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Teashop of the Year in 2013.
The first lighthouse appeared on this site way back in 1636, although it was reported that there was a light here as early as 1367. The tower we see today was built to a typical Trinity House specification in 1843 by James Walker and is well known for the experiments conducted there during its years of service.
As well as testing sirens, gunshots and fog signals, this was also the first lighthouse to have an electric light following tests there in 1858. Marconi also made history at South Foreland on Christmas Eve 1898 when he spoke by radio to the lightvessel at Goodwin Sands.
But the name most associated with South Foreland is the Knott family, legendary lighthouse keepers who kept the light operating for decades. William Knott took up the helm in 1730 for 50 years of service, followed by his son Henry, who completed 41 years as lighthouse keeper.
Generations more of Knott lighthouse keepers were involved at South Foreland’s tower over the years, with Edmond Knott completing the line of service in 1902, a remarkable record spanning three centuries.
Lighthouse keepers were no longer needed here following the decision in 1988 to decommission this distinctive white tower and hand it over to the National Trust. This has meant, however, that the history and countless stories can live on to those visiting between March and October, when the doors are open to visitors.
Other lighthouses at Folkestone, Dover, Ramsgate, North Foreland and Margate continue to be a source of reassurance for those out at sea, as trustworthy and regular as the BBC’s Shipping Forecast.
North Foreland, which graces our cover, first showed a light in 1499 and was bought by Trinity House in 1832. It was the last of its lighthouse to be automated when it was converted to automatic operation in 1998.
Trinity House has a long and valuable history in Kent and looks set to play a major part in this county’s maritime safety for many years to come. n
FIND OUT MORE
South Foreland Lighthouse is open March to October; opening hours vary. There is no vehicle access – park at the White Cliffs Visitor Centre and enjoy the two-mile clifftop walk. For more information, visit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
The Old Lighthouse at Dungeness is open daily July to mid-September, Thursdays and Fridays in May and June and weekends in October. Visit: www.dungenesslighthouse.com for details.