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Light fantastic – A Look at Kent's Lighthouses

PUBLISHED: 01:16 22 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:52 20 February 2013

Light fantastic – A Look at Kent's Lighthouses

Light fantastic – A Look at Kent's Lighthouses

With our vast and often perilous coast, lighthouses have been an essential feature of our landscape since Roman Britain. Kent Life charts their history and why no visit to the county is complete without learning more about them..

There have been lighthouses along the Kent coast dating as far back as Roman Britain. Treacherous dangers patiently waiting to ensnare hapless ships have long necessitated some warning from the land. And for many centuries the countys lighthouses provided this weathering the elements while maintaining their lonely vigil.


Modern ships, with their technological armoury, might have less need of lighthouses today but a handful still exist along the Kent coast, standing proudly as a reminder of an earlier nautical age.

South Foreland Lighthouse 01304 852463

Satnav postcode: CT15 6HP

Find this lighthouse just outside Dover, atop the iconic White Cliffs.

There has been some kind of lighthouse here since the 14th century, although the current building is a Victorian structure, says Gareth Wiltshire of the National Trust, who currently own and maintain the building.

The Goodwin Sands are again the reason why a warning was required here in the first place, providing ships with guidance before they pulled into Dover. But unlike the lighthouse at North Foreland, this site initially required not one but two lights.

There were actually two lighthouses here at one time, adds Gareth. As the ships were approaching Dover they would wait until the two lights lined up, an alignment that would indicate when it was safe to turn and approach the port.

This system remained in place until 1904, when movement in the sands rendered any lining up of the lights inaccurate.

In 1910 the other lighthouse was taken out of service and so the lighthouse that stands here today became the sole warning point for approaching ships, says Gareth. Remnants of the old lighthouse still actually survive as part of a private garden.


The current lighthouse has two claims to fame, probably the most notable of which is the role it played in Guglielmo Marconis research into radio waves during the late 19th century.

Marconi used the lighthouse as a location for hisexperiments and as a result the worlds first ship-to-shore radio transmission took place here in December 1898, when South Foreland received a message from the East Goodwin lightship. Then a few months later in 1899 the lighthouse exchanged the first international radio messages with Wimereux near Boulogne, a distance of 32 miles, explains Gareth.

Its second claim to fame arises out of its association with Michael Faraday. As the appointed Scientific Advisor to Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the lighthouse, Faraday spent a considerable amount of time at South Foreland, especially in the early 1860s, working on various proposed systems of electric light.

One of these systems was installed and tested in the lighthouse, making it the first ever to use an electric light.

South Foreland, which had become fully automated in 1969, eventually became obsolete towards the late 1980s when improvements in ship navigation systems meant that they no longer had need of a lighthouse.

That was when the National Trust stepped in, says Gareth. It closed down in 1989 and then we took it over and opened it to the public in 1990. Since then it has become a very popular attraction.

People come here to learn, via our exhibition, about this very interesting building and lighthouses in general. And Id recommend a visit to anyone.

The Old Lighthouse, Dungeness

01797 321300

Satnav postcode: TN29 9NB

By the 17th century Dungeness, a vast headland of shingle built up by centuries of longshore drift, had become a dangerous shipping hazard. And so a 35ft wooden tower with an open coal fire on top was built in August 1615, says Jill Stanners, current owner of the Old Lighthouse in Dungeness.

Because of the unrelenting expansion of shingle, as time passed the sea continued to retreat, meaning that the warning light from the shore couldnt be seen clearly at sea. And so a second, taller lighthouse (this time made of brick) was constructed 10 years later. This managed to last another 150 years until it also fell victim to the expanding shingle.

Continued longshore drift remained a problem during the centuries that followed. And by 1901, another lighthouse was needed to replace one that had been built 100 years earlier.

Trinity House commissioned Patrick & Co of London to build a new, taller fourth lighthouse, approximately 150 feet high. This was much higher than the earlier building, indicative of their hope that this would last longer than its predecessors, says Jill.

This lighthouse was ceremonially opened by the Prince of Wales (later George V) in 1904. Its intermittent light, flashing every 10 seconds, could be seen for around 18 miles out to sea.

The aim of giving this lighthouse a greater lifespan would have worked out had the nearby power station not been built. Its height meant that the warning light would be obscured and so a new fifth and final lighthouse was built in the 1950s.

The old lighthouse was decommissioned in 1960 and since then it has been run as a tourist attraction and museum.

My father bought it in the 1980s and I run it today, says Jill. I fell in love with the building. Its a beautiful construction and possesses some stunning views. I think the views are what draw a lot of adults to come and visit us here, while the children love to come and count the 160 steps to the top floor. I really think that a trip to Dungeness isnt complete without a stop off here.

North Foreland Lighthouse

01843 861 869

Satnav postcode: CT10 3NW


Youll find North Foreland Lighthouse on the coast at Kingsgate (just outside Broadstairs), perched atop the chalk cliffs.

The proximity of the Goodwin Sands to this part of our coastline is the reason why a lighthouse has been needed here. The sands are notoriously treacherous and over the centuries have claimed the lives of many sailors whose ships have been unfortunate enough to run aground here.

Theres actually been a lighthouse here for nearly 400 years, says Ted Borley, south east representative for the Lighthouse Keepers Association and local expert on North Foreland.

The first recorded mention was in 1636 when Charles I granted Sir John Meldrum license to continue and renew the lighthouse erected on the North Foreland.

Originally the lighthouse would have been quite a basic structure, probably just some kind of beacon, adds Ted. We know that Meldrum built a more solid timber house to replace this. This was coated in tar and unfortunately, but also perhaps unsurprisingly, it burnt down at a later point.

The beginnings of the current structure were put in place towards the end of the 17th century, when a 12 metre tall octagonal structure built of brick, stone and flint was constructed.

At first the light came from a coal fire which blazedall night in an iron grate on the roof, says Ted.

But conscious of burning the coal too quickly in the open air and fearful that rain might snuff the light out, in 1719 the top of this lighthouse was covered with a large lantern which contained sash windows.

The fire was kept bright by the bellows that the keepers blew throughout the night. But that didnt really work, says Ted. The ships complained that the light wasnt bright enough. Without exposure to the wind, the fire was burning less fiercely.

Sometime during 1730 the fire was exposed again and things stayed that way until the end of the 18th century, when considerable changes were made to North Foreland.

The lighthouse underwent some significant alterations and repairs, says Ted. Two stories of brick were built on the original structure, which raised it to a height of 100 feet, including the room at the top in which the lights were kept.

Although changes have taken place since, such as the introduction of electric lighting, the structure created then is pretty much the one that we see today.

And unlike the other lighthouses in thecounty, North Foreland remains in active service, although today it is fully automated.

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