PUBLISHED: 20:31 18 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:41 30 August 2017
The Lizard Lighthouse is a source of reassurance to those at sea, and a must visit for holidaymakers in Cornwall
A source of reassurance to those at sea, a tourist attraction for those on holiday and a retreat for those wanting a getaway. PETER NALDRETT explores the history and charm of Lizard Lighthouse
It was 1.34am. The last thing I did before heading to bed was gaze out from Lizard Point to count ships sailing by on a wonderfully calm evening. Clear skies, calm sea. But the weather can turn without warning in this most southerly tip of Cornwall and I was stirred from my slumber by driving rain, howling wind and the piercing blast of the fog horn that sounds for three seconds every half a minute when visibility on the sea drops to dangerous levels.
Those opposing the introduction of the lighthouse at first were the local people; they simply were not keen on deterring the prospect of shipwrecks because they liked the rich pickings that got washed ashore.
Spending some time in one of the former lighthouse keeper’s cottages is a truly insightful way of getting to know this corner of Cornwall, which somehow manages to remain fairly quiet because so many tourists stick to the north coast and don’t include it in their west country tour. Rich in history and affording wonderful views out to the Atlantic Ocean, Lizard Lighthouse is an icon of the Cornish coastline, although those staying in the adjoining holiday accommodation – or indeed in the nearby village of Lizard – may need to make use of ear plugs in foul weather.
There’s something comforting, something reassuring in the noisy, clockwork regularity of the fog horn, though. Something that makes you thankful to be tucked up in a safe, warm bed. Something to help you reflect upon the times before GPS when Lizard Lighthouse was even more instrumental in ensuring ships steer away from the dangerous rocks stabbing through the surface of the ocean away from the mainland. With names like Man Of War, the treacherous rocks around Lizard Point have torn through many ships and claimed even more lives. In times gone by, villagers would run to assist those in the perilous seas. Sometimes they were unable to help the poor souls out on the water, but at other times their efforts made all the difference.
'On a clear night, the beam that is issued from the single bulb can reach 25 miles out to sea and sailors will be able to distinguish Lizard Lighthouse from other beacons in the area via the individual pattern of a flash of light every three seconds.'
March 17th 1907 was one such night, a foul night by all accounts, with dense fog covering the water. The SS Suevic was heading home for Liverpool after a trip to Australia carrying 382 passengers, including 100 children, and an extra 141 crew. At 10.30pm the ship ran aground on the rocks below Lizard Lighthouse, with rescue parties braving the cold, darkness, powerful waves and wild winds to help those stranded on board. Particularly praised were local lifeboat men, brave members of the Suevic’s crew and the women from nearby Cadgwith Bay who helped the winch rescue boats back and forth. Remarkably, no lives were lost that night. Not every wreck has such a contended ending.
The Lifeboat Station of the day was just a stone’s throw from the lighthouse at Lizard Point. Today a brand new station is found a little further up the coast at remote Kilcobben Cove, opened in 2012 and costing £7.5 million and still very much a vital part of community and sea-faring life. There are around 400 boats heading by Lizard Point every day and last year the lifeboat spent 366 hours at sea, rescuing 12 people in 10 incidents.
'Coal fires were maintained on the top of each tower and kept blazing through the night to act as a double beacon'
Because of the prominent position of Lizard, gazing out onto what is a very important shipping route, it is perhaps not surprising that the history of the lighthouse here is a long one. Rich landowner John Killigrew was the first person to establish a light on this point in 1619, a privately built affair that ran into a wave of maintenance issues and had to be abandoned just four years later because of a lack of support and funding. Ironically, those opposing the introduction of the lighthouse at first were the local people; they simply were not keen on deterring the prospect of shipwrecks because they liked the rich pickings that got washed ashore.
Sea trade continued to grow, but there was no light to guide shipping from Lizard for over a century, not until lighthouse service Trinity House built the now famous twin towers of the current building in 1752. Even then, there was no light as we now know it. Coal fires were maintained on the top of each tower and kept blazing through the night to act as a double beacon. An onlooker between the towers kept a check on the flame and issued a reminder to bellow-blowers via a cow horn if the light started to dim.
The coal fires were finally extinguished in 1812 when oil lights and reflectors did the trick a lot easier, and electrification arrived at Lizard Lighthouse in 1878. The first electric lights to beam out from here didn’t flash like we now associate with lighthouses; instead they were fixed and constantly shone all the time. In 1903, the light closest to Lizard Point was turned off for good and a single rotating arc lamp took over on the eastern tower. The single light remained the focus of lighthouse keepers at Lizard until the programme of automation hit in 1998 and the controls were linked to a central headquarters hundreds of miles away.
'In 2014 we will be marking 500 years of our establishment. We are approaching this milestone with the continued commitment to serve the mariner.'
Vikki Gilson, of Trinity house, said: “Lizard marks the start of the approach to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but it is also the location of some especially treacherous waters. Trinity House is responsible for keeping mariners safe in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes regardless of the size and type of the vessel they are navigating in. Not all vessels are equipped with modern day GPS equipment and therefore Lizard lighthouse and its fog signal are still vital to the safe guarding of the mariner.
“In 2014 we will be marking 500 years of our establishment. We are approaching this milestone with the continued commitment to serve the mariner.”
On a clear night, the beam that is issued from the single bulb can reach 25 miles out to sea and sailors will be able to distinguish Lizard Lighthouse from other beacons in the area via the individual pattern of a flash of light every three seconds. But it’s not just the warnings issued at night that are important. The lighthouse is painted white for a reason; the sunlight makes it stand out during the day and act as a vital daytime landmark. It costs as much as £50,000 every six years to add a fresh coat.
But cost is irrelevant to those Lizard Lighthouse has helped save from catastrophe. By day and by night, the twin towers stand as a reassuring beacon to those on both calm and rough seas.