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Interesting England: Somerset - a History of the Lighthouses of Burnham-on-Sea
The Bristol Channel
Victims of a Storm
Safety at Sea, Safe at Home
One day long, long ago, a fisherman readied his boat to face the treacherous waters of the Bristol Channel. A storm was brewing. He said goodbye to his wife as usual and headed off to meet his crew. The sea never gave up its harvest without a struggle but this trip would be perilous. The tides around Burnham-on-Sea were fickle, the currents surged and swirled and the fisherman had to keep his wits about him, even such an experienced one as he.
His wife was uneasy. The storm increased throughout the afternoon and into the night. The wind whipped up the waves, the spray came over the sea wall close to her house. She feared for her husband and his crew but they had to earn a living, no choice but to go if they were to provide well for their wives and children.
In furious waters, with no guiding light, ships frequently ran aground and were smashed to pieces. She had seen the evidence of a ship’s skeleton on Berrow Beach.
She couldn’t just sit and wait for him to come home. Would he come home? Would the following morning bring the knock at the door and the news she dreaded every time a storm churned the waves to grey and brown mud?
How would those men find the shore, how could they turn their boat in the right direction, steer it round the rocks and the mud-banks when the seas tossed them high and drenched them low?
She had to do something.
It might not make a difference but she had to try. She went to the pantry. She took several precious candles from the store, lit one and set it at the upstairs window looking over the sea. It flared well, its light straight and steady; no draughts snuffed it.
Sailing Home by Candlelight
Success - and a Job!
The candle saved the lives of her husband and his crew; she was asked to continue the practice. To confirm the importance of her actions, she was later paid by the Rev. David Davies.
In 1801 the Reverend built the 'Little Round Tower' after repeated requests to provide a higher light and therefore better aid to navigation in the bay, in particular for the entrance to the River Parrett leading to the then busy port of Bridgwater. It was a circular brick building with a castellated parapet from which a light, probably a coal-burning grate, was exhibited. The building, now a private residence, can still be seen behind St Andrew's Church, close to Burnham sea front.
Following the endeavours of the fisherman’s wife, Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for England and Wales, granted the Rev. Davies a licence to erect his lighthouse and then, in 1813, granted him a 100 year lease. This entitled him to collect dues in the sum of three shillings, from all coastal vessels passing the light. In 1829 the ownership of the lighthouse passed to Trinity House, which left the Rev. Davies £13,681.17s 3d better off!
The Little Round Tower
Highlights & Lowlights
Burnham-on-Sea’s lighthouses have had a chequered history. On New Year’s Eve 1993 the Low Lighthouse on Burnham Beach was recommissioned, marking a new beginning for the Low Light after more than twenty years of inactivity but sadly redundancy for the High Lighthouse which provided a vital service for many years.
Burnham-on-Sea is on the stretch of Somerset coast where the estuary of the River Parrett, coming down from Bridgwater, opens up to meet the Bristol Channel.
These are treacherous waters, full of undercurrents, not helped by the mud-flats and shifting sands which you can see exposed at low tide if you look across from Burnham promenade to Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. The coast leads northwards to Berrow and Brean, also with dangerous shifting sands, finally stopping dramatically at Brean Down before the Axe estuary which separates this little promontory from Weston-super-Mare.
Visitors and locals alike cannot fail to notice the unusual sights of the High and Low lighthouses of Burnham-on-Sea; the lofty majesty of the 99 foot white ‘Pillar’ tower inland and the quaint nine-legged 'beach-hut' structure on the sand.
These two lighthouses were built and inaugurated in 1832 - Burnham High and Low lights, designed by Joseph Nelson.
Burnham-on-Sea's High Light
& its Low Light
The High Light was constructed of brick and granite, the tower being glazed only on the seaward side; as the tower was placed some distance inland the light was not required to be visible from all directions. It has eight floors, including the entrance floor and the lantern floor. Circular stairs used to wind round the inner walls; these were removed and replaced by six metal ladders - it was a strenuous climb to the lantern, but worth every step for the breathtaking view from the balcony over the bay and beyond.
Unfortunately, access was difficult due to the physical danger involved in such a climb. The building was purchased privately and is now used as holiday accommodation.
The Low Light is a picturesque square wooden building which stands on nine huge oak stilts, providing little resistance to any water and therefore remaining undamaged by the sea. The southern and western sides of the tower have square windows through which the light is visible. Steps aid access to the rear; these, having been removed due to incessant vandalism, are now back in place. Standing at the high water mark, each of the tower's nine legs is sunk sixteen feet into the sand, leaving the building to stand at a height of 36 feet.
Line Them Up!
The High Light used a flashing mechanism, whereas the Low Light showed continuous fixed white and red lights.
By using these two lighthouses, carefully placed, the exact bearing of the deep water channel into the Parrett estuary could be located. A vessel would line up the lights one above the other to show the entrance to the channel. In daylight, the same principle can be applied by lining up the broad vertical red stripes on both towers.
Observant visitors will notice a further stripe on the sea wall in the town, which lines up with one light on a lamp post on the prom and another at the top of St Andrew's Church tower.
With the coming of electricity to Burnham in 1927 the paraffin vapour lamps were made redundant and replaced by a 1000 watt electric bulb. This also meant that automation was possible - Burnham High Light was the first English lighthouse to function entirely without keepers and one of the earliest unmanned lighthouses in the world.
In 1969 a 'sector' light was installed beneath the main lantern. In addition to the flashing white light this provided a light of three colours - green, white and red - all of which used together could provide shipping with the correct bearing for the deep water channel. The sector light made the Low Light obsolete and it was therefore discontinued in 1969. However, it was recommissioned in 1993 and is a Grade I listed building.
High & LowClick thumbnail to view full-size
Cottages & Coat of Arms
The two cottages at the base of the High Light were originally built for the lightkeepers; these are now private residences. Indeed, one was occupied by the same owner from 1927 until at least 1994! Over the years, an attendant kept the lighthouse in good working order, attending regularly to the light and maintaining the building, until its sale.
Sadly the High Light too has now become obsolete, as sophisticated satellite and radar navigation systems have replaced the flashing light and the 1000 watt navigation beam is no longer needed. Trinity House put the Grade II listed landmark up for sale.
Sedgemoor District Council has recommissioned the Low Light as an additional aid to navigation. The nine-legged landmark is an attraction in itself, being used in the town's coat of arms, local signs and literature, and much photographed by walkers and reproduced by local artists. When it received a ‘make-over’ a few years ago, a total of 50 litres of Cuprinol opaque wood finish was used to protect the structure from the elements!
Burnham & its Sea Living Together
The sea has provided Burnham with all its prominent features, the latest of which is the massive and splendid sea-wall, built after the devastating storm which whipped the high tides over the defences and into the town in 1981. In 1994 the coastline was battered by unusual storms, high tides and hurricane force winds; the sea-wall proved its worth then and many times since. The tidal range here is 13 metres, the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world.
Burnham and the sea have learnt to live together - the responsibility for the continuation and upkeep of the Low Lighthouse now rests with the town, the High Lighthouse is maintained yearly. Both High and Low Lights have provided safety for sailors and ships as well as wealth from dues and tourists; their continued preservation is an important part of the area's heritage and progressing history.
Stunning Sunsets, Swirling Storms & Guiding Lights
On a clear summer's evening the view from Burnham sea-front is peaceful and the sea is mirror calm. Go at sunset and you will see some spectacular skies. You would not recognise, however, the same scene on a stormy winter's day, when the waves roar and brown waters swirl with mud. These are the elements from which the townsfolk are protected by the sea wall and those at sea by the guiding lights.
Skies & Shipwrecks
in times gone by both built to save.
‘tween the mudflats,
ships afloat on stormy waves.
midst the houses,
Lowlight squat on nine oak staves.
their constant vigil
offered a welcome sailors craved.
on the sand, performed its best.
new High power
stretched its eye o’er roof and nest.
Now the Highlight’s
candle snuffed out, put to rest.
the Lowlight burns bright,
new white coat with red striped chest.
Burnham’s lights survive the test.
Does your town or local environment have a Lighthouse?
If so, is it...
© 2014 Ann Carr