British lighthouses remind us that we are a sea-faring nation: they have a powerful romantic appeal. They were built, sometimes costing lives, in the wildest and loveliest corners of the British Isles.
Most continue to fulfil their original function. The lights are now automated, and the lonely life of the lighthouse-keeper is part of history, but the lighthouses still stand up to the wildest storms.
The Scilly Isles, in the Atlantic to the west of Cornwall, are subject to very violent winter storms, and they have been the scene of numerous shipwrecks over the centuries. Two of the three lighthouses of Scilly are still in use. They are surrounded by beautiful scenery, so those that plan to visit the Isles of Scilly are advised to go and enjoy these vistas.
St Agnes Lighthouse, built in 1680, is the oldest on the Scilly Isles, and it is only the second lighthouse ever built in Cornwall. The light is no longer functioning but the lighthouse still towers above St Agnes and serves as a marker for boats during the day.
In the early days, a coal fire was used to create the light, but an oil lamp amplified by mirrors was introduced in 1790.The last fire iron used for the coal fires can be seen on display in Tresco Abbey Gardens.
The light has been out since 1911, when a smaller automated light was built on Penninis Head, but the old lighthouse still dominates the island. It is the main landmark of St Agnes, the smallest inhabited island of the Scillies.
Bishop Rock Lighthouse
This is one of the most dramatic of British lighthouses. The small rocky outcrop where it stands climbs vertically up from 45 metres beneath the sea, four miles to the West of the Scilly Isles.
Shipwrecks around the Scillies were common in the 18th century, and included a major naval disaster in October 1707 when a whole squadron of the fleet foundered off the islands. 2,000 sailors were lost.
It was realised that the lighthouse at St Agnes was not enough to protect shipping from Atlantic storms, but it took nearly 150 years for another to be built.
The Bishop Rock lighthouse, started in 1847, was a feat of engineering and endurance. The first version was designed to rest on screw-piles rather than a solid base, as a way of withstanding the ferocious Atlantic storms. That idea didn’t work, and the lighthouse was swept away by a storm in 1850 when it was nearly complete.
The next one was built on traditional lines, with a solid base. A dam had to be erected and the sea pumped out, in order for work to proceed on the foundations. A team of workmen was housed on a small uninhabited islet nearby, where granite blocks were transported from the mainland.
In these harsh conditions, with work only possible at peaceful intervals in the often wild weather, the new lighthouse took seven years to complete. In 1858, the light was turned on. However, an 1881 survey revealed that the structure was suffering badly from its regular battering by the elements. To strengthen the structure, a massive granite platform was bolted into the rock, so that the force of the storms could be partly absorbed before hitting the lighthouse. The work was completed in 1887, and the Bishop Rock lighthouse has continued its work since then.
Round Island Lighthouse
1887 was also the year when a third lighthouse, Round Island Lighthouse, was completed, on a small island adjacent to St Helen’s. An ancient burial cairn was destroyed during its construction.
Round Island lighthouse is in another precarious place, with the 62 foot tower built on a 115 foot high mass of granite. Steps were cut into the rock for access, and top-soil was shipped to the island so that the incumbents could tend a small vegetable garden within the lighthouse walls. The lighthouse was automated in 1987 so nobody weeds the garden.
The Scillies are famous for their bird-life, including the iconic puffin. Round Island is notable for breeding seabirds, and it is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. Landing is not allowed except for lighthouse maintenance.