It’s one of Southwold’s most iconic sights and an important navigational aid for seafarers, but the town’s famous Lighthouse is a not-to-be-missed tourist attraction for all to enjoy, too. Gill Bendall explores its history, and explains how you can scale its heights…
Built by Trinity House in 1887 and standing 31m high, Southwold Lighthouse replaced three other local lighthouses that were under threat from severe coastal erosion. While construction was in progress a temporary light was shown from a wooden structure first lit on 19 February 1889 and the present Lighthouse came into operation in 1890, its light originally provided by an Argand burner that was replaced by an incandescent oil burner in 1906. A petroleum vapour burner was installed in 1923 and remained until 1938 when the Lighthouse was electrified and de-manned and another update came into effect six years ago, when both the character and range of Southwold Lighthouse were changed – its main white light can now be seen from a distance of 24 nautical miles and flashes once every 10 seconds.
Lighthouse Manager Warren Clarke is responsible for the overall maintenance of the Trinity House estate, which includes 66 lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. He says: “I am often asked which is my favourite and my first response is that I find lighthouses to be like children – they are all special in their own way.
“Southwold is an extremely important light; following the closure of Orfordness, the range of Southwold was increased from 17 to 24 nautical miles to ensure the special awareness of vessels passing from The Wash to the Thames. Even in these days of amazing technology, a visual reference is still seen as essential by the master mariners.”
The UK’s last Lighthouse Keepers were released from service in 1998 when North Foreland Lighthouse on the Isle of Thanet was automated – the property next door to Southwold Lighthouse used to be the Keeper’s accommodation and if you look closely above the entrance door you can still see lines where the adjoining roof used to be. Today, Southwold Lighthouse is monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex and Warren say: “All our major aids to navigation (AtoNs) have a telemetry system which feeds back various critical information, via a telephone-based system, to our monitoring centre. This also allows our various teams to remotely operate key AtoN systems, such as lights and fog signals.”
So what happens if there’s a power cut? “Nearly all our lighthouses are operated on a 24v system, utilising an installed battery system and chargers,” says Warren. “If there is a power outage the battery system will continue to support the operation of the AtoN systems for a minimum of five days, allowing time for a technical team to be deployed. Harwich-based staff support Southwold Lighthouse and it takes around 90 minutes to get to the site, though fortunately, we do have a team member who lives in Halesworth so response times are generally very low. That said, we operate multiple independent AtoN systems to ensure that, wherever possible, the mariner sees a fully operational light.”
Twice a year Trinity House staff visit Southwold to carry out a series of maintenance tasks, including measurement of critical inspection points which are recorded on a maintenance management system to provide a living history of the Lighthouse. But part of the navigational requirement is the Lighthouse’s ‘day mark’: the view a mariner has of the Lighthouse during daylight hours. “The day mark for Southwold is ‘White Round Tower’,” Warren explains, “and to this end, we paint the station around every eight years.”
Eagled-eyed tiny tots might recognise Southwold Lighthouse as a feature of the BBC children's TV series Grandpa in My Pocket. But anyone over 1.1m tall can get ‘up close and personal’ with this important landmark – and climb the 113 steps to the top.
Hanna Mayhew, Commercial Team Leader at Trinity House says: “Southwold is the only working Trinity House lighthouse in East Anglia to which members of the public are admitted. The lighthouse is particularly unusual in that it stands in the middle of the town. It dominates the Southwold shoreline, affording an elevated and comprehensive view of both the Sole Bay coastline, the town of Southwold and the surrounding area for miles around. The views alone make it well worth the climb to the top of the lighthouse – and it is good for your health!”
Just over 9,000 people visited in 2017 courtesy of tours organised by Southwold Millennium Foundation under licence from the Corporation of Trinity House. Tours begin at the base of the Tower where information boards together with three large TV screens give a rolling commentary about Southwold Lighthouse and Trinity House. Each group of visitors ascend the tower via a spiral stairway to the Service Room where they are met they are given the opportunity to get their breath back whilst a guide offers an initial introductory overview to the building, its history and the workings of the lighthouse. The visitors are then taken up a further stairway to the Lantern Room – the views and photo opportunities are outstanding! – where they’ll be able to see both the old and the latest technology whilst watching today’s rotating optic in operation.
• Information on opening times, admission fees, safety restrictions and tours can be found on the Trinity House website: www.trinityhouse.co.uk. Trinity House is a charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers and has a statutory duty to deliver reliable, efficient and cost-efficient aid to navigation service for the benefit and safety of mariners.