Beacon status

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Maritime museums across the country are helping to illuminate the hidden history of the lighthouse, writes Renata Rubnikowicz

There are few sounds more evocative than the daily shipping forecasts that list the enigmatic names of danger points surrounding our shores - St Abbs, Fastnet, North Foreland. The lighthouses that protect vessels from these perilous headlands tell stories of heroic deeds, the history of empire and the science of the day. Now, their vital role will be highlighted by the events of SeaBritain 2005.

Perhaps the history of the lighthouse begins with the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was topped by a mirror that magnified the light of its fire and stood until the 14th century. In Britain, coastal warning fires were often maintained by monks.

"The history of lighthouses in this country begins with the dissolution of the monasteries," says Alan Renton, curator of the National Lighthouse Museum in Penzance and author of a history of fog warnings, Lost Sounds.

Even after Henry VIII had brought them under state regulation, granting a charter to Trinity House, London, in 1514, lighthouses were run privately.

Owners paid dues to the king for a licence and often became rich from levies paid by ships. In Scotland, the jurisdiction for lighthouses was later passed to the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), and in Ireland to the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

The NLB's first lighthouse, built in 1787 at Kinnaird Head, north of Aberdeen, is now a museum. A loan box contains history and science worksheets, information packs for teachers, a lens, videos, books, even a lighthouse keeper's jacket, and tours are suitable for all ages.

Technology has clearly played a major role. Fires gave way to candles, then candles to oil in 1782. In the 20th century, gas and electricity were used, but these too have given way to solar power.

Lighthouse mirrors have also changed through the ages. In the 18th century, parabolic reflectors with many facets of silvered glass were common, while flashing patterns were used to help sailors to distinguish one lighthouse from another and foghorns used to overcome poor visibility. Now, mariners can determine their position at sea with the help of global positioning system (GPS) technology, or even "differential GPS", which helps to correct errors of calculation.

At South Foreland lighthouse, which ceased to operate in 1988 and is now a National Trust property, volunteer co-ordinator Janet Alcock offers an education pack with science activities for KS1-2, including a "speaking tube" made from funnels and hose. "It's a fun game now, but for the keeper the tube was a vital tool to summon help," she says.

At South Foreland, a walk across the chalk downland from the Gateway, a sister National Trust site, to the White Cliffs of Dover visitor centre offers an ideal opportunity to study natural science. South Foreland is also the site from which Marconi made the first international wireless transmissions from ship to shore, and where Faraday conducted his experiments. It was also the first lighthouse to be run by electricity.

The human side of lighthouses makes them highly relevant to citizenship. At Longstone, on the Farne Islands, pupils can stand in Grace Darling's bedroom and look out from the window from which she saw the wreck of the Forfarshire in 1838. Grace persuaded her father to put to sea, helped him to row the small lighthouse boat through the treacherous seas, and eventually rescued nine survivors.

Longstone is one of Trinity House's 72 lighthouses, of which only 11 are open to the public. Tours are run by organisations licensed by Trinity House. One such outfit is the Golden Gate Farne Island Boat Trip Company.

Ailsa Shiel, who works for the company, advises making the trip to Longstone in winter to see seal pups, and is planning an education pack for KS1-2 history.

Ian Jones, a museums officer who guides visitors around the South Stack lighthouse, off Angelsey, says: "A girl rang up today, asking for help with a school project. She came to visit the lighthouse last June, so it shows how this is an experience that stays with you."

And well it might - visitors must climb 400 steps down the cliff face, then cross a bridge across a 100ft chasm before the 90 steps up to the lantern room. No one under one metre tall is allowed, but exceptional views await those who reach the top.

"It's different every time," says Ian Jones. "And late evening is always very special."

England and Wales a copy of Trinity House's wall chart, contact Nicole Kelly: tel 01255 245 123; email: nicole.kelly@thls.orgsee also National Lighthouse Museum: tel 01736 36 0077; for group bookings email:'Lost Sounds' by Alan Renton (Whittles Publishing, pound;16.95) more details of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses at Kinnaird Head see: Tel 01346 511 022;; email:

IrelandVisitors centre at Mizen Head signal station near Fastnet has a five-hour DVD about lighthouses (l45 euros inc pp): Tel 00 353 (0) 28 35115; email:

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