Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2020

The End of England’s Orfordness Lighthouse

By Susie Kearley


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Erosion eats away at the base of the tower as ...

Orfordness Lighthouse in Suffolk, England has been marked for demolition following a failed safety test by a building control team from East Suffolk Council. Their report in January said that the lighthouse was in a “dangerous condition,” and they advised trustees to demolish the entrance porch and ensure that the main tower was securely locked. Within weeks of that inspection however, the lighthouse was ravaged by two violent storms - Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis - which caused further structural damage and instability. Anglian Demolition was appointed to undertake the demolition work.

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Orfordness Lighthouse.
Photo by: Susie Kearley

The problems began last October when a bungalow beside the lighthouse collapsed. Orfordness Lighthouse Trust issued a statement saying, “Almost immediately after volunteers hosted a visit from the children of Orford CEVAP school in October 2019, a severe storm hit Orford Ness, taking away the engineers’ bungalow and the sea-side concrete plinth around the base of the lighthouse itself. Where days before the kids had joined hands and formed a ring around the lighthouse, much of the ground on which they had stood had been stripped away. It was clear to us then that the long-avoided time had come to dismantle the lighthouse if there was to be any hope of preserving any of the artifacts.

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Orfordness Lighthouse in October 2019.
Photo by: Susie Kearley

“We have long known this day would come,” they continued. “In 2009 Trinity House determined (after a number of studies) that, for a raft of technical and regulatory reasons, their much loved lighthouse could not be maintained where she was, nor could she be moved. They chose to decommission the lighthouse in June 2013, estimating that the building would survive only a short while before it succumbed to the sea.”

The trust managed to keep the sea away from the lighthouse and its outbuildings for another six years, surpassing everyone’s expectations, and enabling thousands of visitors to enjoy guided tours into the tower’s lantern.

However, following the storm damage in February 2020, a spokesperson said, “Our focus right now is on the task at hand which is to get the Lantern Room down from the top of the lighthouse to preserve it. Once we have accomplished that, and assuming that we do, then we are in a better place to decide what happens to the artefacts and anything else after that.” They hope to create a new exhibition about the lighthouse on Orford Ness when the work is complete.

The History

The nearly 100-foot-tall lighthouse was built in 1792 from a design by architect William Wilkins. A revolving light was installed in the Lantern Room in 1914. The two lighthouse keepers lived with their families in cottages attached to either side of the lighthouse. A voice pipe, a type of early telephone, connected the lamp room to the keepers’ cottages. They worked in shifts, always ready to warn passing ships of imminent danger by means of a flashing light, the intermittent blast of the fog signal, or by hoisting a storm warning cone.

In their spare time, the keepers and their families would make bread, read, and engage in hobbies like cooking and carpentry. From the 1950s, they’d watch TV, if they had one. They might also make things from driftwood, and enjoy long walks along the coast.

The lighthouse was electrified in 1959. It was the first lighthouse to be monitored remotely from Harwich in 1964, and became unmanned in 1965. The success of remote monitoring at Orford Ness led to lighthouses being automated across the United Kingdom. The keeper’s homes were demolished in 1959 and 1965.

The lighthouse was eventually decommissioned on June 37, 2013 and the light at nearby Southwold Lighthouse was made brighter to compensate. While the end of this iconic landmark is sad, hopefully the memory of the lighthouse will live on in a new exhibition.

Top Secret Weapons Testing

Orford Ness is a large shingle spit, mostly cut off from the mainland by the River Alde. Its remote location and difficult access made it the perfect location for top-secret military testing throughout much of the 20th century.

The secret military research facility operated from Orford Ness between 1913 and 1973, testing components for atomic bombs, to improve targeting, measure the environmental impact of radiation, and engage in research on radar defence and navigation. In the early 1970s, the Natural Environment Research Council purchased the site to preserve it as a nature reserve, although the RAF bomb disposal squad stayed on site until 1987.

In 1993, the site was purchased by the National Trust which opened it to the public, and today the nature reserve provides a mixed habitat for wildlife with wetlands, reedbeds, and a shingle beach. The lighthouse has been an iconic landmark and part of the visitor experience all that time.

The visitor tour also takes in many military buildings, including a bomb test site, now derelict, where the practical effectiveness of atomic bombs was proven before ‘live tests’ were carried out in Australia.

However, few of the attractions have the visual appeal of the Orfordness Lighthouse, which stood proud for hundreds of years, with its red and white stripes visible from afar. It will be greatly missed by lighthouse enthusiasts, visitors, and locals alike. As contractors begin the dismantling and demolition work, the trust is focused on the preservation of artefacts, and how best to preserve the memory of the lighthouse after it’s gone.

“We have enabled thousands of visitors, local and not so local, to visit the lighthouse and learn about this iconic feature of the Suffolk coast,” they said. “Orfordness Lighthouse has been used as a location for concerts, music videos, student films, television documentaries and even a few proposals of marriage. We have had great fun sharing the building and the history of the lighthouse with you and we know it has brought interest and a lot of joy to many people.”

Editor’s Note: Susie Kearley is a freelance writer and journalist who resides in Buckinghamshire, England. Her web site is www.susiekearley.co.uk and her email address is susiekearley@hotmail.co.uk

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2020 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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