I’ll be your candle on the water…
Pete’s Dragon, Disney, 1977
In the most dangerous corners of the world, lighthouses and their keepers have worked for centuries to keep sailors safe.
As an island nation it’s no surprise to learn that the British coastline is dotted with lighthouses, with more than 60 maintained by the charity Trinity House.
The remains of the oldest UK lighthouse are at Dover Castle, next to St Mary’s Church. It was built around 2,000 years ago during the Roman occupation. It’s a remarkably well preserved four storey structure, but looks more like a tower than a lighthouse and it’s easy to pass by without realising its significance.
The oldest complete lighthouse in Britain is Chalk Tower at Flamborough Head in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It’s possible that the beacon was not actually ever lit but having stood for more than 350 years it’s one of the oldest lighthouses in the world.
The most southerly lighthouse on the British mainland is Lizard Point in Cornwall where a light has stood since 1619. When a local man Sir John Killigrew applied to build one he was given permission on condition that the light was doused if pirates or smugglers were around.
The most northerly is Muckle Flugga, on the Isle of Unst in Scotland. Designed and built by Thomas and David Stevenson – father and uncle of author Robert Louis Stevenson – it’s thought the writer used Unst as inspiration for Treasure Island.
Most iconic lighthouse? Well that’s a bit contentious. Eddystone Lighthouse in Plymouth has long been referenced in popular literature, including Moby Dick but probably the most recognisable of all British lighthouses is the one at Beachy Head near Eastbourne with its red and white stripes set against the chalk cliffs. It’s been featured in dozens of TV shows and films including a spectacular sequence in the Bond movie The Living Daylights.
So have we whetted your appetite for a bit of lighthouse spotting? Better still there are several that have been converted into holiday cottages so you can actually stay in one. Because of their original purpose they are situated in some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the UK.
North Ronaldsay Lighthouse, Orkney
The ultimate holiday getaway, and one of the most fantastical. Surrounded by wild and dramatic scenery, the local community is isolated and traditional. Rare breed sheep can be seen browsing on seaweed by the shore which gives the local mutton a unique flavour. Accessible only by the weekly ferry or daily flights from the mainland.
Lundy Island, Devon
Almost as isolated is the former lighthouse-keeper’s house on the granite rock at the entrance to the Bristol Channel. Surrounded by reefs and jagged rocks you have to arrive via helicopter or ferry (when the seas aren’t too rough). But the self-catering accommodation is snug and comfy and the island stunningly beautiful.
Belle Tout Lighthouse, Eastbourne, East Sussex
Nearly lost to the waves a few years back, Belle Tout has been renovated and moved away from the cliff’s edge to stop it falling into the sea. Situated where the chalky South Downs meet the English Channel, Belle Tout was the original lighthouse for these dangerous waters, funded by Mad Jack Fuller who was distressed by the suffering caused to the local community by shipwrecks. The current building dates back to 1829 and was operational until 1902 when the new lighthouse was built on the rocks below.
After years of neglect it was restored by the BBC who used it as the location for the TV series the Lives and Loves of a She Devil but it’s now a luxurious holiday B&B where you can even stay in the Keepers Loft, a small double room on the upper floor which was once the bunk room of the lighthouse keepers and still has the original loft ladder.
Happisburgh Lighthouse, Norfolk
We love Happisburgh Lighthouse, built in the late 1700s it sits 400 yards from the cliff edge. We often visit on our trips to Norfolk but have never yet stayed in the former lighthouse keeper’s cottage which is built into its side. Perfect for a family of four or five there are impressive views. The lighthouse is well worth a visit on its regular Open Days but the best views of it can be had from the top of Happisburgh church or the nearby East Ruston Gardens.
Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland
Built in 1815 the light is still in operation, shining its warning to ships approaching the mouth of Loch Ryan. The luxury hotel has wonderful views from the Rhinns Peninsula out towards the coast of Ireland. It’s a long drive from the nearest airport, Glasgow, and the road gets pretty rough towards the end of the journey, but well worth the bumpy ride for those views.
Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland
Perched on the clifftop on the most southerly point of Scotland is a lighthouse which first illuminated the waves in 1830. Three holiday cottages now offer spectacular coastal views backed by superb mountains and forest.
The West Usk Lighthouse, near Newport, South Wales
The lighthouse originally stood on an island at the mouth of the River Usk but is now situated on the mainland with views over the river, the Severn Estuaries and the Bristol Channel. With a hot tub on the roof plus four posters and waterbeds it has a reputation for being the perfect romantic getaway or wedding venue.
Aberdeen Lighthouse Cottages, North East Scotland
Not far from Aberdeen City centre is the lighthouse designed by Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson. Dating back to 1833 it was described by the Astronomer Royal, on a visit in 1860, as ‘the best lighthouse that I have ever seen’. It’s certainly slim and elegant and the accompanying cottages are decorated to a high standard of comfort with all mod cons.
The Lighthouse, Llandudno, Conwy
More fortress than lighthouse this quirky holiday stay was originally built in 1862 and still has plenty of original features. The lighthouse is situated within the Great Orme Country Park about two miles from Llandudno and if you stay in the Telegraph Room you’re guaranteed 280° views. The Principal Keeper’s Room is a four poster Victorian style bedroom while the Lamp Room still has its Victorian glass panels and again spectacular coastal views.