Monday, 10 September 2012

Help Beachy Head Lighthouse Keep its Stripes!

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939 (DACS/Artist's estate)
Visiting Eastbourne recently I learnt about the campaign to keep the red and white stripes on Beachy Head lighthouse. At the moment they don't seem to be in too much danger of disappearing, but apparently Trinity House (which controls and maintains the nation's lighthouses) announced last year that it would no longer be repainting them, and that the distinctive structure would gradually fade to its natural granite grey.

Understandably the people of Eastbourne and environs feel strongly about their lighthouse, and a campaign was swiftly launched to raise money for two very large pots of paint, one white and one red, and all the other equipment you need to paint a lighthouse that stands seventy metres seaward of the chalk cliffs. Bill Bryson commented:

'Beachy Head Lighthouse is one of the most uplifting sights anywhere along the English coastline - indeed, along any coastline - and those jaunty red stripes are what make it literally outstanding. It would be a tragedy to lose them.'

It's difficult to think of a type of building that has nobler associations than the lighthouse, an edifice constructed and maintained to preserve the lives of strangers. Our folk history glitters with tales of heroic lighthouse keepers who died or risked their lives to ensure that the light remained always lit. Most celebrated of all was Grace Darling, whose father was the keeper of Longstone Lighthouse in the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. In 1838, when she was 23, she spotted a ship wrecked on a nearby rock and, with her father, rowed in heavy seas to rescued 13 people; her death from TB only a few years later ensured her fame as one of the great Victorian heroines.

John Constable, Harwich Lighthouse, 1820s
Today all of Britain's 69 lighthouses are automated, and monitored from the Trinity House operational headquarters in Harwich, but the old associations remain. As Sue Clifford and Angela King put it in their wonderful book 'England in Particular',

'Lighthouses have saved ships and inspired us. John Constable, Eric Ravilious and Virginia Woolf responded to their melancholy and constancy.'

John Piper, Dungeness
For Ravilious, and for his friend John Piper, lighthouses were also fascinating as man-made objects - buildings that were functional, decorative and idiosyncratic. In the 1930s a lighthouse like Beachy Head was still a relatively modern wonder - its light was switched on in 1902 - whereas its neighbour Belle Tout had a more eccentric, Victorian air. By day Ravilious drew the newer lighthouse from within the disused lantern of the older one, and by night he painted the light of Beachy Head in a composition that counterbalances the geometric beams of artificial light with the ragged line of the clifftops.

At that time the lighthouse was painted with a thick black stripe against the natural grey, which was evidently judged sufficient to make the edifice stand out against the bright white cliffs, but in 1951 the red bands were painted. I wonder whether black was used before because there wasn't a red paint tough enough to withstand constant exposure to strong winds and salt water.

Today the stripes are not considered necessary for mariners equipped with modern navigation equipment, although the light (two flashes every twenty seconds) continues to keep sailors safe from harm. For tourists and for local people, meanwhile, the lighthouse itself is a special kind of landmark, both a symbol of human vigilance and an object of wonder. Given Ravilious's fondness for lighthouses in general, and this one in particular, the Mainstone Press has donated some books to the cause. I'm not sure what the Beachy Head Lighthouse Campaign is planning to do with them, but they're very good at posting news and information on their website...



  1. Surely the answer is to get the lighthouse Listed, if it isn't already.

    Keep the stripes!

  2. Interesting thought - can you list a lighthouse?

  3. Amazing. I was only looking down on the Beachy Head lighthouse on Saturday afternoon. Each time I do it all gets a little bit more scary. But I love it, and will give any support where it's needed. Thankyou James for the alert.