Life-saving beam that the locals refuse to let die

A Slice of Britain: When technology threatened Happisburgh's lighthouse with obsolescence, villagers took their case to Parliament to keep the light burning

As dusk falls on Happisburgh, North Sea rollers break against the crumbling Norfolk coastline. With 26 properties lost to tidal erosion in the past 15 years, the village feels as if it is living on borrowed time.

The waves are a constant reminder of man's battle against the destructive power of the ocean. In 1791, its fury claimed 70 sailing ships and 600 men. Those who live on this coast are reminded constantly of its threat. It makes them resilient, more so than their sea defences, which cede ground almost daily. It seems fitting that these people are the nation's only independent lighthouse keepers.

Jim Whiteside, a fit 43-year-old lighthouse volunteer, leads me on the vertigo-inducing trudge up the 112 steps of the tower to check that all is working as it should. Some 30 volunteers make the journey year in, year out: they do safety checks, fit bulbs, spruce up the lantern, guide tour groups and make sure the light continues to provide a reference point and guide for shipping which can be up to 18 miles out to sea.

They do this, week in, week out, for no other reason than if they don't, nobody will. Recently, there have been those who might want to hang the Big Society label around the necks of the lighthouse men and women. The people in Happisburgh have little time for this and show scant interest in David Cameron's pledge this weekend that community organisers in the Big Society will be paid £20,000 during their first year.

The volunteers don't foresee going cap in hand to the Government for money any time soon.

"That cash will come laden with caveats and be impossible to get hold of," Mr Whiteside says. "We've learned how to manage ourselves. I think it goes back to old-fashioned community spirit, before the days of centralisation. People had to look after each other because you could not really count on anyone else."

For the villagers, it's personal: they are on the front line in a battle against the elements. Of course, there have been defeats: the 18th-century tragedy and its savage death toll prompted Trinity House, the independent lighthouse authority responsible for maritime safety, to build Happisburgh's first lighthouse. The sea fought back: in 1888, the lighthouse had to be demolished, undermined by the pounding waves.

A hundred years after the sea claimed its sister, the modern lighthouse met another implacable foe: technology. In 1988 it was earmarked for closure by Trinity House: modern navigational aids such as satellites and laser technology were rapidly rendering the role of lighthouses redundant.

Some 1,300 villagers set about petitioning vehemently against the closure and soliciting voluntary contributions to fund their campaign. After much lobbying, their cries paved the way for a Private Member's Bill that was passed into law, putting the lighthouse in their hands.

"Ever since that day we've been managed and operated entirely by voluntary contributions," Mr Whiteside says, with a cautious grin.

Six trustees administer money from more than 500 donors. The £6,000 annual cost of keeping it going includes the weekly visit by a professional lighthouse keeper. Every half decade, the 26m tower is given an extensive paint job.

The light topping the tower also defies the march of time. A 500-watt bulb, in a lantern encased by more than 100 solid glass prisms, it is antiquated but inspires strong loyalty in the people who take care of it.

"We could never do this kind of thing with energy-saving lightbulbs," Mr Whiteside says, rifling through his cupboard full of spares. "You just don't get the same light distribution. Plus, they're not able to flash instantly in the way that the old filament ones can."

Cubbit Sieley, a 49-year-old farmer and volunteer lifeboat operator, is of a similar view.

"It's like driving up the M3," he says. "You can have all the Tom Tom technology in the world, but it is the wiser drivers that keep an atlas in the back of the car. It's the same with GPS and satellite tracking systems. They are all fallible. As RNLI [Royal National Lifeboard Institution] officers, we all still carry stopwatches, compasses and waterproof charts."

"Historically, as well as today, this is a very dangerous coast," says Clive Stockton, a lighthouse trustee and local councillor who runs the Hill House village pub. "Happisburgh's sands are very shallow, and ships passing through tend to hug along the coast. The last major disaster was a tanker loaded with liquid petroleum gas, which ran aground between here and Sea Palling. It showed that there is a need for lighthouses, particularly along a stretch of coast that has such a heavy rate of traffic and such a deadly history of accidents."

As the beam of light darts out on the North Sea towards the Humber estuary, Mr Whiteside points out to sea to where the nearby village of Eccles was consumed by water. A freak storm in the 17th century is said to have claimed 300 lives and 70 homes. Skeletons from the Eccles churchyard are still known to wash ashore.

Some things have changed. "Lighthouse keepers used to conjure the image of lonely souls up in an observation tower for months on end," says Di Wrightson a lighthouse trustee. Now, she says, the lighthouse is managed and run with an eye to modern management and expertise.

But for the people of Happisburgh the core issue remains the same as it has for the past two centuries: on one side, the implacable sea; on the other, the volunteer keepers, fighting to prevent any more casualties in an apparently never-ending battle.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York