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.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Sport
Sergio Romero saves Wesley Sneijder's penalty
world cup 2014But after defeating the Dutch, Lionel Messi and Argentina will walk out at the Maracana on Sunday as underdogs against Germany
Sport
Scoreboard at the end of the semi-final World Cup match between Brazil and Germany at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte
Sport
'Saddest man in Brazil' takes defeat with good grace, handing replica trophy to German fans
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
News
The garage was up for sale in Canning Place Mews for £500,000
newsGarage for sale for £500,000
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Mobile App/IOS Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Mobile App/IOS...

Front End Developer-JavaScript, Angular J.S, HTML, CSS, ASP.NET

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front End Deve...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil