To the lighthouse no more: Woolf's Cornish inspiration faces a dark future

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The Independent Online

"Turning, she looked across the bay. And there, sure enough, coming regularly across waves, first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the lighthouse. It had been lit."

"Turning, she looked across the bay. And there, sure enough, coming regularly across waves, first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the lighthouse. It had been lit."

For nearly 80 years, it has served as the most iconic maritime symbol in English literature but the lighthouse that fired Virginia Woolf's mind and inspired her most famous novel could be extinguished.

Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for England and Wales, is proposing to switch off the light near St Ives in Cornwall - the one the novelist used as inspiration for the above lines from her modernist masterpiece, To the Lighthouse.

After a review of the 71 remaining lighthouses it maintains, Trinity House wants to turn off the 12-mile beam of the Godrevy light by 2010 and replace it with a lighthouse vessel.

But before it does, it will have to overcome the implacable opposition of the "Woolfians" - the 1,500 aficionados who belong to Virginia Woolf societies around the world.

Vanessa Curtis, a leading biographer of the Bloomsbury Group novelist and a founding member of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, said yesterday: "At first I thought it must be a joke. The lighthouse is at the heart of much of her writing. Woolf spent her childhood looking at it and it was her memories which contributed towards To the Lighthouse. To her it was a great symbol of constancy in changing times.

"It is a terrible irony this one constant - the beam of the lighthouse - will go under these plans. I honestly don't think the lighthouse managers are aware of its importance or the protests they will now receive. Woolfians will be writing from around the world."

The 146-year-old lighthouse sits on Godrevy Island, some five miles east of St Ives, where the Woolf family owned a holiday home, Talland House, for much of Virginia's childhood.

She once wrote: "Probably nothing we had as children was quite so important to us as our summers in Cornwall, to hear the waves breaking ... to dig in the sands, to scramble over the rocks and see the anemones flourishing their antennae in the pools."

The far-off vision of the octagonal lighthouse, which steers shipping away from the treacherous Stones Reef, has long been recognised by Woolf scholars as the inspiration of To the Lighthouse, even though the 1927 novel is set in the Hebrides.

Centred on the lives of the Ramsay family and the aspiring artist Lily Briscoe, the characters frequently plan trips to a distant lighthouse but - until the final pages - never quite reach the landmark.

Miss Curtis, who hopes to recruit relatives of Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, to the campaign to preserve the light, said: "The Woolf family would spend whole summers at Talland House and both it and the lighthouse are clearly recognisable in much of her work. It is a literary as well as a physical landmark. To lose its light is unthinkable."

Trinity House insisted that its proposals for the lighthouse, which has been automated since 1939 and costs around £108,000 a year to operate, would not affect the distinctive building itself.

Emma Skingley, a spokeswoman for the organisation, said: "The lighthouse is Grade-II listed and there is no suggestion it will not be maintained. We are aware of its literary significance and the lighthouse is always going to be there."

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