Making waves: Two huts used by radio pioneer Marconi provide a perfect base to explore the beautiful Cornish coastline
Saturday 04 July 2009
Looking south-west from Lizard Point to the ever-so-slightly curved horizon of the Atlantic Ocean is a humbling experience. From this, the most southerly tip of mainland Britain, the sense of the sea's vast expanse is heightened by the thought that the only thing separating you and the Americas is thousands of miles of open, uninterrupted water – a perilous journey that many had to make before the jet age.
In the days of sailing ships and steam liners, west Cornwall's Lizard Peninsula was usually the first sight of dry land after many days or weeks at sea – or the last glimpse of it, as travellers to America set off in the other direction. It's one of the reasons the area has such a rich maritime tradition. However, west Cornwall's position as the closest bit of mainland Britain to North America was also of interest to a young Irish-Italian inventor and entrepreneur called Guglielmo Marconi, who wanted to breach this chasm of water with a new form of "wireless" communication. This was the location he chose for his "great experiment" in telecommunications, an endeavour that was eventually to mark the birth of globalisation.
Marconi also chose the Lizard because he needed a coastal site for his wireless experiment. He believed, quite rightly, that land, trees, hills and buildings might interfere with the radio waves he wanted to transmit to the other side of the Atlantic. He ended up building two wireless stations: a small testing station consisting of two huts at Pen Olver near Housel Bay to the east of Lizard Point, and a much larger operation six miles away at Poldhu on the western fringes of the Lizard. The latter generated the powerful radio waves for transatlantic transmissions.
At the time, most scientists thought that radio waves did not propagate beyond the horizon but Marconi had already carried out preliminary experiments showing this was not the case. Indeed, sitting in his wireless hut at Pen Olver on 23 January 1901, Marconi himself received a wireless signal from the Isle of Wight, 186 miles away. It was clear to him that radio signals could be "bent" around the curvature of the Earth, although no one at that time knew how.
Then, on 12 December 1901, Marconi made history by detecting the three short pips – Morse code for the letter "S" – on his earphone in Newfoundland. The wireless transmission from Poldhu had successfully propagated over 2,000 miles of open ocean by repeatedly bouncing off the ionosphere (an electrically charged layer in the upper atmosphere) and the reflective surface of the sea. The foundations had been laid for modern telecommunications in all its forms, from television and radio to mobile phones and Bluetooth.
Now the two huts that form the Lizard Wireless Station at Pen Olver have been expertly and tastefully restored by the National Trust. The larger of the huts has been turned into a holiday let with spectacular views out to Pen Olver and the Atlantic. The one-bedroom wooden cottage has a comfortable sitting room with period Edwardian furniture, including a set of photographs on the wall of the man himself and his equipment.
The smaller wooden hut alongside the accommodation is now a museum, where local amateurs have lovingly recreated a bench of period wireless instruments from a photograph taken at the time of Marconi's breakthrough.
The Pen Olver wireless station, probably the oldest in the world, was the first station to handle a maritime SOS when in 1910 it received a distress signal from a ship called the Minnehaha which had run aground further along the Cornish coast. This was the period when ships were being rapidly kitted out with the new Marconi radio sets, including, in 1912, RMS Titanic, which managed to transmit a wireless distress signal to nearby ships before it sank, probably saving the lives of many in the lifeboats.
Walking into the small museum is like walking into the past. A ticker-tape machine printed out the Morse code signals received from a massive electrical coherer, while a sparking device fizzed across its electrical gap. The wooden floorboards and walls give the room a feeling of garden-shed invention.
Even before Marconi, the Lizard had played an important part in maritime communications. In the 1880s, well before Marconi's efforts at Pen Olver, the Lloyds shipping company had set up its own signal station to communicate with ships as they came into sight of the coast, using a system of flag signalling to spell out the letters of the alphabet. The messages received by the station were then transmitted to the Lloyds offices in London over telegraph land lines.
The Lloyds Signal Station, just a short walk away from the Lizard Wireless Station along the coastal footpath, is also a National Trust property but is rented out privately on a long lease. It stands proudly on the promontory in all its white-painted glory. It is brilliantly matched on the other side of Housel Bay by the Lizard Lighthouse, which flashes its high-intensity beam of light every few seconds night and day, and blows its duo-toned foghorn when the visibility falls to ward passing ships away from the treacherous rocks below.
Around the lighthouse, petit Dexter cattle graze the rolling green landscape and in the heat of midsummer the scent of myriad wild flowers wafts over the coastal footpath that weaves past Housel Bay.
It was at the coastguard's lookout at Bass Point, below the signal station, that I saw a chough, or sea-crow. This rare emblem of Cornish wildlife, with its bright-orange feet and beak, looked like a fashionista adorned with matching accessories.
After an hour or so of walking the cliffs, where if you are lucky on a sunny day you will spot a seal swimming below in the turquoise waters, you descend to a delightful little inlet called Church Cove. From here you can walk into Lizard village for refreshments and make the return journey to the coast via the road leading to the Housel Bay Hotel, a good place for an open sandwich and a drink, best taken on the sun terrace overlooking the bay.
A large part of the Lizard's geology is composed of serpentine rock, so-called because it looks like snakeskin when polished. Serpentine forms the bedrock of some 20 miles of the peninsula, underlying the plateau-like heath land of Goonhilly and Predannack Down.
The rock weathers exceptionally slowly and the infertile clay it produces is not good farming material. The surface of the downs is often waterlogged and boggy. Combined with the infertile nature of the serpentine soil, this has helped to preserve this part of the region from being turned over to agriculture. Today, the National Trust is charged with the task of maintaining the heath land at Lizard Downs as a wildlife refuge. Buzzards sweep overhead and the delightfully overgrown hedgerows hum with the sound of unfamiliar birdsong.
From the downs you can follow the path down to Kynance Cove, where lies a sandy beach surrounded by cliffs themselves populated by a noisy mob of seabirds. Here a small café offers snacks and light meals which can be enjoyed on a grassy knoll overlooking the beach, its rocks and the surrounding sea. A terraced row of fishermen's cottages next to the cove, now derelict, is to be turned into holiday lets – a sign of the shifting nature of the local economy.
The National Trust has been surveying wildlife on the Lizard longer than any other part of the country. Its first overview of the flora and fauna living on the 70 acres of Lower Predannack Farm near the village of Mullion occurred in June 1979. It was the first farm on National Trust land to have nature conservation clauses in its tenancy agreement, clauses specifically designed to encourage wildlife.
And such wildlife: green-winged orchids; rare clovers found only on the Lizard, such as the long-headed and upright clovers; and acre upon acre of purple foxgloves all adorn the clifftops.
Marconi may have had good technical reasons to choose the Lizard for his great experiment, but he also happened upon a coastal idyll at the southernmost fringes of mainland Britain.
Steve Connor is science editor of 'The Independent'
Penzance provides the easiest rail access to the Lizard, with local bus connections. First Great Western (0845 700 0125; firstgreatwestern.co.uk ) operates the route from London Paddington.
The writer stayed at Wireless Cottage, Helston, the Lizard, Cornwall, a one-bedroom property which is available for week-long lets from National Trust Cottages (0844 8002070; www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk ). Prices from £898 in August, £712 in September, £629 in October.
0844 800 1895; www.nationaltrust.org.uk
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