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

Norfolk,Kunal Dutta
Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00

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.

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