Culture24 On The Trail Of... Britain's Best Lighthouses

By Jenni Davidson | 19 August 2011
a photo of a lighthouse tower seen from below
© Courtesy Trinity House
Culture24 On The Trail Of... Britain's best Lighthouses: Read the introduction then simply scroll down and click through to find a place to visit...

As an island nation, one thing Britain isn’t short of is lighthouses. Of course they’re not all open to the public, but some are really worth a visit, not only for the lighthouses themselves but for their spectacular locations.

Lighthouses actually go back to ancient times. The most famous was the Lighthouse of Alexandria, on the island of Pharos in Alexandria Egypt, which was built in the third century BC. It was one of the tallest manmade structures on earth at the time and considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Lighthouses became important in Britain during the 'Age of Sail' from the 16th to 19th centuries and Trinity House, the lighthouse board for England and Wales, built its first lighthouse in 1609.

One of the most famous lighthouses in England is Eddystone in Devon, which was rebuilt four times. The third version was designed by John Smeaton, the father of modern civil engineering, who pioneered the use of concrete as a building material.

In Scotland, the famous Lighthouse Stevenson family (Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, father and uncles) were all civil engineers who built many lighthouses for the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Each lighthouse used to have lighthouse keepers who performed all the maintenance tasks - cleaning the windows, trimming the wicks, winding the clocks - but during the course of the 20th century Britain’s lighthouses were gradually automated. The UK’s last manned lighthouse was automated in 1998, but tales of life beside the ocean waves live on.

Many lighthouses are inaccessible, and most are closed to the public, but here are Culture24's suggestions for the best ones to visit.

a photo of children visiting a lighthouse
The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is a hit with visitors of all ages.
© Museum of Scottish Lighthouses
Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire

Kinnaird Head in Fraserburgh was the first lighthouse to be built on mainland Scotland and is now home to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses.

The purpose-built museum contains a huge array of more than 100,000 artefacts from lighthouses across the country including lighthouse lenses, furniture, journals by lighthouse keepers, personal belongings, photographs and archives. As part of the museum visit you can also take a 45-minute guided tour around Kinnaird Head Lighthouse.


Muckle Flugga Lighthouse and Hermaness Visitor Centre, Unst, Shetland

Muckle Flugga was built by Thomas and David Stevenson in 1854 and is the northernmost lighthouse in Britain. Although the lighthouse itself is not open to the public, it is worth visiting the area for the surrounding nature reserve.

Starting at Hermaness Visitor Centre in the old lighthouse shore station, it feels like being on the edge of the world. Apart from the stunning landscape and impressive cliffs, highlights in the spring are the puffins and in the summer watch out for divebombing ‘bonxies’ or great skuas.


Arbroath Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath, Angus

These Regency buildings on the seafront by Arbroath harbour used to be the shore station and family living quarters for the nearby Bell Rock Lighthouse, which celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2011.

This feat of engineering is the oldest rock lighthouse in the world. It lies 11 miles out to sea on a hidden reef so it looks like it rises straight out of the water. It was the first lighthouse to be built by Robert Stevenson, the founder of the Lighthouse Stevenson dynasty and he based it on Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse.

Highlights in the museum are the giant lense of the last manually operated lamp used in the lighthouse, one of the two Bell Rock Lighthouse fog bells and a hand-illustrated book of signals used for passing messages between the signal tower and the lighthouse.

Skerryvore Lighthouse Museum, Tiree, Argyll and Bute

This small museum is built in the signal tower for another Stevenson-built lighthouse, this time by Alan Stevenson. Skerryvore is the tallest lighthouse in Britain. The museum tells the story of the building of the lighthouse.

Around the museum in Hynish Square the old lighthouse keepers cottages have been restored and are now lived in by members of the local community. The harbour and pier including a freshwater reservoir and aquaduct, which were built to service the lighthouse, have also been repaired.

Longstone Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Farne Islands, Northumberland

Longstone Lighthouse is the site of a dramatic rescue in the 19th century. In 1838, the steamer Forfarshire ran onto rocks near the lighthouse on its way between Hull and Dundee at the cost of 43 lives.

The weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out to sea, but Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, persuaded her father to take the small lighthouse boat. They rescued nine people from the wreck and became Victorian heroes.

It is possible to take a boat trip out to the lighthouse in good weather and have a tour inside, including Grace’s bedroom, and to see the seabirds and grey seals on the surrounding islands.

Souter Lighthouse and The Leas, Whitburn, Tyne and Wear

Souter Lighthouse is no longer in use today, but when it was built in 1871 it was at the forefront of technology. It was the first lighthouse to use electricity. All the machinery is still in working order and you can go inside and look at the engine room as well as climb the tower for views over the beach and cliffs of The Leas.

The glass optic from nearby Coquet Island Lighthouse is also on display here. The surrounding area is well worth a visit for its grasslands and seabirds, as well as the Whitburn Coastal Path.

Flamborough Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire

Flamborough Head actually has two lighthouses. The original one, built in 1669 by John Clayton, was never lit, but it stands besides the newer one from 1806. Red glass panels were put on each side of the lantern so that the lighthouse gives two white flashes then one red flash.

This was a new development to help ships recognise which lighthouse they were seeing. Flamborough Head itself is a dramatic promontory with 400-foot high chalk cliffs which boasts one of the largest sites of nesting birds in England and a rare colony of gannets.

Withernsea Lighthouse Museum, Withernsea, East Yorkshire

Quite unusually, Withernsea’s lighthouse is built a quarter of a mile inland rather than on the coast or out to sea. The lighthouse was built at the end of the 19th century due to the number of ships that were being wrecked because they couldn’t see the other two nearby lighthouses, Flamborough Head and Spurn.

It is no longer used today, but you can climb to the top and look out over the town. The keeper’s cottage next to the lighthouse has been turned into a museum with exhibits about RNLI lifeboats, HM Coastguard and 1950s film actress Kay Kendall, who came from Withernsea.

a photo of a lighthouse on a rocky headlland
South Stack Lighthouse© Courtesy Trinity House
South Stack Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Holyhead, Anglesey

South Stack is in a dramatic and peaceful location on its own little island off the coast of Anglesey. In 1859 it was hit by the worst storm of the century when more than 200 vessels were either blown ashore or wrecked with the loss of 800 lives.

The lighthouse is reached by descending 400 steps down the granite cliffs and then crossing a steel-framed bridge to the island. You can tour the engine room and climb to the top and as it is set in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty it is worth seeing for the location alone, and is a fantastic place to watch seabirds.

Nash Point Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Nash Point, Vale of Glamorgan

Nash Point guards the entrance to Bristol Channel and has two towers to provide not only a warning about the rocks but a bearing for ships entering the channel. These two towers, known as leading lights, tell a vessel whether they are on course or not. If the two towers line up one behind the other the ship is following the right line, but if they appear beside one another the ship needs to change direction.

It was the last manned lighthouse in Wales and was only automated in 1998. The lighthouse sits in beautiful scenery on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast path and you can set out from the lighthouse on a walk along the cliff tops.

At 2pm on the first and third Saturday of the month the ghostly fog signal is sounded.

Southwold Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Southwold, Suffolk

Southworld is another unusual lighthouse that sits in the middle of the town and towers over the surrounding houses in this seaside resort.

Built as a coastal marker for ships sailing up the east coast and for boats entering Southwold Harbour, it has different coloured lights to tell ships which direction they are approaching from - red to the north and south and white for the main navigation light.

South Foreland Lighthouse, Dover, Kent

Just outside Dover harbour is a treacherous 10-mile long sandbank, Goodwin Sands, where it is thought more than 2,000 boats have been wrecked. Originally fires would have been burned along the cliff tops to warn sailors of the dangers from the cliffs and the sandbank, until the Romans replaced these with lighthouses.

The South Foreland Lighthouse is one of a pair at either end of the sands and was in use for 300 years; the northern lighthouse is still in use today. South Foreland was the first lighthouse to use an electric light, but its main claim to fame is that it was here that the first ship-to-shore transmission took place from the Goodwin lightship on Christmas Eve 1898.

Dover Castle, Dover, Kent

Dover has long a been strategic harbour. The oldest-known shipwreck in the UK is a Bronze Age boat dating from 1300 BC found in Dover harbour. Standing beside the Anglo-Saxon St Mary-in-Castro church inside Dover Castle is the oldest lighthouse in Britain.

The pharos, named after the Pharos of Alexandria, was built by the Romans and is one of a pair. The one inside the castle was the Eastern Pharos and there was another lighthouse, the Western Pharos on the Western Heights.

They were built in the first century AD to guide ships into the harbour of Roman port of Dubris. The remains of the octagonal stone lighthouse still reach 13 metres, making it the tallest surviving Roman building in Britain. The remains of the Western Pharos, now known as The Bredenstone, can still be seen on Drop Redoubt, Western Heights.

St Catherine’s Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Niton Undercliffe, Isle of Wight

St Catherine's Lighthouse is one of the most powerful in England, with a beam visible for up to 30 nautical miles guiding shipping in the English Channel and entering the Solent.

There has been a warning light on this part of the coast from the early 14th century when Walter de Godyton erected a chapel and paid for a priest to say masses and light a warning light at night.

This lasted until the Reformation, and the ruins of the chapel can still be seen. St Catherine's is a white octagonal tower with a smaller tower in front of it which holds the fog signal. Although they don't appear to resemble animals, the two are known locally as "The Cow and the Calf".

a colour picture of a lighthouse at night
Portland Bill Lighthouse. Image courtesy Trinity House
Portland Bill Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Isle of Portland, Dorset

The lighthouse at Portland Bill guides ships into the ports of Weymouth or Portland and acts as a marker for those sailing along the English Channel. The area is one of the most hazardous in Britain and is the graveyard of many ships.

A stone ledge under the water off Portland Bill called the Shambles causes a tidal rapid known as the Portland Race, which is the most treacherous tidal race on the south coast.

The classic red and white lighthouse is open to the public and there are two more lighthouses at Portland Bill. These two formed a leading light to provide bearings for ships. The taller one has now been turned into holiday cottages, but the smaller is also open to the public as a bird observatory.

Start Point Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Start Point, Devon

Start Point is a gothic-inspired tower with a battlemented parapet on an extremely exposed headland of the south Devon coast. Originally it had a dual light following a design by Alan Stevenson of the Scottish lighthouse building family.

One of the lights revolved while the other was fixed on the nearby Skerries Bank. The light alone wasn't enough, though, and a bell was added, later replaced by a siren. The machinery to work the lights was in a small house at the top of a cliff with the weights to operate the machinery running down the sheer cliff face.

Smeaton’s Tower, Plymouth, Devon

Smeaton's Tower is part of the third version of the Eddystone Lighthouse, which was built by John Smeaton at a cost of £40,000 - a huge sum at the time.

It was replaced in 1877 after more than a hundred years of service, because the rock underneath it was eroding and the upper part was dismantled and moved to Plymouth Hoe where it was set up as a memorial to John Smeaton.

Built of granite blocks and designed in the shape of an oak tree, Smeaton's Tower is open to the public. You can climb the 93 steps to the lantern room at the top for a view over the city of Plymouth and the sea.

Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks, National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Penzance, Cornwall, until 31 December 2011

Focused around a giant four tonne optic, this exhibition gives an insight into the life of a lighthouse keeper. Miles out to sea, on outcrops of rock, they lived a difficult and isolated life.

The exhibition contains a reconstruction of rooms from a lighthouse with the original curved furniture from Godrevy Lighthouse. It also looks at life on board the lightvessels, which served as lighthouses in places where it was impossible to build a lighthouse.

Lizard Lighthouse Heritage Centre, Lizard, Cornwall

Lizard Lighthouse marks the southernmost point of mainland Britain. Despite being a treacherous spot on the coastline and much in need of a lighthouse, an application to set one here was originally refused for fear it would guide enemies and pirates to land.

Eventually permission was granted to build the lighthouse which was finished at Christmas 1619, but the upkeep bankrupted the owner, Sir John Killigrew.

When James I stepped in and began to charge all vessels a ha'penny a ton for passing the light, there was such a public outcry that the patent was withdrawn and the lighthouse demolished. The current two-towered lighthouse wasn't built until 1751.

Alderney Lighthouse Visitor Centre, Alderney, Channel Islands

The Alderney Race is a notoriously wild stretch of water lying between Alderney and Cap de la Hague in France and it has some of the strongest tidal streams in Europe.

The waters build up in the gulf of St Malo, flowing fast through the race at high tide and being sucked back again at low tide. Add to this an uneven seabed and some dangerous rocks and it is a risky place for ships. The lighthouse at Quénard Point is painted black and white to make it more visible during the day.

  • Visit the Trinity House website for more on our Lighthouses and their continuing role keeping mariners safe in all weathers.
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