Shining bright for 230 years - behind the scenes of a Norfolk icon
- Credit: Patrick Tubby
It has stood sentinel over the north Norfolk coast for 230 years. Reporter STUART ANDERSON shines a light on the iconic Happisburgh Lighthouse.
Treading the 112 steps to the peak I'll admit to a slight feeling of vertigo. The narrow staircase winds nimbly up around the lighthouse's inner wall and although there is a bannister, I didn't expect the core of the building to be completely hollow.
But this was a structure built with one purpose in mind - the topside lantern, which, thanks to its height, can be seen spotted by ships far and wide.
The light helps vessels navigate the channel between the coastline and the 10-mile-long Haisborough Sands shoal about a mile out to sea, but the 85ft (24 metre) building is far more than a navigational aid.
According to Patrick Tubby, chairman of the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust since 2007, the lighthouse "is Happisburgh".
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"Yes, we have a church, but the lighthouse is the iconic thing in the village," Mr Tubby said. "The North Norfolk News has the lighthouse in their banner headline and has for many years.
"When the lighthouse was threatened with closure in 1988 we had a public meeting in the church hall opposite the school, and so many people turned up we had to move up to the church itself because it was the only public building that was big enough."
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The lighthouse was conceived in 1789 when, on Halloween night, 70 ships and more than 600 lives were lost in a storm off the Norfolk coast.
When it came into operation on New Year's Day, 1791, there were originally two lighthouses - a 'high light', which still exists today and a 'low light' closer to the beach.
After lighthouse authority Trinity House announced Happisburgh Lighthouse was "surplus to its needs" in 1987, a campaign to form the trust began. Today Happisburgh's is the only independently-run lighthouse in the country.
The trust and lighthouse Friends group were delighted to have been able to reopen the building for open days this summer - the first time visitors were able to climb the tower since 2019 because of the pandemic.
But due to precautions, only around 150 people a day have been able to tour the building, as opposed to around 350 a day before Covid struck.
"On the one hand we would like to have more people through the doors," Mr Tubby said. "But some of the volunteers do prefer the less intense open days than what we've had in the past."
"We made a loss last year, but we still got a few nice donations. But the funding has been well managed and we always try to have a bit of a surplus.
"The Friends group evolved to become the main fundraising stream for the lighthouse, and it is the Friends who co-ordinate open days."
The biggest threat the lighthouse faces may not be financial, but the possibility it will run out of space due to Happisburgh's rapidly eroding coastline.
It is this natural process which already led to the sale and demolition of the low light in 1886 - as well as the clearing of several houses that once perched precariously close to the cliff.
Projections have shown the cliffside crumble should reach the structure some time next century.
Mr Tubby said he regularly measured the distance from the lighthouse's country wall to the nearest point on the cliff, and although the rate of erosion had seemed high in recent years, it was expected to slow down.
He said: "In 2014 that distance was 168 metres, and now it's 136 metres. That's 32 metres in seven years, so that's nowhere near 80 years of life.
"But as you get closer to the lighthouse the soil is less sand and more clay, which is more resilient, so the rate of erosion should slow."
*To find out more about the lighthouse and its programme of open days and events, visit happisburgh.org.uk/lighthouse.