Shining bright for 230 years - behind the scenes of a Norfolk icon

Happisburgh Lighthouse is the oldest working light in East Anglia,

Happisburgh Lighthouse is the oldest working light in East Anglia, and the only independently run lighthouse in Great Britain. - 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. 

Happisburgh Lighthouse is one of the most recognisable structures in Norfolk. 

Happisburgh Lighthouse is one of the most recognisable structures in Norfolk. - Credit: Tony Buckingham

 

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". 

Patrick Tubby, chairman of the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust, has been giving tours of the structure for decades. 

Patrick Tubby, chairman of the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust, has been giving tours of the structure for decades. - Credit: Stuart Anderson


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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."

The winding staircase inside Happisburgh Lighthouse. 

The winding staircase inside Happisburgh Lighthouse. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

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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. 

Each year visitors have the chance to tour Happisburgh Lighthouse during a series of open days.

Each year visitors have the chance to tour Happisburgh Lighthouse during a series of open days. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

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. 

A 1902 postcard of Happisburgh Lighthouse

A 1902 postcard of Happisburgh Lighthouse showing gas holders in the yard behind the lighthouse. From 1872-1904 gas was produced from coal to provide the navigation light. - Credit: Supplied by Patrick Tubby

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. 

A postcard of Happisburgh Lighthouse from 1910.

A postcard of Happisburgh Lighthouse from 1910. - Credit: Supplied by Patrick Tubby

"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 Queen Mother visited Happisburgh Lighthouse in 1990, to mark the handover from

The Queen Mother visited Happisburgh Lighthouse in 1990, to mark the handover from Trinity House to the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust. She is pictured here with two of the original campaigners, Hazel Swann and Christine Payne. - Credit: Supplied by Patrick Tubby

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. 

A close-up of the "jewel in the crown" of

A close-up of the "jewel in the crown" of Happisburgh Lighthouse - the lantern and first order Chance Brothers optic from 1868. - Credit: Patrick Tubby

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. 

A view from the top of Happisburgh Lighthouse looking towards a 'bite' in the cliff

A view from the top of Happisburgh Lighthouse looking towards a 'bite' in the cliffs, part of the ongoing erosion of the area. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

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."

Happisburgh Lighthouse seen from the clifftop. 

Happisburgh Lighthouse seen from the clifftop. - Credit: Patrick Tubby

*To find out more about the lighthouse and its programme of open days and events, visit happisburgh.org.uk/lighthouse.

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