Light of inspiration: Orfordness

It’s impossible not to be inspired by the Orfordness Lighthouse. Always a friendly presence, it stands like a lone giant on a bleak stretch of shingle near the village of Orford in Suffolk. The fact that after more than 200 years of service it’s now perilously close to destruction with the sea eroding the beach around it, only adds to the wild beauty and charisma of the place. Despite the removal of the lamp following decommissioning, it’s still a wonderful symbol of hope and light.

A late blast of autumn sunshine made for a magical visit last weekend. My annual pilgrimage happened on the very last open day of the year, organised by the Orfordness Lighthouse Trust, the charity battling to save this iconic grade II listed building. Some £25,000 has been spent on sea defences and so far they have held good, although the waves are lapping the shore barely ten metres from the front door.

Two boatloads of lucky visitors took the ferry over the River Ore and made the 40-minute hike across the Ness. And what a brilliant surprise to discover that four of the smallest explorers had an extra special connection to the lighthouse. They were the great grandchildren of former lighthouse keeper, Charlie Underwood, who was awarded an MBE for more than 28 years of service. Lana, Dylan, Callum and Logan are pictured here making their first ever visit.  (Photos by Patti Mickelsen.)

The Ness is an exciting place for kids and adults alike. The minute you touch down on the other side of the river, you feel as if you’ve been transported to another world – or perhaps even to the end of the world. The landscape is dotted with strange derelict buildings, formerly owned by the MOD, as well as bits of military debris. There’s even a sign warning of unexploded shells. And the screeching birds remind you that it’s also an internationally important nature reserve with mud flats, reed marshes and brackish lagoons that form a fragile and precious habitat.

I love this wild place. The lighthouse itself is one of my favourite buildings in the world, not least because – as you’ll read elsewhere on this website – it provided inspiration for the lighthouse at the centre of my children’s novel, The Mirror of Pharos. (You can read more about my first visit here.)

Many thanks to Nicholas Gold for a superb tour and for spearheading the campaign to keep this beloved monument standing for as long as possible. Everyone shares his hope that the sea may be kind this winter and deposit more shingle than it takes away. And, if not, plans to salvage the structure and rebuild as a museum further inland would provide a very fitting memorial that Charlie’s grandchildren and others could enjoy for years to come.

The following short feature, by BBC Suffolk, is beautifully filmed. It’s heart-warming to hear Mark Thacker, one of the dedicated team determined to keep the lighthouse ‘alive’, talking about his love for the place.