Orfordness Lighthouse – farewell

It had to happen in 2020, of course – the year that reminded everyone just how fleeting and precious our presence is on this extraordinary planet. While the coronavirus sent us scurrying into lockdown, the North Sea continued its march to the front door of a much-loved building –  the Orfordness Lighthouse. Now it’s time to say farewell. The demolition crane is in place. One of Suffolk’s most beautiful landmarks is being dismantled before the waves can claim it.

After four months of lockdown, it was hard to watch the news. How I wished I could leave my cottage and feel the salt sea spray on my face. I wanted to be there in person to say goodbye to the beacon that provided so many ideas for The Mirror of Pharos. I can hear Alpha the wolf howling as he summons the wind, flinging caps of white surf across the water in tribute.

First the roof came off, carefully lifted by a giant crane down to the beach 30 meters below. It looks like a mini spacecraft in this piece of drone footage.  (Full BBC article here)

Then it was the turn of the lantern room, a circular glass structure that weighs almost 8 tons. Orford photographer Carl Humphrey captures the heart-wrenching moment in these brilliant photos.

The horizon along the ten-mile stretch of shingle will never be the same again. Even though the lamp was turned off and removed in 2013 when the lighthouse was decommissioned, the building has dominated the skyline for 200 years, a friendly and familiar giant to generations of people. As Carl commented: ‘It will be strange not to see her standing tall on the Ness as she can be seen from everywhere.’

However, the demolition had to go ahead. Despite surviving hurricanes, floods, attacks by warplanes and even the secret testing of bombs on land close by, the lighthouse has become unsafe. The sea has eaten away at the shingle,  shifting and dragging the beach below the waterline. Half a century ago, the building stood 90 meters from the sea. By 2015, the distance was only 10 meters. During the ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap in 2018, a huge tidal swell gobbled up even more ground.  Then last winter, the end was in sight; the lighthouse foundations were finally exposed.

If it hadn’t been for the valiant efforts of the Orfordness Lighthouse Trust, a charity run by local volunteers, the tower might have fallen even sooner. To protect it, they filled large black sacks with shingle and joined them together to make a long, flexible wall. ‘Operation Sausage Roll’, as it was called, kept the lighthouse standing for longer than expected. In the borrowed time since 2013, hundreds of visitors were able to make the pilgrimage and climb the 100 steps to the lantern room at the top.

Long-term defences, such as surrounding the building with rock armour, weren’t allowed because the Ness is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The shifting shingle is part of what makes it a unique environment for many plants and birds. So instead, the Trust will use the salvaged parts of the lighthouse to build a monument further inland near Orford village.

What a privilege to have been a visitor. If it hadn’t been for my first trip in 2004, I wonder if I’d ever have dreamed up the story of 12-year-old Jack, my time-travelling hero. It was his job to prevent a shipwreck, stop a lighthouse failing and defeat an evil timelord. I remember laughing with the keeper, Keith, as we drank tea in the control room on that rain-drenched afternoon. He said there were back-up batteries – the lighthouse wouldn’t fail. The lamp would keep winking once every five seconds. Little did we know that nature and time itself would do the job.

But like all good stories, even when you’ve read the final chapter, it’s never the end. The light shines on in your heart and mind, firing your imagination and inspiring joy. The Orfordness Lighthouse won’t be forgotten. Here are some of the young visitors who had fun on one of the last tours. Lana, Dylan, Callum and Logan are the great grandchildren of former lighthouse keeper, Charlie Underwood, who was awarded an MBE for more than 28 years of service.

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Illustration by Amanda Pike for The Mirror of Pharos

Photo credit: banner image by Carl Humphrey, CWH Media