Being married to an armchair historian isn't easy. Just ask my wife. While we were vacationing in West Flanders two summers ago, I talked her into joining me for a day of touring museums, war cemeteries, and battlefield memorials in Ypres Salient-not exactly what you'd call a romantic second honeymoon. When we returned for a week on the Flemish coast in September, I knew I couldn't get away with asking her to look at more of that "old military stuff." This time, we'd have to do something she'd enjoy as much as I. How about visiting lighthouses? I asked. And since there can't be that many - Belgium only has 40 miles or so of North Sea coastline - why not all of them? She agreed.
How many lighthouses are there in Belgium? We knew from our last trip to the coast that there was one in Nieuwpoort and one in Oostende; my Michelin road map showed at least two more in Blankenberge and Zeebrugge, and we'd heard about another pair in Heist. We wanted to buy a travel guide that could tell us more, but there wasn't one. So I ended up writing my own...
Lighthouses have guided mariners through treacherous waters for thousands of years. The first lighthouse in recorded history was built around 280 B.C. on Pharos, an island near Alexandria, Egypt. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Several centuries later, the Roman Empire had coastal beacons made of stone as far north as Boulogne, France, and Dover, England. Belgium's oldest lighthouse is said to have been built in 1276 by Gwijde van Dampierre, Count of Flanders, on the Lombardsijde dunes just east of Nieuwpoort; another was erected in 1284 on the Kromme Hoek, a narrow peninsula at the mouth of the Ijzer River . The latter, a 98-foot, four-story hexagonal tower of yellowish brick, was a familiar landmark for more than 600 years; its sharply pointed roof, resembling a church spire, was visible for a considerable distance. Retreating Belgian soldiers dynamited the prominent tower on the 18th of October, 1914 to keep German artillerymen, on whose grid maps it appeared, from using it as a target offset point. What little remained was eventually demolished in 1930. Archaeologists excavated the lighthouse's six-foot-deep foundation in April 1996, but the site has since reverted to its natural state.
Belgian lighthouses were called vierboetes by Flemish fishermen during the Middle Ages, from the French Bouter le feu, a reference to the payment that had to be made for this important maritime navigational service; the modern Dutch word is vuurtoren, which literally means "fire tower." The source of a lighthouse's illumination was originally an open flame fed with wood, straw or reeds; coal came into widespread use as a fuel in the 1700's, followed by oil and other petroleum-based products. The light generated by these fires was relatively weak before the invention in the 19th century of the Fresnel lens, a technological breakthrough that trebled the distance from which a lighthouse's flashing signal could be seen at night. Today's lighthouses are powered by electricity or gas, and most are automated.
Gone are the days when lighthouse keepers spent months braving the hostile elements on some barren, storm-beaten rock, but many of the lighthouses in which they served still dot the coastlines of the world. I'd been to some in New Jersey and the Carolinas, and my wife joined me for trips to several more on America's treacherous Pacific Northwest coast; now we'd finally get to visit our first lighthouses outside of the United States. It turned out to be quite an adventure.
On the cover of the Nieuwpoort tourist brochure is a lighthouse with red and white horizontal stripes; the official logo is the same lighthouse set inside a stylized letter "N"; and the city has restaurants with such names as Le Pahre and Vuurtoren. This lighthouse is, no doubt, a major local attraction and should be easy to find: simply take Route 34 to the King Albert Monument, turn off and follow the road to the Nieuwpoort Yacht Club, and look for signs to the vuurtoren. But there were no signs, so we asked a bicycle rider for directions. We followed these to a seaside campground, parked next to a mobile home fronted by dutch garden gnomes, and began walking the remaining mile and a half to the lighthouse. All went well until we neared a line of red flags in the sand. A soldier approached and confirmed my suspicions: there was an arms range up ahead, and live-fire training was in progress.
What now? The lighthouse was still too far away for our point-and-shoot camera, even with full zoom. We headed by car back in the direction we came from, exited onto an unpaved dead end road, and pulled up to the Lombardsijde army base. Maybe the guard knew how to get to the lighthouse. He did. We got back on the main road to Nieuwpoort, turned right onto the Lage Duinenstraat, another dirt road, and bumped along, keeping the base's green wire-mesh fence to our right; we then proceeded through an open gate, past the Ijzermonding Nature Preserve and some abandoned barracks. After the dust cloud settled, we saw the lighthouse amid the dunes and gently waving sea oats. The setting was perfect. We couldn't have wished for anything better.
Oostende and Blankenberge
Ten miles up the coast from Nieuwpoort is Oostende. It has the tallest and most elegant lighthouse in Belgium. The 200-foot tower with the distinctive blue wave pattern is located in the heart of the Vuurtorendok district, adjacent to Fisherman's Wharf. All we had to do to get there was to keep the lighthouse in sight. No dirt roads and no detours around army bases this time.
Another 12 miles along the coastal highway and we were in Blankenberge, the summer resort best known for its pier. The white lighthouse with the black top is on the west end of the boardwalk; it dates from 1950. Nothing remains of the vierboete built in the early 14th century on the other side of town, and the splendid octagonal lighthouse which entered service in July 1872 shared a fate similar to that of Nieuwpoort's Kromme Hoek Light; it was blown up by the German Army in 1944.
Three miles past Blankenberge is Zeebrugge, the site of one of the Allies' most daring naval exploits in World War I: the sinking on 23rd of April in 1918, St.George's Day, of two British blockships at the entrance of the canal linking the U-boat base in Brugge with the open sea. It has two lighthouses. One is on the Leopold II Dam, a high wall jutting into the great harbour from the west. The other guards the port's entrance from the tip of the east breakwater. But how to get to them? Ask the Belgian navy, of course.
One of the officers at the Zeebrugge naval base showed us where the first lighthouse was on the map. All we had to do was follow the trucks onto the west mole, turn right at the traffic circle, followed by a left, and drive alongside the railroad tracks past the cranes and loading docks all the way to the end. That's what we did. We then took a short walk through the tall wild grass toward the immense stone blocks marking the edge of the seawall. The lighthouse looked absolutely wonderful, although it was immediately apparent that the aging tower's primary function these days was a place for hanging "traffic lights" and other modern signaling apparatus. We've since learned that it is slated for demolition. The other lighthouse, squarish stone monolith with a red top, was not accessible by car or foot.
Before leaving Zeebrugge, we visited the lightship Westhinder which is on permanent display at the Seafront maritime museum. The 47-year-old vessel with the bright red hull is 137 feet long with a beam of 27 feet, and has a displacement of 419 tons. It is no longer in commission.
The lighthouses of Nieuwpoort, Oostende, Blankenberge and Zeebrugge serve the oceanfront communities in which they stand; those in Heist, which has no harbour, do not. Instead, the two modern light poles with the red and white horizontal stripes-one 92 feet in height, the other 40-are an extension of the navigational aids in Zeebrugge harbour. The towers, when aligned, give a bearing of 136 degrees. But these towers weren't the reason we came to Heist. We wanted to see the original pair of "tall" and "short" lighthouses: Hoog Licht and Laag Licht. King Baudouin I designated both as national historic monuments in September 1981 and the Belgian government issued a similar decree in January 1987. Finally, some really old lighthouses to take pictures of!
When Hoog Licht was erected in 1907, it made history as the first reinforced concrete structure on the Belgian coast. Today it shares a fenced-in pasture with a white horse. The lighthouse bears a commemorative plaque that cannot be read without trespassing on private property. There are no signs of any kind. We weren't even sure this was a lighthouse until my wife rang the doorbell of a nearby house and asked the man who lived there-it could have been an old water tower, for all we knew. I was saddened when I examined the tower more closely through a pair of binoculars: most of the window panes in the lantern room were shattered, and long cracks were clearly visible in several places. How much longer could it withstand the gusts of the ocean winds and the corroding effects of the salt air? One can only hope an effort will be made soon to restore this magnificent lighthouse before it collapses into ruins.
Laag Licht stands closer to the shore, next to the taller of the two modern light towers. It is also on private property. As with Hoog Licht, we didn't know right away that what we were looking at was, in fact a lighthouse. Here was something that looked like an oversized tin can with a weather vane on top mounted on a stone pedestal; there was an opening in the front, but the cover was welded shut. Again, no plaque or sign to explain what it was. Interestingly, Laag Licht is the only lighthouse on the Belgian coast that one can enter. I could have descended the stairs into the litter-strewn interior, but decided to take a quick peek through the open door was enough. Four years of watching FBI special agents Mulder and Scully on television's "X-Files" taught me never to enter dark places without a flashlight...even if the truth was down there.
About the author: Gary C. Gerard is a major in the U.S.Air Force. He currently serves as chief of the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force E-3A component public information office at Geilenkirchen, Germany. His Wife, Kathy, is a native of Belgium.
This story appeared in the
January 1998 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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