Five months of planning, four hours of driving, three lighthouses and two friends equals one fantastic lighthouse experience.
After several years of being e-pals I was finally going to visit my friend Rachel in England. I don’t know which of us was more excited but we started planning my trip in late 2006 and dubbed it our ‘Great British Adventure”. With so much to see and do and only two weeks to do it in I expected to see only a few lighthouses and left it pretty much up to Rachel to chose which ones.
Being a perfect hostess and really wanting to show off the beauty of Southern Eng-land, she suggested a four-day tour of the “west country”, starting with our first night on the Isle of Portland and Portland Bill. Having already done my research on ALL lighthouses in southern England I knew that one of the lights in the area served as a hostel so I jumped at the idea of staying there. I’m not sure how keen Rachel was but she made our reservation way in advance and requested a room in the tower itself.
The late April day dawned bright and sunny and we set off for Portland via Stonehenge, arriving at the hostel mid afternoon. The Portland Low light not only serves as a hostel but since 1961 it has been a bird observatory and field station. The place was full of birders, many of whom return year after year to photograph, document and band the birds during the spring migration. We were greeted by Martin Cade, the “warden”, who showed us to our little room in the round stone tower. This was my first hostel experience but Rachel and I had come prepared with sleeping bags and linens so despite the spartan conditions we were very comfortable. We were viewed as a bit of an oddity by the other residents as 1) we were female and 2) our tiny little 300mm camera lenses didn’t require their own support systems (birders have SERIOUS camera equipment!). I don’t think it ever occurred to them that someone may want to stay there just because it was
I knew that the nearby Portland Bill lighthouse was equipped with a 1st order Fresnel lens so I was thrilled to learn from Martin that the tower was open to the public even that early in the season. As it was approaching 1600 hrs, Rachel and I made our way along the coastal path between the two lighthouses, snapping photos along the way.
The Portland Bill lighthouse is the only operational light remaining in the area, built in 1906 to replace the earlier High and Low lights. It is not difficult to see why these lights were needed; the churning waters offshore known as The Race, leave no doubt that these are treacherous waters to navigate. This current tower stands at 135’ and its light is visible for 25 nautical miles. An interesting and somewhat unique feature of this lighthouse is that in addition to the main light, the tower is also equipped with a red sector light located approx 1/3 of the way up the tower just below the horizontal red band. This marks The Shambles sand reef.
The ground floor of the lighthouse is a visitor center complete with a gift shop and equipment display located at the base of the tower. We were greeted by Carol Holden who took our £2.50 admission fee, a pittance by British standards and worth every penny (or pence in this case) for the opportunity to see this magnificent tower. She briefly showed us the exhibit but I was anxious to see that lens so with a promise to come back I started up the 153 steps to the lantern room. Although I have climbed the steps in over a hundred lighthouses, this was the tallest to date and it was Rachel’s very first! What stood out the most to me was the pristine condition of absolutely every inch of the interior and every single piece of equipment; it looked as though it had all been freshly painted that morning. I kept thinking how many of our lighthouses here in Canada and the U.S. must have looked like this before destaffing?
As soon as we reached the lantern room we were greeted by Carol’s husband David Holden, an employee of Trinity House, the governing agency for lighthouses in the U.K. Portland Bill is one of a dozen lighthouses in England open to the public and staffed by Trinity House personnel. Rachel and I were the only visitors so we had David’s undivided attention and he quickly figured out that we weren’t the average visitor. The British have their own language it seems and I learned a new term, “anarac”. I’m not sure how complimentary it is but it is applied to anyone knowledgeable or obsessed with a subject. I am definitely one and after a short time with David and me, Rachel felt like she was quickly becoming one as well.
The 1st order Fresnel lens was magnificent as it slowly rotated in its mercury bath. David explained that every seven years the lighthouse is shut down and the mercury bath is carefully changed. He then surprised us by stopping the lens and encouraging Rachel and myself to turn it by hand to better understand how effortlessly the three-ton beauty moves. This also provided us with a better opportunity to photograph the lens and when it was time to turn it back on David insisted that I do the honours.
After we left the lantern room Rachel and I were awarded certificates for climbing the tower and David gave us some great literature on the history of the light and on Trinity House. We then all climbed to the base of the tower where we were joined by Carol who graciously took over as photographer so Rachel and I could have our pictures taken together in the light before our visit ended.
Many thanks to the staff at Portland Bill; this was unquestionably one of the most interesting lighthouse visits that I have made and one that I would HIGHLY recommend to other lighthouse “anaracs”.
After a few more exterior photos, Rachel and I made the approx ½ mile trek up the hill to the Portland High light. The keepers dwelling is now used as a rental cottage complete with heated swimming pool and jacuzzi; just a bit more upscale than our accommodations down the hill! Like the Low light, the original lantern on this lighthouse has been removed and replaced with one that while not being very authentic looking is at least visually pleasing. These two lights were built in 1869 and were the 3rd set of range lights since the station was established in 1716. They were decommissioned in 1906 with the lighting of the main light.
Later, back at the hostel, we were all ready to call it a night when I realized that I hadn’t yet climbed to the lantern. I’m sure there are lights somewhere but I couldn’t find them so I climbed the 82-foot tower in the dark. Fortunately it was a full moon and a clear night so I had a natural nightlight to help me along. The view was spectacular and I had the room all to myself to enjoy it before returning to our room for a good night’s sleep. The following morning we took a few more photos before saying farewell to the lighthouses of Portland Bill.
This story appeared in the
September 2007 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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