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What are Lighthouses For

Lighthouses allow dangers to be avoided and a ship to navigate accurately.

In the daytime they are day marks, each very identifiable, and at night they give out their own characteristic light code identifying not only where they are, but who they are, so the ships navigation officer can tell one from another.

From the Lighthouses, Lightships and Buoys they can see, the ships officers can accurately plot a ship's course. The ship's course can be continually updated by taking compass bearings on two fixed navigational points marked on Admiralty charts.  Most lights are arranged so a ship can see two or more at a time, with the exception of deep sea lighthouse towers marking rocks laying in wait to wreck any boat that gets too close. There are also wrecks, sand banks and other hazards to be avoided, with safe channels around some coastal sections and routes into and out of port. With far heavier sea traffic now, collisions have to be avoided, and this is partly achieved by putting shipping in different directions in different lanes.

Today a shipping disaster is rare, but before lighthouses and other aids were common, there were hundreds of ships wrecked on our coasts each year. On Tuesday 25th October 1859 it is said that the most severe storm of that century occurred and on that and the following day over 200 vessels were either driven ashore or totally wrecked with the loss of 800 lives. In 1707 a number ships returning to Britain together, all ran into the Bishops rocks and 2,000 men died. There are many more examples, and when you see the details on individual lighthouses you will see the terrible losses that were incurred around very many sections of our coasts.

If you are regular visitor to our site and have visited our section on British Islands you will know that there are over 10,000 islands that make up the British Isles, plus many rocks and smaller items. The coast of just the mainland and main islands add up to a distance greater than the distance round the earth. So you can see it would be impossible, prior to reliable sea charts and lights, to stay safe if you were travelling along a lot of the coasts. It was also one of the country's major defensive features, and a major deterrent to those who might plan to raid by sea.

How long will we have lighthouses for, is a question we cannot answer. With new technology, most deep sea vessels have several electronic navigation systems, and so conceptually can navigate from this and charts. In recent years, radio beacons set up around the coast - originally by Decca - have been used to transmit individual navigational signals and even more recently satellite navigation has been developed as a very sophisticated form of positioning vessels. 

Photo from Geograph     See Larger Image

Skerries Lighthouse (The)   


Photo by Peter Church     See Larger Image

Port Ellen Lighthouse


by  Marinas.com        See Larger Image

St Mary's Lighthouse 


These systems require interpreting skills to plot courses and are prone to error and system failure.  Atmospheric conditions can also affect their accuracy at dawn, dusk and during fog. In addition it is always the risk that terrorists or others could interfere with the radio signals and put these out of operation for period. So without the back up of lights, visual marks, we could have a series of shipping disasters that would make historic losses look small.

Generally its only the commercial vessels which are equipped with sophisticated satellite equipment, and many recreational craft, smaller fishing boats and lifeboats still rely largely on existing lights and marks.

In researching and writing up the location guides there have seen a number of occasions where Trinity House has considered lights to no longer to be necessary, on the basis that later technology is making them obsolete, and its only local protests that have persuaded them to keep them operational, although usually at a reduced power.

Lighthouses prior to de-manning also provided another service now lost, looking out for ships or people in difficulty, this they did in cooperation with a large number of coastguard stations and between them most of the coast could be watched. In addition to the demanning of lighthouses and removal of most lightships most of the full time coastguard stations are now closed. There is a new voluntary group attempting to fill some of this vacuum but realistically its unlikely that a large percentage of the coast will be watched again.

The technology we have will continues to get better, more reliable and more people will both have primary and small back up systems, and while for the foreseeable future you will want harbour buoys, the future of other lights is less certain.

The driving force, supplier of most of these new electronic enhanced navigational toys to the lighting authorities is a company called VT Communications Ltd. This was the company that was called Merlin Communications and was created by the privatisation of the BBC World Service transmission sites. They are now a part of a public company, VT Group, and VT Group are currently in the course of being taken over by another company Babcock International Group PLC, who are already a major supplier in these areas.

But what if there is a bug in their software, a volcanic or other disturbance, a sun flair, meteorite or a whole range of other unknowns disrupting radio signals. What if terrorists or criminals should block radio signals or just flood the waves with static or rubbish. What if these electronic aids stopped working, then without the lighthouses we would have the biggest collection of shipping disasters ever seen, we could not feed the people of Britain, as Britain could become a 'no go' area for shipping.

In my view we are not likely to see the sudden announcement of the closure of all lighthouses, but many of the small units, those that look like metal structures on legs, are likely to go, and when they are not required these are likely to be scraped and lost.  If lucky, a few may go to museum sites. A lot of the smaller coastal lighthouses are also likely to close and be sold for conversion to homes with good views. Some island sites will be sold to nature preservation trusts as observatories. The major structures are eventually likely to have their lights turned off but remain for a period as day marks, some being sold to English Heritage and the National Trust or regional variations on these as tourist attractions. Some may be bought by Trusts that may preserve and run them, although this is not easy currently to do and only the Happisburgh Lighthouse, in Norfolk  has achieved this so far. Some will be transferred to harbour authorities or local councils.

Its impossible to preserve everything and with around 400 lighthouses, its clear that only some will be able to be preserved as heritage items, the rest will quite naturally have other uses found for them or they will be destroyed as a cheaper solution to maintaining them.....

It will never happen, you may say, but check out the press release issued by the UK's lighting authorities in May 2010, it says :-


  • Generally

    • The lights system can be considered a complementary but secondary system to Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as GPS;

    • Having one light in view is acceptable;

    • A maximum range of 18 miles is considered sufficient for most lights;

    • Rotating optics are no longer a requirement;

  • If practical, there can be a reduction in amount and diversity of flash characters on lighthouse lights;

  • ........

And the current plan included shutting 6 lighthouses, 18 buoys, 5 fog signals, 3 beacons and 1 radar beacon and decrease the range of light at 44 lighthouses.

So from this you can see total reliance is to be placed on the electronic navigational systems, and the lighthouse system depleted, with only one light visible you can't plot a position, so it will become of no use, and can then naturally be switched off after the next review.

Not quite like turning off our car headlights and blacking out our car windows and driving on the SATNAV alone, but heading that way.


By: Keith Park   Section: Lighthouses section Key:
Page Ref: Lighthouse_use Topic: Lighthouses Last Updated: 06/2010

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