Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The end of light, the start of darkness.

It is with some sadness that I watched this report on BBC News. It discusses the fact that Trinity House, the operator of most of the lighthouses around the English and Welsh coasts, is thinking of closing some of their lighthouses. Ones earmarked for potential closure include Orford Ness and the iconic Beachy Head.

Whilst it is true that a certain amount of romance left lighthouses when they were automated in the nineties (it meant the end for grizzled, windswept and bearded lighthouse keepers), they are still utterly evocative places. I always looked forward to seeing the next one as I walked around the coast, and can remember many of them well. There are the gleaming white ones; the ones with red and white stripes, the tall ones and the short, stubby ones. The ones that stand on lonely rocks out at sea, and the ones converted from existing buildings. Each one necessarily unique and distinctive.

A couple of years ago I sailed from Southampton to Dublin on the Jeannie Johnston. There was something magical about being on watch at night near the bowspit and seeing the flashing specks of light in the distance. They were an indication of land, of home and family. Sometimes four or five Welsh or Irish lights could be seen whilst sailing up the Irish Channel.

Technology has marched on, and GPS now means that it is possible to position yourself accurately virtually anywhere on the surface of the Earth. This had led to the closure or scaling back of some LORAN services (LORAN was a predecessor to GPS using radio waves to position ships).

So the question should be asked: Are lighthouses necessary? The truth is, the only people who can really answer this are the people who use the sea. GPS is susceptible to atmospheric disruption, or even to being switched off in times of war; LORAN is only useful if you have the correct apparatus and the knowledge of how to use it.

Yet if all else fails, the dependable lighthouses will still be there, their regular flashing lights guiding sailors to safety. So I call on the Government: provide Trinity House with the funds to keep them going. Trinity House's funding has been slashed over the last ten years; perhaps it is time to reverse that trend. After all, those flickering lights may be the only thing to stop another Sea Empress or Braer disaster. Or perhaps, just perhaps, they will guide a cold, storm-lashed fisherman to port, just as they have done for over two hundred years.

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