To the Lighthouse

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They are taking the lighthouse down. It was really just a matter of time. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, and the two make for a powerful combination on this rapidly changing shoreline. The Orford lighthouse has stood here on the Suffolk coast since 1792, the 11th to stand on the same spot. All the previous lighthouses, mostly flimsy wooden structures, were lost to the sea; this one built by Lord Braybrooke of Audley End has lasted longer than any before it.

The ongoing demolition is simply a matter of being one step ahead of what will happen naturally as a result of longshore drift. Built as a very necessary warning for shipping and continually in service until its decommission in 2013, in more recent times the lighthouse has served as a bold territorial marker for this curious – and one-time secretive – strip of coastline. What it stands upon is not an island as it may seem but a spit – a long stretch of shingle, marsh and sand that sits between the estuary of the River Alde and the North Sea like a curving finger pointing south. Along with an expanse of pylons and weapon-testing ‘pagodas’, this red-and-white band structure has been an icon for the territory of Orford Ness, a place of Cold War secrets, sea-scraped shingle, wildlife and, in recent years, National Trust day trippers. Because of its dark history and evocative, lonely location, the Ness has also seen service as an unsanctioned psychogeographical theme park, a go-to liminal zone for enraptured lone males and Sebaldian shore-shufflers (myself included).

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While we are all losing a lighthouse, I am losing a gravatar for my blog and twitter feed. I suppose I ought to replace it with something new but I will keep it for a while as a tribute to the lighthouse’s ghosted memory. As for the lighthouse itself, it is hoped that the lantern will be reused to form part of a memorial structure on land across from the Ness on Orford Quay.

Not for the first time have iconic buildings world vanished overnight. The lighthouse’s destruction is, at least, planned and been a long time coming. Other well known places I have visited have met more violent ends – vicious executions rather than gentle euthanasia. I refer to some of these in a post on Palmyra from five years ago. Syria seems like a dream now; something I might have imagined. The reality is that the country I experienced as a welcoming place nearly twenty years ago has since become a land of nightmares.

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Going further back in time, it feels equally strange to recall having once spent several days in a hotel that overlooked the enormous sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. This was back in the halcyon days when the country was a way-station on the so-called Hippie Trail to India, long before the Taliban decided to blow the Buddhas up as blasphemous objects of idol worship (even then, the statues’ faces had already been disfigured by angry iconoclasts).

To continue a tally of Zelig-like appearances at places associated with doomed futures, I might also mention a visit to the World Trade Centre in New York on my first visit to the city in 1986 – of having once stood in a small room at the very top of the structure, a space that now existed as just a cube of empty sky above a disaster zone. Or a visit to a place that languished in a void between destruction and repair: Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still a broken city when I visited in 2003, the absence of its beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge hanging like a question mark above the rubble-filled turquoise of the River Neretva. The bridge was faithfully rebuilt with foreign investment and reopened in 2004. As beautiful as before but somehow sad and perhaps even futile, the reconstruction was a gesture of hope more than anything else — the Muslim east and Croat west banks of the river would remain as places apart in terms of religion, culture and political allegiance.

Less exotically, I also recall the cooling towers that used to stand next to the M1 in Tinsley, Sheffield – twin behemoths that could be seen from the windows of the school where I did my first teaching practice in the city. The towers, devoid of function since 1980, possessed a grace and heft that seemed to perfectly symbolise Sheffield’s industrial past (as did the abandoned steelworks of the Don Valley, which were eventually cleared to provide the land for the inevitable – a massive shopping complex, Meadowhall). Like the Orford lighthouse, and also the equally iconic cooling towers that stood at Ironbridge until last year, the Sheffield towers were finally expunged from the landscape. It took just seven seconds to reduce the 76 metre towers to rubble. For now, like the Orford lighthouse, they remain as a memory, a ghost of landscape that will fade with time.

About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
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17 Responses to To the Lighthouse

  1. paulharley says:

    I really enjoyed reading this, having spent a day out there about 3 years ago. It was so atmospheric for the reasons suggested in your article. More so perhaps because for about 2 hours thunderstorms circled us but fortunately did not strike us.
    I know about the forces of erosion on parts of the east coast. My parents had a caravan in Happisburgh at the end of Beach road (now a part of the bay)…they moved it to the site and the church tower loomed behind it. The site was moved inland last year. Who knows how long the lighthouse and church have there?
    I have visited Patara in Turkey many times over the last 20 years. There is an amazing archaeological site there. When I first visited, the amphitheatre was almost covered in sand – they have dug it out. They have also reconstructed a lighthouse and rebuilt the so called Lycian league assembly building. I’m not sure why; to better understand the past or possibly for tourist purposes (both perhaps). But the Lycian League building just looks wrong. The lighthouse is ok, perhaps because it is a bit of a way from the main complex.
    Thank you for this, it strikes many chords with me (including my own memories of the hippy trail in 1974).

    • Thanks, Paul. The Ness is certainly an atmospheric place – a thunderstorm could only add to the atmosphere. Of all the places in Norfolk where coastal erosion is rife, Happisburgh probably takes the biscuit. The lighthouse there is undoubtedly doomed although how many years it has left remains to be seen. I know Turkey really well, having been there at least 10 times over the years… but I don’t know Patara. Is that SW Turkey – that’s the part I know least? Anyway, I’m glad this post strikes chords with you – thanks for reading.

      • paulharley says:

        Yes, SW Turkey about an hour from Fetiye in ancient Anatolia. The village is Gelemis, about 1 1/2 miles from a spectacular beach. The ruins are between the beach and the village in a national park. Alexander the Great conquered it. Hadrian and St Paul passed through. St Nicholas was born there. The harbour silted up and the town was forgotten. Gelemis (aka Patara) is a little one horse town not ruined by tourism (IMO) and a very relaxing place to hang out and explore.

  2. I am very sorry for your lighthouse and for me it has always been a pleasure to come across one! Unfortunately other very precious monuments such as Palmyra are vanishing, for business interests or fanatical reasons. This world just gives me goosepimples. Many thanks for your touching post and best regards Martina

  3. Duncan Smith says:

    A very nice post that will resonate with many readers. I’ve never visited the lighthouse though I’m a fan of such structures (in this respect I can recommend “Lighthouse” by Tony Parker). I did visit Dunwich last year, which met a watery fate long ago. And I visited Palmyra just prior to the civil war. And I was born and raised in Sheffield. What a lot of memories this post has generated. Thank you Laurence.

    • Thank you, Duncan, and thanks too for the recommendation. You must have been in Palmyra a decade or so after me. It is an incredible place but so are many places in Syria – Krak de Chevaliers, Aleppo, Damascus. I really liked Dar-ez-Zor near the Iraqi border, which sadly went on to become one of the major urban centres of Islamic State. You know all about Sheffield of course – I have fond memories of my time in that city.

  4. Anne Guy says:

    Yes very sad to see my favourite lighthouse lose it’s battle with the elements. I love the Ness and always sat near the lighthouse to eat my sandwiches. Last time I visited in 2018 I sat nearby on the shingle bank as there was so little space at the base of the lighthouse. I wrote a blog a few years back about this remarkable place https://anneguygardendesigns.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/wildlife-and-weapons/
    I do hope to visit again next year, pending pandemic problems. Do keep your gravatar to keep its memory going!

  5. dobraszczyk says:

    It seems a shame to demolish it rather than just leave it for the sea. Being in places that later become ruins is a strange and unsettling experience – I was in Aleppo in 2009 and can’t even bring myself to look at photographs of the city now.

  6. A touching poignant post but there’s something about your lighthouse…that actually nature was going to get it anyway, and for once this wasn’t lost to human folly. Shame they couldn’t have left it there as a sort of strange tribute and a marker of the encroaching forces of nature. I guess that would have been dangerous and it would have collapsed pretty quickly.

    Sebaldian shore-shuffler – lovely phrase.

    • Thanks Alex. As you say, nature was going to get it anyway. I agree that it is a shame that it hasn’t been left to collapse more organically but I understand the safety concerns. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the lantern.

  7. Alan Nance says:

    Really enjoyed this poignant piece, Laurence. After many years of wanting to visit and walk this stretch of coast, I had finally made a plan to do so in July with a friend and fellow Sebaldian shuffler (lovely term), and I had also thought there might even be a chance of crossing paths with you beyond the virtual world. My travel plans were obviously scuppered by the pandemic. So when I do finally make it, the lighthouse will no longer be there, but your words will linger still. Stay well.

    • Many thanks for your kind words, Alan. Such a shame that you could not come here in July as planned. Whenever you do plan to return let me know in advance – I am sure we can organise some Sebaldian shuffling together either on the Suffolk/Norfolk coast or at the Ness itself – there’s much to explore beyond the lighthouse. As you suggest, it would be excellent to cross paths beyond the virtual world that we mutually inhabit. All the best.

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