Lighthouse Coast


Lighthouse

Neil Oliver explores the extraordinary story of building Britain's most famous lighthouse on the perilous Eddystone rocks.


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Transcript


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I love lighthouses.

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In fact I'm an honorary member of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers.

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And get this. I'm now on my way to visit the location of the world's first offshore lighthouse.

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We've only got a very short weather window.

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It's going to be pretty tricky to get out there.

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That is fantastic!

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Right on the horizon there, there's the faintest grey line just sticking up a few millimetres, as it were.

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That is the Eddystone lighthouse.

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It's all very well from our 21st-century perspective.

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We know you can build lighthouses on rocks.

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But put yourself in the shoes of people 300 years ago

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when that idea was as outlandish as building a tower on the moon.

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When this lighthouse was opened in 1882 it was hailed as a miracle of engineering, and so it was.

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But believe it or not it's not that lighthouse I've come to see.

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It's the ones that were here before it.

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For centuries these rocks have sunk countless ships bound for Plymouth.

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With the great interest in maritime trade in the late-17th century,

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a way had to be found to protect ships from these foreboding rocks.

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Today, the strong southeasterly winds are making the approach to the lighthouse a wee bit tricky.

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But imagine having the nerve to build a lighthouse out here,

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300 years ago with only flimsy wooden rowing boats

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to transport tons of material and teams of builders.

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The man who did have the nerve to try this was one Henry Winstanley.

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He started building in 1696 and by 1699 he had completed his masterpiece.

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It had a stone foundation but it was mostly a wooden structure.

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Imagine a wooden tower out here in the face of these gales!

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Winstanley's confidence in his tower was unshakeable.

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He boasted, "I only wish that I may be in the lighthouse

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"in circumstances that will test its strength to the utmost."

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On the 26th November 1703, Winstanley's wish came true.

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That night, the biggest recorded storm to hit Britain

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devastated the entire country, claiming at least 8,000 lives.

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When people came out to this rock to see how he had fared, there was not a trace.

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Not of Winstanley, not of the lighthouse crew and not of the lighthouse.

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All they found was some twisted metal.

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Winstanley was gone.

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His light had kept sailors safe for over four years,

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but just two days after the lighthouse collapsed

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a ship struck the rock and sank with the loss of all hands.

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Another lighthouse was built, but it burnt down.

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So, the maritime authorities commissioned Yorkshireman

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John Smeaton to build a structure that would stand the test of time.

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And its stump still remains here.

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Now this was a huge step forward in lighthouse design.

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These blocks of granite are dovetailed together.

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They are like three-dimensional jigsaw pieces that all lock together.

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It entered service in October 1759.

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So effective was Smeaton's innovative design that it became the standard for lighthouses worldwide,

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and is still a template for today's lighthouse builders.

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Smeaton's lighthouse stood for 120 years before cracks appeared.

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Not in the tower, but on the rock below it.

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Such was the significance of Smeaton's lighthouse that the people of Plymouth paid for it

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to be taken down block by block and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe as a memorial to its designer.

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It stands there today as Plymouth's most famous landmark,

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a testament not only to Smeaton

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but to all of the pioneering lighthouse builders

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who gave their lives to save the lives of others.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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