During the half-term week I had a tour of Southwold Lighthouse, and there were a lot of interesting facts that I thought were worth capturing in case I ever want to write a story featuring a lighthouse. So here they are.

Southwold Lighthouse

Southwold Lighthouse is a late nineteenth century lighthouse, one of the later ones built on the East coast of England. It was deliberately built inland, on top of a hill right on the Northern edge of the town of Southwold. Of course it’s now in the middle of town, opposite the Adnam’s brewery.

With the lighthouse automated there’s no documentation. (Photo: James Kemp)

The lighthouse started with an oil burning lamp, which was upgraded to electricity in the early 20th century. In the early 21st century it has been upgraded to using LED lights and fully automated operations. There’s a central control that oversees Southwold Lighthouse. So the only people visiting are the tour guides and the tourists.

Spotting Southwold Lighthouse

Every lighthouse has its own unique setting. Southwold has a two second flash every ten seconds. It’s the unique pattern that lets mariners determine their position. The other nearby lighthouses all use different patterns.

Weights in Southwold Lighthouse that used to control the light pattern (photo: James Kemp)

In the early days there used to be a clockwork mechanism, powered by weights, that covered and uncovered the light (see the picture). The current setup in Southwold Lighthouse uses rotating LEDs, so the light doesn’t actually go on and off. It’s directional and the gaps when it turns give the impression of a flashing light.

Seeing the Light

The stairs winding up the open well inside the tower of Southwold Lighthouse. (Photo: James Kemp)

The top of the lighthouse is 30 metres above sea level. It’s built on a hill overlooking Southwold Pier. Inside there are well over 100 steps taking you to the top of the lighthouse. Most of these are in the hollow well of the tower, 92 steps wind round the open edge to take you up to the lighthouse keeper’s room. In the days when the light was manned this is where the keeper ensured that there was fuel for the light, and that everything was working correctly. Now it’s just a useful platform most of the way up for the tour guide to talk to the visitors.

Alexander points out the stairs to the top from the Keeper’s room (photo: James Kemp)

On a clear day the horizon is 12 miles away. The beam is rated to be viewed from up to 24 miles. It seems counterintuitive at first. However most ships will have their bridge mounted high. So they’ll be able to see the light even when the bottom of their hull is over the horizon. I thought this was a good bit of design.

Evolution of Light

Up in the light room we could see the setup. There are relics of the old way of working, partly as a backup, but mostly for us tourists. In the early days the lights weren’t as bright, so there are prisms mounted round the light to concentrate it so that it can be seen further away. The modern light actually sits above this apparatus because it doesn’t need it. However there is a backup lightbulb underneath just in case. One of the things that the tour guide told us was that in the early days of electric light the bulbs used to be sent back to the factory when they went. Two women worked in the factory to replace the filaments. Soemone didn’t plan properly though, and both women retired on the second day and the lighthouses of Britain needed to switch to disposable lightbulbs.

View from the top

View of Southwold Pier from the top of Southwold Lighthouse (photo: James Kemp)

I couldn’t take many pictures from the top of the lighthouse because I was the last of the party up the stairs and there wasn’t room to squeeze past people. However I did take a picture of Southwold Pier.

George Orwell spent some time living in Southwold, this mural shows some of his quotes. (Photo: James Kemp)