Given its naturally slim landmass, Cornwall's connection to the sea is integral to its identity and its coastline and beaches are world famous. For the most part this conjures up an image of ice-cream and paddling, surf, sun and tasty fish dishes but here, no less than in other parts of the world, the sea is a fickle and unpredictable neighbour. The rugged coastline and the outlying reefs, which often lurk just below the surface of the water, have always been hazardous to passing vessels, of which there are many. Stormy weather, combined with powerful currents and tides, has brought many a ship and crew to grief, forcing them closer and closer to the perilous shore.
Though coastal communities are renowned for having profited from the spoils of such tragedies, sometimes allegedly sending false signals from clifftops to lure ships to their doom, the call for some form of protection was intense, especially in times before accurate sea charts or any of the sophisticated navigational equipment available nowadays. During the day, church towers and the like would often serve as navigational landmarks, but at night, save for moonlight and stars and the odd lit beacon on a hilltop or tower, ships’ crews were basically blind.
Lighthouses, therefore, were a godsend to sailors. Not only would they warn of dangerous stretches of water, but their individual signals allowed their location to be determined. Originally they were little more than coal fires atop towers, but as technology progressed they became oil fuelled lamps, then bulbs dependent on electricity generators and, now entirely automatic and unmanned, some are even fuelled by solar power.
Some were originally private ventures, their owners intent on recouping their investment by levying charges on passing, grateful, ships. In time, these would pass into the hands of the national lighthouse organisation of Trinity House to join the others that it had built itself. Now Trinity House controls most Cornish lighthouses from its nerve centre in Essex. Some of the beacons have become visitor centres, with displays recounting the history of lighthouses, and others have seen their keepers’ accommodation transformed into unique holiday cottages.
In Cornwall, there are nine lighthouses dotted around the coast, notwithstanding those perched at the end of harbour piers in Penzance, St Ives and Newlyn. Some are onshore and some stand precariously on rocks out to sea. In clockwise order, from the south Cornish coast just below the Devon border, they are: