Flamborough Head’s position protruding into the North Sea makes it a natural location for providing guidance to passing shipping and transmitting messages along the coast, so the site may have been in use this way for nearly 2000 years. Some masonry that could have been part of a Roman beacon was discovered in the area along with Roman pottery, though the former was subsequently destroyed by quarrying.
Nowadays the promontory features a fog warning station as well as shiny white lighthouse which peers over the rooftops of nearby houses. Built in 1806 it operated successfully for 120 years before it was decided to raise the lantern. You can see where the additional section was inserted still.
But if we’re talking lighthouses and Flamborough Head there is a more historic column to view. Standing further back from the cliff edge and built on commission from Charles II in 1674 this octagonal tower is believed to be the nation’s oldest surviving lighthouse.
I stress “believed” because recent restoration work found no evidence of carbon or charring that would have been left by burning coal fires on the top. So what’s the story here?
We know that Sir John Clayton (who constructed this tower) was given permission to build a number of lighthouses around the country by the king… and that’s about it! There are stories that he intended to build three lights to guide ships around Flamborough and effectively hold them to ransom to give them safe passage.
Other stories say that this was only ever built as a watch tower, though given his royal commission, and the fact that there was a historical precedent for burning coal and/or brushwood here, it would seem lacking in initiative if there had never been plans to keep a fire burning on the top.
But what about the lack of evidence for this? Some stories claim that Clayton went bankrupt before the tower was ever completed, and this would certainly explain the lack of burning on top. You’d think though that someone else might have finished the job. Clearly those passing sailors weren’t stumping up much in tolls.
Something else struck me though. The Fog station and the new lighthouse are both painted brilliant white, matching the chalk from which the old tower is built. It makes them highly visible, but then the cliffs on which all of these structures stand are made from the same white stone. By day and by moonlight surely there was little need for further assistance, and perhaps this is why Clayton couldn’t raise the funds?
Just a thought.