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Orford Lighthouse Tour,
5 September 2014

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Clinging to the very shore of the shingle spit of Orford Ness, the present lighthouse is in a precarious position – attempts to save it are being undermined by the natural effects of long shore drift, but also the policy of the National Trust, which owns the Ness.

That is the view of the lighthouse’s present owner, and our guide, Nicholas Gold, who acquired the lighthouse and its associated buildings with the aim of preserving it as long as possible. “I bought it because I feel strongly that the National Trust’s idea of allowing it to collapse into the sea is scandalous. The lighthouse is a unique part of our heritage and the landscape of the coast.”

Several people on the tour had come because they thought it might be a last chance to see the lighthouse before it either falls, or is dismantled. Among them a retired geographer, who painted views of it from nearby Shingle Street. “Although I worked at one time for the Suffolk Heritage Coast, my status as a civil servant didn’t qualify me to visit the lighthouse,” then operational and in the hands of Trinity House. “It’s a great privilege to come here now not least because it affords a spectacular view of the Ness.” He pointed out to my uneducated eye the waving pattern of shingle that identifies the drift North to South of the shingle bank. “If they wanted to save it they could; you’d need to put in a bulwark not here, but further up the coast at Covehithe,” he explained.

It was hard to appreciate the destructive potential of the the waves. Seen from that height the calm sea was welcoming, a great grey silk sheet thrown out in slow motion across the shingle bed.

There have been lighthouses on Orford Ness since the seventeenth century. Originally two static lights, it was reduced to one revolving light in the Victorian era. The basic structure of the present building dates to 1792, and is full of unlikely decorative elements that recall a time when even utility buildings were detailed. The casement window catches, conical, crenulated brass, are distinctly maritime; a curved oak display case, Sheraton revival, hugs the wall, and round sectioned handrails on the steep, curving steps to the lantern, terminate in a scroll conjuring a sea serpent’s head.

It may be inevitable that we will lose the lighthouse, even with spirited people like Nicholas Gold stepping in to attempt to save it. In the face of the sea’s relentless reshaping of the shoreline, the likely future seems to be salvage – the optics are already destined for museums abroad. But one other possibility was hinted: deconstruction and rebuilding on a more permanent site nearer the town. Unlikely as that outcome seems, it may yet be a prescient idea, awaiting another 500 years when the Ness has moved south to Essex and returned Orford to its position as a sea-facing port again.

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