THE SECRETS OF THE EAST BANK LIGHTHOUSE
At the annual general meeting on 18 March Doug Hilton of Shoreham
spoke on 'Secrets of the East Bank Lighthouse', one of a pair
of lighthouses built in 1830 where the River Nene flows into
the Wash. Doug and his wife Sue bought the lighthouse in 2011.
The Nene is one of the tidal rivers draining the Fens, and the
first three miles, as far as the docks at Sutton Bridge, are
regularly used by shipping. Finding the entrance to the river
across sandbanks in the Wash is tricky, and to guide ships the
East Bank Lighthouse and its companion on the West Bank have
a unique design, hexagonal at the top with a stationary light
that points towards the safe channel through a large round window
and points away at an angle through a half window at the side.
If the approaching ship can see the light in both round windows
it is in the channel, but if it can see either of the side windows
it is off course. Pilots used these 'leading lights' to triangulate
their position. The lighthouses were also unusual in that they
were designed as residences for families associated with the
River Nene navigation authority. Censuses and old photographs
show a number of families in residence over the years. It was
an isolated and uncomfortable place to live, without water and
miles from any shop. When the lighthouse authority, Trinity
House, tried to acquire the lighthouses by compulsory purchase
the navigation authority successfully resisted their claim by
describing them as residential ornamental gatehouses, not lighthouses.
The East Bank Lighthouse has been described as the most iconic
building in the history of conservation. Peter Scott, the son
of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, came across it in derelict
state in 1933, aged 25, when he was wildfowling in the Wash.
He purchased it, set about making repairs and adding a studio.
To fund the work he exhibited paintings at Ackermann's in London
and published his first books, Wild Chorus and Morning Flight.
In the following years, until he was called up in the War, he
underwent a conversion from wildfowler to global conservationist
and started to collect tame birds in the ponds around the lighthouse.
His friend Paul Gallico based the The Snow Goose (1940) on life
in the lighthouse, although moving its location to the Essex
marshes for purposes of the story. The army requisitioned the
lighthouse for a gun emplacement, but while that did not happen
the building was left a ruin again after the war. To provide
more farmland the sea wall had been moved forward depriving
the lighthouse of its ponds. Scott could not see living there
again and moved to Slimbridge in Gloucestershire where he established
the famous wetland reserve, founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands
Trust, and became a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund
for which he designed the panda logo.
East Bank Lighthouse was next leased by a Mr Gandy as a holiday
home and the porous brickwork was rendered in an attempt to
keep out damp. After his death and another period of dereliction
the next owner was David Joel, a retired naval commander who
did much work of restoration before selling it to the Hiltons.
Unfortunately the year after their purchases the render cracked
and fell off in a severe storm, and the porous bricks were soaked
through. The Hiltons found that 'Roman' cement, as used in the
restoration of Hadlow tower, would provide a more enduring render,
although its quick setting properties made it a challenge to
use on a large, sloping, curved building. The lighthouse now
looks wonderful from the outside with its gleaming white render,
but the interior is still drying out.
Although it is not yet ready to be opened regularly to the
public, the lighthouse is a place of pilgrimage for conservationists,
often walking the Peter Scott coastal trail to Kings Lynn. There
is now running water from a pipe serving nearby cattle troughs,
but the shops are still three miles away. The views from the
upper rooms are remarkable, particularly the sunsets. There
are tame birds in the garden and will be more when a pond is
restored. In the winter large flocks of wild birds arrive. It
is a delight to watch ships coming up the river to Sutton Port
and occasionally Wisbech, the largest sailing backwards because
the river is too narrow to turn. And the lantern, on a timer,
is still lit every night.