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THE SECRETS OF THE EAST BANK LIGHTHOUSE

March 2016 AGM


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.


 

Shoreham And District
Historical Society
Affiliated to
The Shoreham Society
The Kent History Federation and
The Kent Archaeological Society

Design By
Amanda

Last Updated

November 14, 2016

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Shoreham And District Historical Society