I spent a lovely few days last weekend in Kent, and stayed on a caravan site just outside Hythe. As a very small child, my Dad worked in Hythe, and we lived five miles along the coast in Folkestone. So visiting this area of Kent always feels a little bit like coming home.
On Saturday afternoon with no fixed plan, we decided to venture off in a westerly direction, and found ourselves driving through New Romney, then across the vast expanse of shingle ridges, towards Dungeness, ending up of course at the famous Old Dungeness Lighthouse.
There has been a lighthouse at Dungeness since 1615, when a 35 ft high wooden tower with an open coal fire on top warned early mariners of the dangerous peninsular that reached out into the English Channel. In about 1635 a 110 ft high brick lighthouse was built, which stood for over a hundred years. The shingle banks continued to grow, and in 1790 it became necessary to build a third lighthouse. It was 116 ft high, fueled first by oil, and later petroleum, and the light was magnified by concave reflectors, which were later replaced by glass prisms. Over the years the longshore drift caused the shingle banks to increase so much that by 1901 a new and taller Lighthouse had to be commissioned. This fourth lighthouse, now known as the Old Dungeness Lighthouse, is nearly 150 ft high, and was opened by the Prince of Wales – later George V – in 1904. The light flashed every 10 seconds, and could be seen for approximately 18 miles, providing a clear signal to ships in the English Channel for 56 years. Despite having survived two world wars, during the construction of the Dungeness Nuclear Power station in the 1950’s, it became clear that the light would become obscured, and so the Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1960, and in 1961, yet another Lighthouse was opened. This 43 metre high, black and white striped lighthouse is still in operation, and has a flash of white light every 10 seconds, that is visible for 27 miles.
The black and white tower of the Old Dungeness Lighthouse, now a museum and major tourist attraction, is an imposing, solid-looking structure, of industrial Victorian architecture. Inside are a series of mezzanine floors made of slate and supported by massive steel beams, linked by spiral staircases with wrought iron banisters. It’s quite a climb, with a total of 169 steps, but there are windows on every level, and with the panoramic views from the top over the bleak shingle headland, is well worth the effort. On the second floor of the lighthouse is the Lens Room, with an impressive, almost artistic display of lenses.
On the fifth floor is the Great Lens, which weighs between two and three tons. It was balanced on a bed of mercury, and was kept revolving by a clock underneath, which had to be hand-wound every hour by the keeper on watch. The one million candle-power light could be seen for up to 20 miles. In good weather you can climb out onto the balcony that runs around the top of the lighthouse, and gaze out over the Dungeness National Nature Reserve, Romney March, and out across the English Channel.