Will 2020 be your last chance to visit the iconic Orford Ness lighthouse?

PUBLISHED: 17:16 08 January 2020 | UPDATED: 11:20 09 January 2020

Orfordness Lighthouse

Orfordness Lighthouse

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Time is running out for Orfordness lighthouse but the battle is on to save something of the engineering masterpiece forever | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want

If there's one must-do Suffolk outing this year, it's a trip to Orford. Climb to the top of the castle. Book a lunch or breakfast cruise aboard Lady Florence around Havergate Island.

Walk from quay to countryside. But whichever you choose, be sure to take your binoculars. The birdlife is brilliant off the shingle stretch of National Nature Reserve Orford Ness, and its haunting architectural reminders of military history are mind-blowing.

But there's something more pressing to focus on. Now is the time to take perhaps a last, lingering look at a Suffolk icon - Orfordness lighthouse.

There's nothing concrete about the lighthouse or its future, of course. Over the decades, the North Sea swell has been pulling the shingle beach-mat from under its redbrick feet at an average of four metres a year, occasionally giving it an almighty tug.

Orfordness LighthouseOrfordness Lighthouse

It's ironic - the very thing built in 1792 to guide mariners around the shifting sandbanks of the Aldeburgh Ridge and save souls from the perils of the waves, is at massive risk of soon meeting its own watery grave.

In the lofty lantern room, passionate Orfordness Lighthouse Trust (OLT) trustee and retired submarine commander Mark Finney puts his head above the cast-iron parapet and peers down through the great glass diamonds to point out the trust's proud handiwork below.

Since UK lighthouse provider Trinity House decommissioned the facility in 2013, selling it to Orford-based businessman Nick Gold, before it was transferred to the OLT, great geo-textile 'sausages' of shingle have kept the coastal erosion at bay.

These acceptable temporary defences within the Ness' environment as a Site of Special Scientific Interest have allowed the determined crew to pursue their mission of sharing the historic beacon for as long as they can, and to search for ways to preserve the lighthouse artefacts and uphold its legacy.

The 100ft central stone staircaseThe 100ft central stone staircase

"It might be an iconic building whose light once had a range of 24 nautical miles, but it doesn't serve any purpose anymore," says Mark.

He explains how 'monitored ruination' - abandoning it to the waves - is the preferred fate for the Grade II listed building, according to both Historic England and the National Trust who declined the option to take it on.

"Trinity House, however, would hate to see it fall over, so we've had some engineering support. They have been very kind to us."

Mark freely admits that seeing the lighthouse go will bring great personal sadness, but there's a deep-down acceptance in his voice.

Mark Finney, retired submariner and Orfordness Lighthouse Trust memberMark Finney, retired submariner and Orfordness Lighthouse Trust member

Whether or not there's time to somehow whisk away the lantern room, strip out the central staircase and take down the 30 metre tower, brick by Suffolk red brick, its final sunrise is on the near horizon.

Yet behind the angst, one bright idea has been a guiding light that has helped the trust's team hold doggedly fast.

It's only when you put aside the peripheral passions linked with our inexplicable love for a red and white, one-time life-saving local landmark, and look a little deeper at its make-up, its history and true purpose, that it all seems to make sense.

Orfordness lighthouse is an amazing beacon in more ways than one, a solid feat of engineering on a highly unstable landscape, designed by the Wilkins family who also gave us the National Portrait Gallery and Bury's Theatre Royal.

Separate voice pipes for pincipal keeper and assistant keeper.Separate voice pipes for pincipal keeper and assistant keeper.

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It's a life-saver fuelled over time by oil, gas, electric and, in the 1960s, at the cutting edge of totally automated lighthouse systems.

Its keepers led a segregated life, set apart not only by their station, but by separate doors and staircases, with even the cellar firmly divided.

And only a relatively few fit and fortunate folk, other than generations of Trinity House engineers and keepers, have been party to the steampunk-style artistry of the lamp and lantern rooms - curved, polished, wooden cupboards, beautiful brass banister rails and fine balustrades, bronze rivets, pins and plaques by whistle-blowing voice-pipes. It's like something out of a Jules Verne novel.

Whether 30 metres in the air, 20,000 leagues under the sea or somewhere on dry land, it's more than just cast-iron craftsmanship at its finest. No wonder Mark is so passionate about the place.

The lighthouse survives - just - among the fragile natural environment and remnants of the Ness' more recent military historyThe lighthouse survives - just - among the fragile natural environment and remnants of the Ness' more recent military history

"If we can take it down, we could build a smaller replica nearby, opposite Orford Quay. A working museum which shares the salvaged artefacts if you like, a reception area for visitors to the Ness."

The great Fresnel lens which concentrated the light into a pencil beam was removed by Trinity House at the time of decommissioning, to a resting place in the entrance hall of a national maritime building.

"They've said that the lens can come back if we have the facility," enthuses Mark.

That alone was four tons of kit, but removing and saving the massive cast-iron lantern room structure, added when the Victorians extended the lighthouse, is surely a weightier challenge.

The curved store cabinetsThe curved store cabinets

"A Chinook helicopter can lift eight to nine tons and we estimated it at ten."

Mark points to a band around the base of the ironwork. "We had to jack it up and use load cells to get a better idea. They're like scales on steroids!" The conclusion? "Fourteen tons. Even the bridge over Stony Ditch on the Ness will only take up to 15."

There follows a not wholly unserious diversion into the realm of boys' toys - talk of a barge with a dream crane, "like a big Meccano set".

When borrowed time is ticking, all options warrant consideration, especially when the trust's assumptions and expectations - as well as the bungalow next to the lighthouse - were undermined by a storm surge in late September this year.

A view from the lantern room showing the ornate, umbrella head guard railsA view from the lantern room showing the ornate, umbrella head guard rails

With the lantern room and artefacts removed, like the 1796 entrance hall plaque, made in Eleanor Coade's London factory alongside Westminster Bridge's famous stone lion, it could require a "Fred Dibnah approach" to get the tower to fall the right way.

So much to save, so much to lose and so little time. So, go and wave goodbye with one hand - put the other behind your back, and cross your fingers.

Orfordness Lighthouse Trust says visits to the lighthouse in 2020 will depend entirely on how it fares over winter and will not be announced until April once winter storms have diminished. Email orfordnesslighthouse@gmail.com for updates. Orfordnesslighthouse.co.uk

NT Orford Ness allows public access to the nature reserve on certain days between April and October (five minute boat ride from Orford Quay). Dogs are not permitted. nationaltrust.org.uk

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