Visitors are often surprised to discover that the landscape of Portland Bill is dominated by not one but three lighthouses within an area of less than one square mile. Sandbanks and strong currents (races) have always made this stretch of coast dangerous, particularly so in the past for vessels dependent on sails and lacking modern navigation aids. Early records refer to beacons being lit to warn approaching ships of the hazards.
Eventually, in 1716, two lighthouses were built – one at shore level and one on a hill a short distance away But in 1752 the lease on the lighthouses was terminated when inspectors judged that the lights were being inadequately maintained. In 1844 Trinity House erected a white stone obelisk as a daymark and in 1869 had both lighthouses rebuilt
In 1906 the new red and white lighthouse (pictured above) was built and the original two fell into disuse. The Old Lower Lighthouse was eventually converted into a bird observatory and field centre, and the Old Higher Lighthouse became the home of Marie Stopes, the pioneer of birth control. It has now been developed as a holiday let. All three lighthouses are Grade II listed buildings.
Old Lower Lighthouse
Old Higher Lighthouse
Because of the proliferation of rocks and islets the waters around the Isles of Scilly have always been hazardous to shipping, especially in the days of sailing ships when vessels were at the mercy of the winds. Waters were less well charted and navigational aids were limited in their effectiveness.
The first lighthouse on the Islands was built on St Agnes in 1680. It was coal fired until 1790 when it was converted to oil. It stands 23 metres tall and is located at the highest point of the Island, some 500 metres or so inland. It was eventually decommissioned in 1911 when the Peninnis lighthouse was built on St Mary’s. The St Agnes now stands as a quite prominent daymark.
The daymark on St Martin’s is a distinctive feature of the landscape and is very conspicuous with its red and white bands. It was erected in 1683 and is the earliest surviving dated beacon in the British Isles. It is 11 metres tall and stands at the edge of Chapel Down, overlooking the north east coast of the Island.
By far the most important lighthouse is Bishop Rock. Its importance to shipping approaching from the south west and, indeed, to those passing by on other busy routes, cannot be overestimated. It was built with great difficulty in the treacherous seas in 1858 and reaches a height of 44 metres above the mean high water mark. It is the second tallest lighthouse in Britain. It was capped with a helipad in 1976 and became fully automated in 1992. Its light flashes every 15 seconds and has a range of 20 nautical miles (37 km).