Britain is an island. We are surrounded by sea. Nowdays, you can get here by plane, or by train through the Channel Tunnel. But before planes were invented, and the Channel Tunnel was built, the only way to come to Britain was by sea.
The seas around Britain can be very dangerous. The Romans, who conquered England in 43 AD, knew this. They built lighthouses at Dover in England and Boulogne in France to guide ships across the Channel. However, the lighthouses fell into disuse after the Romans left at the beginning of the 5th century. For hundreds of years, the seas around Britain were completely dark at night. There was nothing to help sailors find their way, or to warn them of dangers.
Among the most dangerous rocks around our coast are the Eddystone Rocks. They lie about 14 kilometers from the shore of south-west England, in other words at exactly the place where ships crossing the Atlantic reach England. Over the centuries, hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Eddystone Rocks and thousands of sailors have lost their lives.
Now let us meet a man called Henry Winstanley. He was born in 1644, and as a young man he became interested in architecture and engineering. Later he became a merchant, and bought five ships. Within a few years, two of the ships had been wrecked on the Eddystone Rocks. He asked the government why nothing was done to protect ships from the rocks. The government said that the rocks were far too dangerous and too far from land to build a lighthouse there. “Nonsense,” replied Henry Winstanley. “I will build a lighthouse there myself”.
And he did. He started work in 1696. However, England and France were at war, and the following year a French ship arrived at the rocks and took Winstanley and his men back to France as prisoners. The French King, Louis XIV, ordered that they should be released immediately. “I am at war with England, not with humanity”, he said.
In November 1698, the lighthouse was ready. It was built of stone and wood, and candles provided the light at the top of the lighthouse. During the first winter, it was damaged by a storm, but Winstanley repaired it and made it stronger. Winstanley’s lighthouse was the first lighthouse anywhere in the world to be built on a rock far out at sea. During the next five years, its little light sent its warning to passing ships, and not a single ship was wrecked on the Eddystone Rocks.
In November 1703, however, a great storm struck southern England. It completely destroyed the lighthouse. Winstanley himself was in the lighthouse at the time, supervising some repairs, and he was killed.
There is a lighthouse on the Eddystone Rocks today. It is the fourth lighthouse on the rocks, and it has kept sailors safe since 1882. Until 1982, a lighthouse keeper lived in the lighthouse to maintain and operate the light. It must have been the loneliest job in England. Today the lighthouse runs automatically. A maintenance crew visit occasionally by helicopter. It is very different from Winstanley’s wood and stone lighthouse, with candles to warn ships to keep away from Eddystone.