The World’s Strangest Lighthouse
Lighthouses are always deeply symbolic buildings and one example, on the south coast of England, is the rarest of all.
Lighthouses are both beacons and all their own metaphors. They’re lights to illuminate the darkness of night, to show the way in the midst of a storm, and their utilitarian side is always intermingled with their nobility, and an echo of the stories of sailors. By antonomasia, they are altruistic buildings, “built only to serve,” as George Bernard Shaw once put it. And their appearance is almost always the same —a tower with a light at the top. But there’s a lighthouse in Somerset, England, characterized by its rarity and originality, and which has become a destination for locals and tourists who stroll the shores of the Bristol Channel.
Known as the Low Lighthouse or the “Lighthouse on Legs,” this rare specimen is one of three lighthouses in the small coastal town of Burnham-on-Sea, near the Parrett River estuary, and it’s the only one that still works. Standing at some 11 meters high on nine wooden pillars, it’s made of wood, and looks like an odd shed, adorned with a strong, vertical red line.
Strange and rigid, unlike others of its kind, this lighthouse seems not to fit in with its landscape. Its beacon emits a flash of light every 0.75 seconds, and a red or green directional light, depending on one’s orientation. Built in 1832 by Joseph Nelson, a renowned engineer of the time, its purpose was to guide ships through the Bristol Channel, a difficult area to navigate due to the ever-changing sandbanks and notable variations in the tides.
This current lighthouse replaced an older one whose visibility was insufficient. It was abandoned from 1969 until 1993, when a taller lighthouse that had been used in the area was sold. The strange lighthouse today not only serves to guide boats, but it’s also a guide for those who walk the beach. When the tide is low, it’s still possible to approach and enjoy its unique presence.
The writer Carlos Monsiváis called lighthouses the “eyes of the night” and this English lighthouse, still standing, seems to pay homage, luminous and original, to all the other lighthouses in history. Although in some danger of extinction, they continue to illuminate the paths of those who visit the beach, and those who sail the sea.
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