THE LIZARD LIGHTHOUSE HERITAGE CENTRE IS WELL WORTH VISITING DUE TO ITS RICH NAUTICAL HISTORY AND ITS FASCINATING INTERACTIVE DISPLAYS
There’s something about a lighthouse, isn’t there? Standing tall and alone, isolated and imposing, often over a place of drama, a lighthouse represents safety, ingenuity and human frailty in the face of nature’s wrath. It also represents our maritime past. A traditional and lonely lifestyle from years gone by that’s still going on in the world’s most secluded spots right now. Yes, there’s something about a lighthouse alright. Especially one that guards the most southerly point of mainland Great Britain.
The Lizard Lighthouse, perched on the southernmost tip of the Lizard peninsula (the Lizard Point, basically!), further down and around the coast from both Kynance Cove and the village of Mullion, is a historical nautical structure for sure. In fact, the site itself dates back to 1619, when the second Governor of Pendennis Castle, Sir John Killigrew, raised a lighthouse here but his plan to raise tolls from passing ships failed pretty dismally and the building was demolished just a few years later.
The lighthouse we see today, which is basically two towers with some cottages between them alongside a few other whiter-than-white ancillary buildings, was erected on the same patch of cliffside more than 130 years later, in 1751. Wealthy landowner Thomas Fonnereau was behind the scheme and his fortunes fared much better than Sir John Killigrew’s did. Each tower that once featured a coal-fired brazier on top still stands. It looks as much today as it did all those years ago.
Fact: in the first 20 years of its life after 1751, the keeper used to live in a cottage between the two towers and he had to keep constant watch over both lanterns. If the bellows-blowers relaxed and the lights dimmed, the keeper would sound a cow horn to hasten the staff to stoke up the fires.
From those early days, manning the lights has become progressively easier. In 1811, oil lamps replaced the fires. In 1903, a rotating optic housed in the eastern tower forced the retirement of the western tower’s light. Electricity replaced oil in 1924. And finally, in 1998 the lighthouse became automated. All of those improvements came under the management of Trinity House, which is the lighthouse authority for England and Wales.
In 1771, Trinity House took over the running of the lighthouse, which is still operational and still provides a welcoming beacon to vessels crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and the organisation and charity continues to do so today. In fact, Trinity is behind the heritage centre part of this attraction, which it calls its ‘flagship visitor centre’. The centre first opened at the Lizard in 2009 and ever since it has been packed to the rafters with interactive displays, fascinating exhibits and historical artefacts alongside its bijou gift shop.
There are old engines on show in the renovated Engine Room (renovated thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, no less). Also inside, you can have a crack at building a giant lighthouse as tall as you are. Or you can learn how to send a message using Morse code or spell your name with semaphore. You can also learn more about navigation and see the results of nature’s fury in the shape of the storm-battered solid bronze entrance doors from Bishop Rock Lighthouse in the Isles of Scilly.
But, of course, the highlight at this attraction is the ‘high-light’ itself. You can climb to the top of the lighthouse and take in those breathtaking views over the ocean and around the craggy and battered headlands that make up Lizard Point. There are all sorts of history exhibits that detail not only the lighthouse over the years but one of the UK’s most treacherous stretches of water, which lies just off the shore here. There are also stories you can learn along the way about those local villagers who are said to have developed a taste for wrecking and looting.
Tours are also available at the unique coastal attraction. And once you’re done with the interactive displays and exhibits, the South West Coast Path runs along the cliffside in front of the lighthouse. Hike along this famous route for a few minutes to the west and you’ll come to the actual Lizard Point, a National Trust site and officially the most southerly point of mainland UK. That should cap off a fine afternoon of playing lighthouse keeper at one of the most iconic spots in Cornwall. For a day out that stands out like a beacon in an ocean of options around the Lizard, this is a lighthouse that has it all.