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Interesting England: Somerset - a History of the Lighthouses of Burnham-on-Sea

I love to investigate the history and geography of my home town, my area and my country, England, as well as other parts of Britain.

The Bristol Channel

Burnham-on-Sea is just south of Weston-super-Mare, on the North/South coastline

Burnham-on-Sea is just south of Weston-super-Mare, on the North/South coastline

Victims of a Storm

Wrecked in a storm, Wood that once held Bones

Wrecked in a storm, Wood that once held Bones

Safety at Sea, Safe at Home

One day long, long ago, a fisherman readied his boat to face the treacherous waters of the Bristol Channel. A storm was brewing. He said goodbye to his wife as usual and headed off to meet his crew. The sea never gave up its harvest without a struggle but this trip would be perilous. The tides around Burnham-on-Sea were fickle, the currents surged and swirled and the fisherman had to keep his wits about him, even such an experienced one as he.

His wife was uneasy. The storm increased throughout the afternoon and into the night. The wind whipped up the waves, the spray came over the sea wall close to her house. She feared for her husband and his crew but they had to earn a living, no choice but to go if they were to provide well for their wives and children.

In furious waters, with no guiding light, ships frequently ran aground and were smashed to pieces. She had seen the evidence of a ship’s skeleton on Berrow Beach.

A Solution

She couldn’t just sit and wait for him to come home. Would he come home? Would the following morning bring the knock at the door and the news she dreaded every time a storm churned the waves to grey and brown mud?

How would those men find the shore, how could they turn their boat in the right direction, steer it round the rocks and the mud-banks when the seas tossed them high and drenched them low?

She had to do something.

It might not make a difference but she had to try. She went to the pantry. She took several precious candles from the store, lit one and set it at the upstairs window looking over the sea. It flared well, its light straight and steady; no draughts snuffed it.

Sailing Home by Candlelight

a Candle to Guide the Fishermen Home

a Candle to Guide the Fishermen Home

Success - and a Job!

The candle saved the lives of her husband and his crew; she was asked to continue the practice. To confirm the importance of her actions, she was later paid by the Rev. David Davies.

In 1801 the Reverend built the 'Little Round Tower' after repeated requests to provide a higher light and therefore better aid to navigation in the bay, in particular for the entrance to the River Parrett leading to the then busy port of Bridgwater. It was a circular brick building with a castellated parapet from which a light, probably a coal-burning grate, was exhibited. The building, now a private residence, can still be seen behind St Andrew's Church, close to Burnham sea front.

Following the endeavours of the fisherman’s wife, Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for England and Wales, granted the Rev. Davies a licence to erect his lighthouse and then, in 1813, granted him a 100 year lease. This entitled him to collect dues in the sum of three shillings, from all coastal vessels passing the light. In 1829 the ownership of the lighthouse passed to Trinity House, which left the Rev. Davies £13,681.17s 3d better off!

The Little Round Tower

The first designated Lighthouse, now a private residence

The first designated Lighthouse, now a private residence

Highlights & Lowlights

Burnham-on-Sea’s lighthouses have had a chequered history. On New Year’s Eve 1993 the Low Lighthouse on Burnham Beach was recommissioned, marking a new beginning for the Low Light after more than twenty years of inactivity but sadly redundancy for the High Lighthouse which provided a vital service for many years.

Burnham-on-Sea is on the stretch of Somerset coast where the estuary of the River Parrett, coming down from Bridgwater, opens up to meet the Bristol Channel.

These are treacherous waters, full of undercurrents, not helped by the mud-flats and shifting sands which you can see exposed at low tide if you look across from Burnham promenade to Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. The coast leads northwards to Berrow and Brean, also with dangerous shifting sands, finally stopping dramatically at Brean Down before the Axe estuary which separates this little promontory from Weston-super-Mare.

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Visitors and locals alike cannot fail to notice the unusual sights of the High and Low lighthouses of Burnham-on-Sea; the lofty majesty of the 99 foot white ‘Pillar’ tower inland and the quaint nine-legged 'beach-hut' structure on the sand.

These two lighthouses were built and inaugurated in 1832 - Burnham High and Low lights, designed by Joseph Nelson.

& its Low Light

the Low Light on the beach

the Low Light on the beach


The High Light was constructed of brick and granite, the tower being glazed only on the seaward side; as the tower was placed some distance inland the light was not required to be visible from all directions. It has eight floors, including the entrance floor and the lantern floor. Circular stairs used to wind round the inner walls; these were removed and replaced by six metal ladders - it was a strenuous climb to the lantern, but worth every step for the breathtaking view from the balcony over the bay and beyond.

Unfortunately, access was difficult due to the physical danger involved in such a climb. The building was purchased privately and is now used as holiday accommodation.

The Low Light is a picturesque square wooden building which stands on nine huge oak stilts, providing little resistance to any water and therefore remaining undamaged by the sea. The southern and western sides of the tower have square windows through which the light is visible. Steps aid access to the rear; these, having been removed due to incessant vandalism, are now back in place. Standing at the high water mark, each of the tower's nine legs is sunk sixteen feet into the sand, leaving the building to stand at a height of 36 feet.


Line up the Stripes, from Low to High

Line up the Stripes, from Low to High

the Extra Stripe on the concave sea wall

the Extra Stripe on the concave sea wall

Line Them Up!

The High Light used a flashing mechanism, whereas the Low Light showed continuous fixed white and red lights.

By using these two lighthouses, carefully placed, the exact bearing of the deep water channel into the Parrett estuary could be located. A vessel would line up the lights one above the other to show the entrance to the channel. In daylight, the same principle can be applied by lining up the broad vertical red stripes on both towers.

Observant visitors will notice a further stripe on the sea wall in the town, which lines up with one light on a lamp post on the prom and another at the top of St Andrew's Church tower.

With the coming of electricity to Burnham in 1927 the paraffin vapour lamps were made redundant and replaced by a 1000 watt electric bulb. This also meant that automation was possible - Burnham High Light was the first English lighthouse to function entirely without keepers and one of the earliest unmanned lighthouses in the world.

In 1969 a 'sector' light was installed beneath the main lantern. In addition to the flashing white light this provided a light of three colours - green, white and red - all of which used together could provide shipping with the correct bearing for the deep water channel. The sector light made the Low Light obsolete and it was therefore discontinued in 1969. However, it was recommissioned in 1993 and is a Grade I listed building.

Cottages & Coat of Arms

The two cottages at the base of the High Light were originally built for the lightkeepers; these are now private residences. Indeed, one was occupied by the same owner from 1927 until at least 1994! Over the years, an attendant kept the lighthouse in good working order, attending regularly to the light and maintaining the building, until its sale.

Sadly the High Light too has now become obsolete, as sophisticated satellite and radar navigation systems have replaced the flashing light and the 1000 watt navigation beam is no longer needed. Trinity House put the Grade II listed landmark up for sale.

Sedgemoor District Council has recommissioned the Low Light as an additional aid to navigation. The nine-legged landmark is an attraction in itself, being used in the town's coat of arms, local signs and literature, and much photographed by walkers and reproduced by local artists. When it received a ‘make-over’ a few years ago, a total of 50 litres of Cuprinol opaque wood finish was used to protect the structure from the elements!

Burnham & its Sea Living Together

The sea has provided Burnham with all its prominent features, the latest of which is the massive and splendid sea-wall, built after the devastating storm which whipped the high tides over the defences and into the town in 1981. In 1994 the coastline was battered by unusual storms, high tides and hurricane force winds; the sea-wall proved its worth then and many times since. The tidal range here is 13 metres, the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world.

Burnham and the sea have learnt to live together - the responsibility for the continuation and upkeep of the Low Lighthouse now rests with the town, the High Lighthouse is maintained yearly. Both High and Low Lights have provided safety for sailors and ships as well as wealth from dues and tourists; their continued preservation is an important part of the area's heritage and progressing history.

Stunning Sunsets, Swirling Storms & Guiding Lights

On a clear summer's evening the view from Burnham sea-front is peaceful and the sea is mirror calm. Go at sunset and you will see some spectacular skies. You would not recognise, however, the same scene on a stormy winter's day, when the waves roar and brown waters swirl with mud. These are the elements from which the townsfolk are protected by the sea wall and those at sea by the guiding lights.

Skies & Shipwrecks

Sunset on Stilts

Sunset on Stilts

Shipwrecked on the Sands of Time

Shipwrecked on the Sands of Time

Guiding Lights

Highlight, Lowlight,

shining, guiding,

in times gone by both built to save.

Treacherous channel

‘tween the mudflats,

ships afloat on stormy waves.

Highlight lofty

midst the houses,

Lowlight squat on nine oak staves.

Partners once,

their constant vigil

offered a welcome sailors craved.

Friendly Lowlight

stood redundant

on the sand, performed its best.


new High power

stretched its eye o’er roof and nest.

Now the Highlight’s


candle snuffed out, put to rest.

Once again

the Lowlight burns bright,

new white coat with red striped chest.

Both protectors

now protected,

Burnham’s lights survive the test.

Sources - Wikimedia Commons

Does your town or local environment have a Lighthouse?

© 2014 Ann Carr


Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on July 13, 2018:

I will do that for sure, Ann. I want to visit Europe in the summer, so at this point it looks like next year.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on July 13, 2018:

Also, Chris, do let me know if and when you are in this area.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on July 13, 2018:

I'm blown away by your comment, Chris. Thank you.

Yes, I do know the area well but it also helps that I come from a sea-faring family and being brought up on the south coast of England, on the English Channel, as I was, then the sea and its various vessels were always close. I've just moved round the coast a bit!


Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on July 11, 2018:

I saw the words, Burnham-on-Sea and immediately knew this was an annart article. Writing like this is so rare..."How would those men find the shore, how could they turn their boat in the right direction, steer it round the rocks and the mud-banks when the seas tossed them high and drenched them low?" Only someone personally familiar with the setting could write like that. I enjoyed the story, the history and the poem. I'm writing more poetry now and notice the quality of certain writers more than ever. This hub is particularly meaningful to me, Ann, and you know why. Thanks for such a full description. I hope to see it in person one day soon.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on July 11, 2018:

That's interesting Barrie. Thanks for reading and commenting. I live at the south end of town near the sea front. Do let me know if you have any more history of the building.


Barrie Smith on July 11, 2018:

I live in one of the lighthouse keepers cottages mention in the article, originally only 4 rooms, each 12 foot square, it is now much extended but the core is still the original cottage

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on April 27, 2018:

Hello James. What an interesting story. There is a Wesley connection, albeit tenuous, with me too - my sister lived in Epworth, the home of John Wesley, for many years!

Thank you for stopping by to read and for leaving your valuable input.


James, Cambridgeshire, England on April 27, 2018:

Thanks, Ann. I enjoyed your article very much. I have a special interest, being distantly related to Joseph Nelson, who designed and built the two Burnham lighthouses (and numerous others round the coast of England and Wales). I'm a direct descendant of his grandfather John Nelson, an early Methodist preacher and friend of the Wesleys. Both Joseph and his grandfather started as stonemasons in Birstall, Yorkshire, then made their mark in other ways.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on July 29, 2016:

Yes, Chris, it was the setting for that story challenge. I love lighthouses too and the house we're renovating is in Burnham, so I'm going back there to live - can't wait!

Thanks for reading.


Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on July 28, 2016:

I just ran across your article. I do believe this was the setting for my story, Sudden Storm, I entered in your challenge using the painting of the little girl standing, looking out to sea. I love lighthouses.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 02, 2014:

Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Wednesday-Elf. How great to be married in a Lightkeeper's cottage! Lighthouses are fascinating buildings, aren't they?

Good to see you here.

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on October 02, 2014:

I very much enjoyed reading about your Burnham-on-Sea Lighthouses. I live just down the road from a lighthouse - the Tybee Island Light on Tybee Island, Georgia). I'm fascinated with all lighthouses, especially the one on Tybee. In fact, our daughter was married in the Lightkeeper's cottage at the Tybee Lighthouse.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 16, 2014:

Thank you, teaches. It's good to see you and I'm glad you enjoyed this. All the best. Ann

Dianna Mendez on March 16, 2014:

I love lighthouses. We do have one near the beach, but it is best to visit during the winter months due to the building of heat during the day. Your post is so interesting and thank you for sharing the history of the lighthouses. Very lovely!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 06, 2014:

DDE: Thank you for reading. I'm glad I've enlightened you! I appreciate your visit and your comments. Ann

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 06, 2014:

I always wondered about the lighthouse and it is no more a mystery to me. An excellent write up here voted up, useful, and interesting.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 05, 2014:

Thank you so much, Mel. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Ann

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 05, 2014:

Fascinating facts about lighthouses I wasn't aware of. Thank you for doing this splendid research!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 05, 2014:

Thank you Graham; so good to see you again.

I lived in this town for a number of years and I always like to research the local area as there's always some fascinating history to be learnt and passed on. I'm only a few miles further down the coast now, in Bridgwater.

Thanks so much for reading and for the votes. Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 05, 2014:

Thanks Beth. Yes, that woman was a real pioneer through her care and her wish to protect others. Amazing where little acts can lead!

I greatly appreciate your visit and your input. Ann

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on March 05, 2014:

Hi annart. What a cracking hub. So well researched, your photographs added so much. There is such a personal touch to it. Well done.

voted up and all.


Beth Eaglescliffe on March 04, 2014:

This is a fascinating read. I love the way that one woman's concern for her husband's safe homecoming became a beacon of light that probably saved thousands of lives over the following years.

Lots of great information in this hub. Voted up.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 04, 2014:

always exploring: Thank you for such lovely comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the story and the poem, all based on fact.

I love sharing information about this lovely area; there's so much to see and so much history. Ann

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 04, 2014:

This was very interesting. I loved the story of the fisherman's wife lighting a candle to guide him home safely. Your poetry is beautiful too. Thank you for sharing your stories of England...

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 04, 2014:

Romeos Quill: Thanks for your kind comments and thanks also for bringing that to my attention - I had no idea it was in the top 10!! Amazing!

I appreciate you stopping by, as always. Ann

Romeos Quill from Lincolnshire, England on March 04, 2014:

Congratulations on having your Hub article placed in the top ten featured list Ann! Your lighthouse is burning bright here, and its good and encouraging to know that an inclusive piece of poetry has made it into the top ten considerations also.

Have a lovely evening;


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 04, 2014:

Thank you so much, Faith. I believe they are 'High' and 'Low' just because one is high inland, the other low on the beach. I've never heard of high or low lights being anywhere else.

It was fun doing this and was a re-make of an old article so it didn't take as long as it could have! The poem was done years ago too. I used to live just along from this beach and it was a regular walk. I actually made an appointment to go up inside the High Light but they let me down - that would've been spectacular and what photos I could've had from there!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this thoroughly and for your kind votes and sharing. I much appreciate your support and your kindness. Wishing you a wonderful Tuesday, Faith. Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 04, 2014:

Thanks, Jodah, for your kind comment and the votes. It is a shame about the decommissioning but they still bring in lots of revenue for the town; they are such a contrast and the beach light is unique. I appreciate your visit very much. Ann