Happisburgh lighthouse, village, church and inn

18 August 2018

It was a relatively short car share to the coastal village of Happisburgh, where 19 members wandered alongside a field of golden ripe barley to the lighthouse. We were greeted by the guide who explained the history of this the oldest working light in East Anglia and the only independently operated working lighthouse in the country. That is some claim to fame!

There were originally two here, this one being the High Light, 85 feet above sea level, 20 feet higher and 400 yards from the Low Light. A severe storm in 1789, with the loss of 70 ships and in excess of 600 lives, led to a huge programme of lighthouse building. Happisburgh’s lights started operating on the evening of New Year’s Day in 1791.

As part of the Trinity House improvements there was a lightship 17 miles South-East of Happisburgh. By the 1880’s the Low Light was being threatened by coastal erosion. In 1886 it was demolished, but prior to this the optic was removed and installed in what was then the new lighthouse in Southwold, where it still navigates shipping away from the coast.

Over the years improvements continued so that in 1929 the resident keepers were no longer required, although a local attendant periodically checked the light. 1947 saw the arrival of mains electricity, but in 1987 a major review left this lighthouse with the threat of closure. Following a successful campaign in 1990 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited the lighthouse for the handing over to the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust.

Painted with 3 red stripes she is recognized by ships who are able to pass safely, her light flashing 3 times with a 30 second gap. Every lighthouse has its own flash sequence and its own pattern of stripes. I looked up at the winding staircase and thought of all the lighthouse keepers who have so many times over the years climbed those stairs. Nine of our members climbed to the top and saw the impressive and immaculate Victorian engineering. We were struck by how small was the bulb that generated so much light. Shipping is now kept safe, with a range of 14 miles and the power of 58,500 candles.

Tour of the Village: Mary, our guide, met us outside the lighthouse. We had a view of St. Mary’s Manor House, built around 1900 for Albermarle Cator of Woodbastwick Hall who decided also to build homes for his family. We walked to the main street where further properties of the Cator family were observed, all built within 10 years from 1900, although they looked a lot older as they are thatched and faced with flint.

The Cators sold the properties in 1969, when they became private residences. As you would expect, Happisburgh had a forge which is now privately owned. We saw the impressive village school. Built in 1861 it has been extensively enlarged over the past 10 years, but with only 90 pupils it could be faced with closure. The 15th Century Monastery was occupied by Benedictine Monks from Wymondham who owned land in this area. We walked down Blacksmith’s Lane to Church Farm, where Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore took holidays during the early 1930’s.

Time for lunch: we made our way to the Hill House Inn where we enjoyed soup, sandwiches and cake followed by tea or coffee. There were once four public houses in Happisburgh but now, just this one. The Inn, originally 3 cottages, still with original fire places, was built around 1540. It became an Ale house in 1610 and a Coaching Inn in 1710, providing accommodation. This was an important route from Kings Lynn to Great Yarmouth. The oak ceiling beams are original and there is one which has been dated from around 1420, from a shipwreck. There is a signal box which was built around 1900 in readiness for the railway which never reached Happisburgh. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed at the Inn 1900-1903 and went on to write ‘The Dancing Men’ which is based in Norfolk.

Church of St Mary’s: our final visit was to the church. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions a church here. In the 1800’s Rev. James Slater took on the huge task of renovating the church which had been damaged by fire - a new roof, pews replaced, pulpit moved and the font cleaned. The church re-opened in July 1864. A WWII bomb also caused severe damage, removing all the stained glass.

For me the event which happened off this coast in 1801 had a profound effect on my experience of the day. The ship Invincible had set sail to join Nelson’s fleet prior to the battle of Copenhagen with 400 sailors aboard. She was wrecked off Happisburgh with all lives lost. There is a memorial to this event in the churchyard: 119 bodies were recovered and now rest in peace. I was to learn that the stables at the Hill House Inn were used as a mortuary during this dreadful tragedy.

I have driven through this small village living on the edge many times and have often felt an ill wind, knowing that possibly, in time, the sea will claim it. But now I also look at the lighthouse standing firm on the cliff, defying those who dare to come too close to this coastline and I take strength and hope that Happisburgh will be here long into the future.

Janet Edwards

Photos by Chris Harrison and Stephen Johnson


Tower view

(Above: Tower view)
(Below: St Mary's, Happisburgh)

              Mary's, Happisburgh

(Below: Happisburgh lighthouse staircase)

Happisburgh lighthouse staircase

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