There are three lighthouses in Burnham-on-Sea, but only one is still active today. The High Light and Low Light on the beach are probably more well known. However, several other lights existed and still form navigation aids into the bay.
In the 1700s, around two thousand boats used the River Parrett to load and unload cargo from Bridgwater Bay. Their route was surrounded by treacherous shifting sandbanks which have always been a hazard to shipping. The River Parrett flows into the Bristol Channel, which claims the second highest tidal range in the world, rising and falling up to 15 metres.
Legend has it that on a stormy night in 1750, a fisherman’s wife living close to St Andrew’s Church, lit a candle in the window of her home to guide her husband’s boat home safely.
After hearing about this lifesaving gesture, local seamen agreed to pay the woman to keep the light burning each night.
Subsequently, the local population provided the funds to place a beacon on the roof of St Andrew’s church tower so that the light was more effective. The church sexton later paid the woman £5 for the rights to place a light on the church’s building, known as the Burnham-on-Sea Seafront Rear Range Light.
The church was replaced by Burnham Old Tower Lighthouse in 1801.
The Rear Range light on St Andrew’s Church tower still exhibits a fixed red light. This is shown in conjunction with the Front Range light, which is displayed on a street light column in front of the church, on the esplanade.
The church tower has a significant lean, due to subsidence. An orange stripe on a white square on the sea wall aligns with the Rear and Front Range lights.
Established in 1801 the Round Tower replaced St Andrew’s Church as a navigation aid. It was discontinued in 1832 when the Burnham High and Low Lighthouses came into use.
Burnham Curate David Davies paid the church verger £20 to build a four-storey round tower next to the church. This was attached to his house, at the northern end of the churchyard. This four-storey round tower built in 1801, exhibited a fire in a window at the top.
Davies received an annual income of £135 a year, raised through local contributions. However, this was not enough to cover the maintenance costs, so in 1813 he was granted a 100-year lease to charge ships entering the River Parrett.
In 1829 Trinity House bought back the remaining 85 years of the lease. They decided to build a new lighthouse, and the light of the round tower was subsequently extinguished. Reverend Davies was paid £13,165.81 in compensation, a very significant contribution at the time!
Trinity House ordered the tower to be shortened from four to two storeys. A castellation design was added to the top so it would not be confused with the new Burnham High Lighthouse.
Burnham High Lighthouse was built in 1832 to work in conjunction with the Low Lighthouse on the beach. Both lighthouses replaced the Old Round Tower Lighthouse in the town.
The High Light, which was 99ft high, was completed in 1832. The tower, also known as the Pillar Light, had cottages attached to it, and some of the dwellings were also inside the building itself. The last two storeys at the top of the spiral staircase were accessible by ladder.
The designer was Trinity House engineer Joseph Nelson. He incorporated a half lantern into the tower itself.
A fixed white light was visible for 17 miles, marking the River Parrett channel between Steart Flats and Berrow Flats.
Whilst building the High Light, one of the workmen fell to his death, and it is said that his ghostly moans can still be heard on stormy nights.
Soon after the High Light was built, it was discovered that the massive rise and fall of the tides had not been taken fully into account. A square wooden lighthouse on piles (the Low Light) was constructed on the beach 480 metres from the High Lighthouse in 1832.
Burnham High Lighthouse became a semi-watched light in 1922. This led to the full-time keepers being replaced by a part-time attendant. Their cottages and much of the surrounding land was sold off by Trinity House to become private dwellings. The tower and cottages have been sold on several occasions since.
On 31st December 1993, the High Light was discontinued, and the Low Light was re-established.
The High Lighthouse was then sold by Trinity House and bought by a Rothschild family member in a sealed bid. In 1996 the 110ft High Lighthouse was put up for auction by the Rothchilds and is now in private hands.
Trinity House engineer Joseph Nelson designed Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse. It was built in 1832 following the construction of the High Lighthouse.
The light is shown through a window at the front and has a single vertical red stripe on its seaward side. Like the High light behind it this is to make it visible as a daymark.
The wooden lighthouse is 29ft tall and mounted on nine timber legs. Originally powered by paraffin, the Low Light was inactive from 1969 until it was re-established in 1993. It was then powered by electric light, with a light shown lower down.
On 31st December 1993, the High Light was discontinued, and the Low Light was re-established. Two schoolchildren won a competition to switch the Low light back on, along with John Brewer, Lighthouse Attendant of the High Light for 25 years.
This photograph shows the inside of the lighthouse.
On 2nd March 1897, a Norwegian barque, SS Nornen, lost its anchorage in Lundy Island’s shelter in a severe gale and snowstorm. The wooden boat, her crew of eleven men and the ship’s dog were swept upstream onto the mudflats and sandbanks of Brean to the north of Burnham. The local lifeboat pulled the crew and dog to safety, but the vessel foundered. The remains of the wreck can still be seen.