(Explore the defunct navigation markers, daymarks and beacons of the British Isles)
Subscribers of Urban Ghosts will be familiar with the wealth of abandoned lighthouses dotting the coastlines of the world. But these often precariously-placed structures weren’t the only navigation aids built to keep mariners away from reefs, shoals and sandbanks. While lighthouses allowed for safe nighttime navigation, other unlighted nautical sea marks were designed to be visible only during the day. These daymarks, day markers or day beacons came in a variety of conspicuous forms, from grand obelisks and pyramids to colourful cone-shaped structures. A handful almost resembled traditional lighthouses, while others looked more like follies. Most are now redundant, but linger on in as offbeat landmarks in a nod to the region’s maritime heritage. Here are seven such navigation markers in Britain that you can still see today.
Daymark at St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly
(Image: Michael Maggs; St Martin’s daymark, Isles of Scilly)
Situated at the highest point of St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly – an archipelago of tiny islands off the southwest tip of Cornwall, this spectacular daymark was built in 1683 by Thomas Ekins, and measures 16 feet wide and 36 feet high. Built of rendered granite, the iconic local landmark has been painted both white and red over the years, though its current striped appearance took form some time after 1833. On a clear day, the St Martin’s daymark is visible from the Cornish coast. It’s the earliest dated example of a dated day beacon in the British Isles (though the date above the sealed entrance, reading 1637, is incorrect). Like the prehistoric cairns around it, the St Martin’s daymark is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Navigation Markers on Gwennap Head, Cornwall
(Image: Jim Champion; Gwennap Head navigation aids)
When photographer Jim Champion hiked along to the old navigation markers on Gwennap Head near St Levan, Cornwall, he found these two cone-shaped relics of Britain’s maritime past to be in a good state of repair. The Georgian daymarks were placed there to warn vessels of the Runnel Stone, a treacherous offshore pinnacle of rock between between Hella Point and Tol Pedn.
Champion writes: “When at sea the black and white cone should always be kept in sight.. but if it should be completely obliterated by the red cone then the vessel would be on top of the Runnel Stone! A plaque on the far side of the black and white cone reads “THIS BEACON WAS ERECTED BY THE CORPORATION OF TRINITY HOUSE OF DEPTFORD, STROUD, IN 1821.” Nowadays the Runnelstone is directly marked by a buoy which emits an eerie moaning sound which can be heard all over this headland.”
Trinity House Obelisk at Portland Bill, Dorset
(Image: Mike Smith; Trinity House Obelisk)
The Grade II listed Trinity House Obelisk dates back to 1844, when the navigation marker was erected at Portland Bill in Dorset. Standing at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland, the 7 metre-tall daymark was built in 1844 to warn mariners of the rocks off Portland Bill, which had claimed their fair share of vessels over the centuries.
Inscribed “TH 1844” on its north face, the eponymous obelisk was almost lost in 2002 when Trinity House, the charity established to safeguard shipping and seafarers, decided it was too expensive to maintain the historic navigation marker. Thankfully that didn’t happen and the landmark Trinity House Obelisk stands proud above the waters of the English Channel to this day.
Navigation Marker on Emmanuel Head, Northumberland
(Image: Ian Capper; Emmanuel Head navigation marker)
Once a welcome sight for mariners plying the rolling seas that batter North East England, the daymark at Emmanuel Head on Holy Island was built between 1801 and 1810 to safeguard shipping off the Northumberland coast. The 12 metre-high granite pyramid, which was built by Trinity House of Newcastle upon Tyne, and is understood to be the earliest navigation marker of its kind on the east coast.
Abandoned Navigation Beacons at Guile Point, Holy Island
(Image: Ian Capper; Guile Point navigational beacons on Holy Island)
At around the same time that the navigation marker was constructed on Emmanuel Head, two further beacons were built at Guile Point, to help sailors approaching Holy Island safely navigate the treacherous approach to the small harbour. Known as East Old Law and West Old Law, the beacons are 70 feet and 83 feet high respectively and are spaced 122 yards apart amid the sand dunes of Guile Point’s Old Law. Builders overcame multiple construction obstacles, not least the transportation of materials via small brigs all the way from Shields, to the south.
The 19th century navigation markers once had wrought iron triangles on their tops which have since been lost. Over the years, due to changing tides and currents that have altered the channels around the island, the bearings offered by the beacons have become less accurate. Still, West Old Law now sports as a fixed light a third of the way up its structure and is known as the Guile Point Lighthouse. Its counterpart to the east, meanwhile, stands abandoned.
The Daymark at Coleton Fishacre, Devon
If the St Martin’s example is the most eccentric navigation marker featured in this article, then the daymark at Coleton Fishacre is arguably the most impressive. More similar to an extravagant ornamental folly than a functional maritime installation, the navigational aid was built on the Devon coast in 1864. At 25-30 metres in height, the hollow six-sided stone daymark remains one of the most prominent landmarks in the area around Coleton Fishacre.
Preserved Gribbin Headland Daymark, Cornwall
The Gribbin Headland Daymark is the only historic navigational aid in this article that you can climb – a the 109-step internal staircase. Towering some 26 metres above the Cornish headland, the red and white banded day marker was built by Trinity House in 1832 “for the safety of commerce and the preservation of mariners”. According to the National Trust, the daymark “pinpoints the approach to Fowey’s narrow and rocky harbour entrance. This meant that sailors did not mistake the treacherous shallows of St Austell Bay for the deep waters of Falmouth harbour.”
The Trust has owned the tower since 1998, having purchased the land around it two decades earlier, and opens it up each Sunday between July and early September. Their website tells of how “William Rashleigh of Menabilly who granted the land for the tower expressed his hope that they would ‘make the Beacon an ornament to my grounds’; thus the tenders issued by Trinity House were for the erection of a ‘very handsome Greco Gothic Square Tower’.”