Rock Around Britain – the headlands and rocks around our coast

Post by: Dee White
09 January 2013

1. The South Coast – North Foreland to Land's End

As an island nation, surrounded by sea, we are blest with a fascinating coastline of beaches, cliffs and rocks. Sailors have long been aware of the rock formations and solitary rocks that line our shores and provide hazards to the unwary. Many are blest with lighthouses and all are marked on sea charts, but some have fascinating histories and make interesting reading.

North Foreland is a chalk headland on the southeast Kent coast, forming the eastern end of the Isle of Thanet. The first lighthouse was built there in the 17th century because of the threat of Goodwin Sands to unsuspecting boaters, who could easily run aground at night. It was the last manned lighthouse in the UK but was automated in 1998.

Travelling west we encounter the headlands and lighthouses of South Foreland and Dungeness, before reaching another chalk headland of massive proportions, Beachy Head in East Sussex. It is the highest chalk cliff in Britain at 162m above sea level and is one of the most notorious suicide destinations in Britain. The current lighthouse, in the sea below Beachy Head and a distinctive landmark, because of its red-and-white striped painted tower, caught the headlines in 2011, when Trinity House stated that it could no longer afford to repaint the tower. A sponsored campaign was launched which successfully raised enough money for the repainting to go ahead.

Continuing along the south coast we arrive at Selsey, the most southern of the Sussex towns and the famous headland of Selsey Bill. Here beacons warn sailors of the treacherous Owers and Mixon rocks which lie just to the south of the Bill. Many boaters err on the side of caution and give the bill a wide berth; however, a short cut through the Looe Channel is passable in clear weather and in a moderate wind. This passes through the rocks and ledges south of the Bill, but a large-scale chart is recommended and local knowledge is useful.

The Isle of Wight is well known for its hazardous rocks. On the east is Bembridge Ledge, a large rocky outcrop posing a major threat to passing boats, especially after stormy weather conditions. Navigate outside the east cardinal to stay safe.

Travelling clockwise round the island, we encounter St Catherine's Point, the southernmost headland on the Isle of Wight. Here is the "Pepperpot", the stone tower of Britain's oldest medieval lighthouse built in 1323, in which fires were lit to warn ships of the coastline. A replacement, started in 1785 but never finished, is known as the "salt pot". The present lighthouse was built in 1837 after the Clarendon was wrecked in the area. Unfortunately as St Catherine's point is often foggy, it is not the best place for a lighthouse, so be aware of the Jeremy, Shark and Shag Rocks off Rocken End.

Off the west of the island is the row of three distinctive stacks of chalk known as The Needles, with their lighthouse, built in 1859. Whilst the present rocks are hardly needle-shaped, the rock formation takes its name from a fourth needle-shaped pillar, named "Lot's Wife", which collapsed into the sea in a storm in 1764. The pointed shape was a result of unusual geological strata, so heavily folded that the chalk is almost vertical. This chalk outcrop runs from the centre of the Island and continues under the sea to the Isle of Purbeck, where it forms Ballard Cliff, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. It is thought that at one time The Needles were connected to the Old Harry Rocks to the east of Studland Bay. Adding to the Needles' danger is the shifting shoal of pebbles, off the end of The Needles and just below the surface of the water. These are The Shingles, three miles in length and the graveyard of many ships. The Needles lighthouse seen today was built in 1859. In 1987 a helipad was added to the top and it was one of the three last remaining manned rock lighthouses in England and Wales.

The most famous of the wrecks is the 3,874-ton Greek cargo vessel named the Varvassi which inexplicably ran aground in perfect weather in January 1947. Attempts were made to refloat her, but were abandoned and the following morning, with a gale blowing and massive waves, a rescue was mounted for the 36 crew. Incredibly the Yarmouth lifeboat rescued all on board, including the ship's black and white cat, which was presented to the landlord of the Kings Head Hotel in Yarmouth. The ship's boilers are still a hazard to navigators in the "Round the Island Race".

Those visiting the wonderful natural harbour of Poole will encounter the previously mentioned Old Harry Rocks off Studland Bay and the treacherous Peveril Ledge off Swanage. Both of these can produce tidal overfalls, so give them both a wide berth. The same is true for St Alban's Head, but east of here it is possible to pass Anvil Point close inshore, if you watch your depth carefully. Here is one of the most spectacular bits of coastline in England.

Continuing along the South Coast we reach a narrow promontory of Portland stone, named Portland Bill. Its three lighthouses were built to protect shipping from the strong tidal race and shallow reef. The Portland Race is caused by the meeting of the tides between the Bill and the Shambles sandbank, about 3 miles south east. Strong currents prove hazardous to shipping in this area, which is a location of many sunken vessels.

The huge expanse of Lyme Bay, with few ports of refuge, forces sailors away from the Jurassic coast, but approaching the welcome ports of Dartmouth and Salcombe the coastline becomes rockier. The lighthouse on Start Point, ("start" deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word "steort" meaning tail), reminds vessels of the dangers of its surrounding rocks, which are greenschist and mica-schist. Many shipwrecks occurred in this area.

Leaving Devon for Cornwall we become aware of the stark outline of the Eddystone Lighthouse, marking the position of the Eddystone Rocks, about 9 miles south west of Rame Head, a hazard to vessels approaching the English Channel and the port of Plymouth. The lighthouse's importance is born out by the fact that there have been four lighthouses built on these rocks, by Winstanley, Rudyard, Smeaton and Douglass. When the Douglass Lighthouse was built, the people of Plymouth paid for the dismantling and rebuilding of the Smeaton Lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe, where it is a tribute to the countless lives saved by the lighthouses.

Continuing westwards past the busy port of Falmouth we reach Manacle Point. Extending about 1 NM east and south east of the point are the set of treacherous rocks, The Manacles, (from the Cornish "Meyn Eglos" meaning "church stones"). Their sinister and evil reputation is matched by their desolate and forbidding appearance. While several break the surface, many of them are submerged, waiting to ensnare the unlucky or careless. There are many well known wrecks here where depths are often less than 6 metres. They include the HMS Primrose which sank in 1809 with only one of the 126 on board surviving, the SS Mohegan which came to grief in 1898 with 106 fatalities and the Spyridon Vagliano, a Greek steamer which lost 14 of the 22 crew in 1890. There is an interesting inshore passage but going round the east cardinal is nearly as quick.

A few miles south west is the most southerly point on the mainland of Great Britain and a notorious hazard, Lizard Point. One famous disaster occurred in March 1907 when the 12,000 tonne liner SS Suevic hit the Maenheere Reef near Lizard Point. In a strong gale and dense fog the RNLI mounted the biggest rescue of its history to rescue 456 passengers including 70 babies. Crews from 4 local lifeboat stations rowed out repeatedly for sixteen hours to rescue all those on board.

Crossing Mounts Bay we finally arrive at Lands End, the extreme westerly point on the English mainland. Just over a mile offshore are the rocky islets known as Longships on which the grey lighthouse is built. Most of the rocks are submerged at high water but the three largest remain above the surface. Here there are unpredictable currents and eddies causing a confused sea and the passage should only be attempted in settled weather and a favourable forecast.

Once round the corner of Lands End we enter the Celtic sea and the Bristol Channel with its powerful and dangerous tides. Here we will resume part 2 of our journey around Britain.

Author – Dee White