The Sir Peter Scott Lighthouse (East Bank Lighthouse)
Completion of the three mile long river Nene cutting in 1830 meant that a land drainage scheme that had defeated hundreds of years of effort had at last been achieved and the huge inland area known as the ‘Fens’ was safe. To mark this amazing but vastly expensive achievement, two celebratory lighthouses (the East and West) were constructed where the new cutting ran into the sea area known as The Wash.
The West lighthouse was built on dry land but the East lighthouse was constructed at the end of the new three mile long sea wall, with the tide flowing three miles inland to one side and the River Nene cutting to the other, with the sea itself washing the end of the lighthouse terrace.
In 1933 the East Bank lighthouse became home to 24 year old Peter Markham Scott, an event that led to the lighthouse playing a staring role in world changing environmental events that have affected everything from the depths of the deepest oceans to the tops of the highest mountains. Global literary fame also followed through the Snow Goose story click here.
To ensure the long term financial preservation of the lighthouse whilst at the same time permitting people to experience the immense and dramatic beauty of the location and power of the lighthouse, it is now let for holidays and is also ideal for poetry and art courses.
Completion of the three mile long river Nene cutting in 1830 meant a land drainage scheme that had defeated hundreds of years of effort had at last been achieved and the huge inland area known as the ‘Fens’ was safe. To mark this amazing but vastly expensive achievement, two celebratory ornamental lighthouses (the East and West) were constructed where the new cutting ran into the sea area known as The Wash.
The West lighthouse was built on dry land but the East lighthouse was constructed at the end of the new three mile long sea wall, with the tide flowing three miles inland to one side and the River Nene cutting to the other, the sea itself washing the end of the lighthouse terrace.
The two lighthouses unmistakably mark the entry to the River Nene for shipping and serve as navigational aids. By using both lights, and their half-moon side lights after dark, skilled mariners can triangulate their positions around the shifting sands and shallow entry channels that make the approaches particularly difficult.
The river is only navigable by large ships for around 2 hours either side of high tide, so it was only necessary to light the lamps when high tides occurred after dark. Rather than have to pay lighthouse keepers for just these times, the River Nene authority hit on the idea of making the lighthouses wider than normal to provide accommodation for their workers and families to live in. By doing so, they could rely on them to attend to the lamps when required and thus save money. The lighthouses remain functional and lit today by electronic means.
From the beginning, the shape of both lighthouses caused major damp problems. Sloping walls, porous bricks and windows that slope inwards gave them no chance in such an exposed location. A small keeper’s house was eventually constructed beside the West Bank Lighthouse but not for the East bank lighthouse, possibly due to lack of space on the narrow sea wall. Whilst damp is a thing of the past, due to the fact that it was built to be lived in, this is one of the very rare lighthouses that you can sleep in the tower itself.
Before the days of mobile phones and ship-to-shore radios, the lighthouse served as an auxiliary coast guard and customs hailing station. As ships came in with the tide, customs officials based at the docks would cycle the three miles to the lighthouse, and running up a set of wooden steps, would hail them through a megaphone to find out where they were from, what they were carrying and then tell them which customs birth to tie up to at the busy Sutton Bridge docks before cycling back again. They also recorded arrivals and departures, although hailing through a megaphone in a high wind could at times lead to confusion. This was still happening in the 1930’s when Peter Scott began living in the lighthouse. He soon got fed up with the daily interruptions and persuaded them to set themselves up on the other side of the river. The small kiosk and landing stage on the opposite bank to the lighthouse are the modern survivors of his persuasive powers.
Cargo ships still use the ports of Sutton Bridge and Wisbech but for Sutton Bridge, they normally come up the river backwards in order to avoid a disaster that caused one ship to sink and block the waterway while trying to use the turning bay after the tide had turned click here.
Trinity House is a corporation that was granted the rights to take over and run all lighthouses in the country. For the River Nene authority, that was the last thing they wanted to happen for these two celebratory lighthouses, and they especially wanted to avoid being charged by them to do so. They therefore worked out a cunning plan and that was to make them far more ornamental than usual and claim that they were more ornamental markers to mark the river entry than anything else and that they weren't lit.
In this, they were successful. Hence the upper corbel course, dummy windows, the windmill like shape, and the hopelessly impractical Georgian style windows for such an extreme exposure location.
The problem was that these details condemned the lighthouses to a lifetime of serious weathering difficulties. The porous bricks let in water and few windows lasted more than ten years. A past photograph shows some window panes even having been cemented over in desperation.
Some families appear to have stayed there for a long time but others left within months due to the conditions.
Below are census forms from 1901 and 1911. The photograph is believed to show the Hines family from the 1901 census. The ‘blind’ top windows can be seen in the picture, with the only outbuilding being a small kitchen. In the photograph, it looks like the lighthouse has been recently refurbished with new windows and many areas of brickwork having been repointed.
In 1933, the lighthouse became home to the 24 year old Peter Markham Scott, an unlikely event that led to the lighthouse becoming part of world changing events and, to the lighthouse being today, more commonly known as the ‘Sir Peter Scott Lighthouse’ click here. And to global literary fame through the Snow Goose story click here
When 25 year old Peter Scott came to the lighthouse, it was an uninhabitable ruin used only for storing equipment but in the basement and living in poor conditions, lived a red headed giant of a man nicknamed Samphire Charlie with his little dog Peggy. He made a living by collecting mussels from the rocks and Samphire from the marshes. Their relationship didn’t last long however because they apparently fell out over Charlie’s hobby of drinking too much and he had to go.
The young Peter Scott completely refurbished the lighthouse but he commented that more water still seemed to run down the inside of the walls than the outside when it rained.
The single story studio, bedroom wing and garages were added by him, including the famous sketching bay window from which he could study and draw his ever increasing collection of geese; many of which he had personally collected from around the world.
Major changes had however been happening on the mashes themselves, as new sea walls of piled up sand were being created to push back the sea and reclaim the rich marshland for farming. By the time Peter Scott arrived in 1933, a series of enclosures had pushed the sea back by almost the entire three miles from the main road to the lighthouse, as can be seen in the photograph below taken by him.
With the advent of the Second World War, the army requisitioned the lighthouse in 1940. They considered it to be an ideal gunnery position and had plans to cut it in half to use as a circular gunnery platform. Peter Scott’s influential mother (Lady Hilton Young – formerly Kathleen Scott - nee ‘Bruce’) opposed the plans and the battle for the lighthouse ended with the scores of Mother 1, Army nil. As they had no further use for it, the army took their guns elsewhere and let the lighthouse fall once again into a state of ruin.
To create more farmland to feed a war torn and starving and country, yet another sea wall was pushed out. This time it went considerably beyond the lighthouse. The first sea wall you see to seaward of the lighthouse is the one built in 1950.
With the lighthouse yet again uninhabitable and water for his goose collection now gone, Peter Scott could not return after the war and instead went to Slimbridge to start his new wildlife organisation, now known as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
At this time, his friend, American writer Paul Gallico published what was to become his masterpiece called the Snow Goose. It is loosely based on the lighthouse, Peter Scott, his birds and sailing. It achieved world fame and makes the lighthouse possibly the most famous in literary history click here.
In 1950, the lighthouse was let to a midlands baker called Mr Gandy. Once more it was given a major refurbishment including lining the inside of the tower and rendering the outside for the first time. It is at this time too that the sunken Yorkstone courtyard garden was added. After his death in 1965, a ten year lease was granted to the Fenland Wildfowlers. Little maintenance work was carried out however and by the end of the lease in 1975, the lighthouse was again almost uninhabitable.
1970 saw more marsh grabbing greed and the sea wall pushed the sea even further back, but what they actually got was not fertile marshland where marsh plants had been growing for countless years but mostly sand, and even today, the 1970 enclosures are not as productive as the previous enclosures.
This lighthouse that originally stood three miles out to sea, remains today still alongside the river but now half a mile inland. It has interestingly lost neither its atmosphere or function.
Unable to find anyone to take the lighthouse lease after the Fenland Wildfowlers had left, vandals took over. By 1985, not a single window was left, roofs were wrecked, ladders removed, the studio devastated, sketching window gone and the render had fallen off in big chunks. Grafiti was sprayed on the first floor walls and because it too forms part of the lighthouse history it has been preserved below the paint today.
Due to the enormous cost of renovation, the lighthouse was put up for sale for the first time in 1985 and immediately bought by Commander David Joel.
He knew the importance and history of the lighthouse and had been a long term admirer of Peter Scott and his achievements. It is to him and his wife that we owe the preservation of the lighthouse at possibly the most critical part of its life.
When Peter Scott had carried out his works, he had engraved a lintel over the fireplace with geese whilst the cement was wet. During the derelict period, this lintel was stolen and it became a national scandal. It was eventually returned by the Fenland Wildfowlers that had taken it into safe keeping when they saw that someone had been trying to remove it. It is now built into the wall of the tower in the studio.
David Joel also created new ponds on the lower lighthouse lawn with geese and ducks as a tribute to Peter Scott’s original collection.
The damp and weathering problems still hadn’t gone away however as the lime render was riddled with cracks that let in water and in winter, it would freeze and crack off, meaning continual patching was necessary.
David Joel was 82 years old when he last repaired the render and painted the lighthouse from ladders with a 100mm paintbrush including walking around the corbel course at the top holding onto a rope.
The present owners Doug and Sue Hilton bought the lighthouse in 2010.
New ponds have been designed and installed, land added to the gardens and the garages converted into gallery space. The tower windows replaced with special treated timber ones and the entire tower coated with a special lime material called Roman Cement. These works seem at last to have cured the damp problems. In 2023, the lighthouse has been given a complete makeover with new bathrooms, new kitchen, new bedroom in the basement and modern heating, with the gallery becoming the new games and function room.
The eastern end of the new ponds were concreted to resemble the coastline of the Wash, with the islands resembling the shoals that the offshore wind farms are built on. The builder brought in extra labour on the day of concreting because he said he wanted to tell his grandchildren that he was the only man to have concreted from Hunstanton to Skegness in a day!
Plans to create a visitor centre were passed but sadly, due to a lack of funding were not progressed.
To ensure the long term financial preservation of the lighthouse whilst at the same time permitting people to experience at first hand the immense power of the lighthouse and beauty of the location, it is now let for holidays, retreats, poetry and art courses.
The eastern end of the ponds were concreted to resemble the coastline of the Wash, with the islands resembling the shoals that the offshore wind farms are situated on. The builder brought in extra labour on the day of concreting because he said he wanted to tell his grandchildren that he was the only man to have concreted from Hunstanton to Skegness in a day!
Plans to create a visitor centre were passed but sadly, due to a lack of funding were not progressed.
To ensure the long term financial preservation of the lighthouse whilst at the same time permitting people to experience the immense beauty of the location and power of the lighthouse by others, it is now let for holidays and is ideal for poetry and art courses.