The Needles lighthouse on the Isle of Wight is remote indeed. It stands boldly at the end of the outermost chalk stack where the weather sweeps in from the west, with howling gales and lashing rain. The shingle bank in Scratchell’s Bay to the south of the Needles is hazardous, and many a ship foundered here before the helpful protection of a lighthouse.
A real feat of engineering
The lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1859. It cost £20,000, a tidy sum in those days. The engineers used dynamite to create a platform in the chalk stack, and to provide for a huge water tank, coal store and cellars. This meant that the lighthouse could still be manned when the weather was too bad for supplies to be sent out. Its circular granite tower has sides that are three feet thick at the base to withstand waves of up to 20 feet. It has a light that can be seen 17 miles away and a powerful foghorn.
Today’s Victorian lighthouse replaced an earlier one built in 1785 on the cliffs overhanging Scratchell’s Bay. Because of its height it was often shrouded in mist and of limited use. Other lighthouses on the Isle of Wight shared the same problem.
Life in a lighthouse
The lighthouse originally had a staff of three keepers who kept a 24-hour watch during their month-long tour of duty. Conditions were basic, and in very bad weather the lighthouse keepers could be cut off for weeks at a time. They had to be prepared for the unexpected. One day the keeper was making a call on the telephone, 40 feet up, when a wave came through the window and washed his breakfast off the table.
The end of an era
In 1993 the old glass lantern which had served the lighthouse faithfully was replaced with mains electricity laid from the Needles Old Battery. A year later the lighthouse was fully automated and the crew left. The lighthouse now has a helipad on the top for emergency access. Get really good views from the Needles Old Battery and a signposted observation point on the headland above the coastguard station.
The Needles lighthouse is owned and managed by Trinity House. For more technical information, visit their website. Unfortunately you can only admire it from a distance, as it is not safely accessible or open to the public.
BBC South Today
In August 2013 BBC South Today broadcast live from the lighthouse, their weather presenter Sarah Farmer and the TV film crew stood on the helipad as part of the regional news programme. The feature included archive footage and a look inside the lighthouse.
Originally four rocks, the name 'the Needles' comes from the fourth rock, which was needle-shaped and known as ‘Lot’s Wife’. From the Old Battery you can enjoy unrivalled views of the majestic Needles and the Dorset coast.
The guns that stand on the Parade Ground today have had an interesting past. Once designed to defend the nation, they were consigned to the water depths below when they were no longer considered useful.