Hello hello, can you read me? This message was sent to you from the unique landmark Lizard Point in Cornwall, mainland Britain’s most southerly location. For a week I’ve been surrounded by (and got terrifyingly lost in) stunning landscapes along the Cornish coast. But of course I didn’t come here for a holiday or just regular sightseeing. I actually joined hubby during his artist residency for 400 Light Years, celebrating groundbreaking historical events that have enabled modern communication.
All week we had exclusive access to fascinating communication heritage sites on the Lizard coastline. From an off-limits satellite earth station to the wooden cabin where the world’s first long distance wireless communication was received. Read all about my Cornish adventures in this blog post about an area where extraordinary rugged landscapes meet historical communication feats.
This message was sent to you from mainland Britain’s most southerly location
Meaning that this is officially the furthest south you can go in the UK without falling into sea! Of course this had to be documented for my travel blog Done That Been There as well (see photo below).
To give you better idea of where we were, here’s Lizard Point on Google Maps. (Hint: find the red marker on the bottom left.) It might not look that far on the map, but just getting out of Cornwall from there took about two hours!
The tagline ‘the most southerly’ is heavily exploited in this area. It’s quite amusing actually as I came across businesses indicated as ‘Britain’s most southerly cafe’ and even ‘mainland Britain’s most southerly estate agents’. I guess that makes me (temporarily) mainland Britain’s most southerly blogger?!
As expected, this special landmark attracts loads of visitors. But obviously they don’t come here just to see all of Britain’s most southerly sights and businesses. The main attractions at Lizard Point are the Lighthouse and the dramatic Cornish coastline. There’s plenty of opportunity to go hiking (and getting lost like I did…). And if you come here during spring or summer, you can enjoy the spectacular sight of bright orange and purple flowers dotted along the rocky landscape.
Could this be mainland Britain’s most southerly fisherman?
Celebrating 400 light years
Together with astrophysicist Carolyn Kennett, artist and scientist Joanna Mayes was the mastermind behind the research project 400 Light Years. She had arranged some unique opportunities for us, including a special visit to Lizard Lighthouse. You guessed it right: this is Britain’s most southerly lighthouse. But wait, there’s more to it. It’s also the largest lighthouse station in the world!
Check out my International Lighthouse Passport! With this I can collect stamps from associated lighthouses. Will I ever complete my passport? Stay tuned to find out!
This year is a special year for the lighthouse as on 1 December it will be exactly 400 years ago it first emanated its light from this location. It’s quite extraordinary to think that the first light beam transmitted from Lizard has now reached as far as the Pliades star cluster. You want to know how far away this is? Well, consider light travels at a speed of 300,000 kilometres per second. Now consider how many seconds go into one centenary and multiply that by 4. Let’s just agree that it’s freaking far away from Earth! (Thanks to Carolyn for explaining this to me in normal human language.)
The Lizard Lighthouse has played a major role in both local and international history. It was necessary to have a guiding light on this busy passage through the Channel along the treacherous coast. Apparently the coastline is still filled with several ancient ship wrecks. But local authorities also feared the bright light would attract pirates who notoriously roamed these waters. That’s why they gave building permission, but on the condition that its light would be extinguished in case the enemy approached.
My attempt at taking a selfie during a walk along the Lizard coastline
Measuring the universe and Tolkien tours
2019 is a special year for celebrations at Lizard Lighthouse. Because in addition to its 400 years of existence, 2019 also marks the 250-year anniversary of the observation of the Transit of Venus from the Lizard. In 1769 various scientists were sent off into the world to observe and document the transition of Venus between Earth and the Sun, making the star visible as a tiny black dot against the Sun. This rare occurrence enabled scientists to measure the size of our universe. While Captain Thomas Cook was sent off to Tahiti together with three scientists, London-based astronomer John Bradley was paid to work at the Lizard Lighthouse.
To celebrate its 400 year anniversary, Lizard Lighthouse is hosting several special events over the year. I’m particularly interested in the Tolkien tour as the famous writer was among one of the thousands of visitors who have once visited the sight. I read before that the Cornish landscape was a great inspiration for Tolkien’s descriptions of Middle-earth. But I did not know about his great fascination with the Lighthouse. Apparently the mesmerising sight of the beacon light inspired his haunting image of ‘the Eye of Sauron’.
From light signals to the first long distance wireless communication
We might take it for granted nowadays, but isn’t it just amazing that you can read this message directly on your phone, tablet or computer? It’s so easy to forget, but I’ve been reflecting on the way we communicate for the whole week actually. Not because I was feeling nostalgic and remembered the pre-internet and mobile phone days. (Yes, I am that old.) No, it was because I was lucky to visit several significant heritage sites all linked to each other through communication. While on Monday we investigated the use of one of humankind’s basic communication tools – light – at the Lighthouse, we moved onto an inauspicious black wooden hut tucked away on the coast the next day.
On the right you see the restored wooden huts where Marconi worked. The one in the front is still in use as a coastal radio station, but is also open to the public from March till October. The house behind the Lizard Wireless Station is available as a holiday rental (a very very expensive one…) On the left you can see the lighthouse in the distance.
Despite its simple exterior (and interior for that matter), the event that took place in this little hut paved the way for modern communication. Because this is where the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi undertook groundbreaking experiments and received the world’s first long-distance wireless communication. Besides a pioneer (and apparently also a huge playboy), Marconi was also a savvy businessman. He recognised the commercial potential of radio and Lizard Point thus became one the first UK radio stations to charge for ship to shore messages. It was also the first coastal radio station to receive an SOS call (in 1910).
Hubby in front of the similar types of equipment used by Marconi. Hubby used recordings of the live radio messages (including one that sounded like a French robot) and sounds of the equipment in his live performance in Helston, Cornwall, last Friday
Left: the Lloyd’s Signal Station, nowadays a luxury self-catered apartment but originally built in 1872 as a communication hub for passing trading vessels. // Right: a replica of the radio used on the Titanic. Below it you see an authentic photo of the captain using the real radio on the Titanic. It was taken by a Jesuit priest who (lucky for him) didn’t get permission to travel to America and had to get off in Ireland. This didn’t only save his own life, but also this photo.
From radio to deep space communication
Looking back at the last week, I realise we’ve been learning about the evolution of communication. (Thanks for the quote, Justin.) From light signals to radio communication we moved onto the universe and visited the Goonhilly Earth Station. This site has been closed off to the public for a few years now as the station is working towards a huge bid involving Deep Space Communication. There are 60 satellite dishes on the massive site, but it’s strictly forbidden to take photos of them and post them online. I used this photo from the free photo website Pixabay instead.
Goonhilly opened in 1962 and its first satellite, called Arthur, is now a protected Grade II listed structure. When we think of satellites, we immediately think of structures as the disc-shape ones in the photo above. Arthur was actually the world’s first satellite with this design!
Besides setting the standard for satellite design, Arthur is mostly known for the legendary broadcasting of the first lunar landing in 1969 in Europe. Yes, you noticed correctly: 2019 marks yet another significant anniversary! Because on 20 July it will be exactly 50 years ago Neil Armstrong spoke his famous words upon setting foot on the moon. This will be celebrated with a big music event on the Goonhilly site next month. We also have Arthur to thank for the broadcasting of major live events such as Live Aid 1985 and the Muhammed Ali fights.
Our hosts at Goonhilly were the commercial world-leading company Avanti who provide satellite technology across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The people there gave us a special tour along the Goonhilly site and through their building. They even gave us an exclusive look in their monitoring room. This is the kind of room you expect to see in disaster movies where men stare at huge screens looking at hundreds of line of data. But instead of nearing meteorites, this clever bunch of people monitor the communication satellites orbiting in space.
Over and out
As you can read, it’s been an illuminating week jam-packed with extraordinary outings. Since my little head needs a break now, let me finish my broadcast here. If you want to know more about the 400 Light Years residency that involved artists Joanna Mayes, Justin Wiggan and Scanner (aka hubby), then have a look at the 400 Light Years project page.
But before I go, I just need to say one final thing regarding communication technology around Lizard Point. I did find it rather ironic that despite being the hub for modern communication, there is absolutely no phone reception. Perhaps our friends from the nearby earth station could have a look into this…
Have you ever been to Cornwall? This was my first visit and it’s been a fantastic experience (although the narrow roads are just awful). Any tips for a future Cornwall trip are more than welcome! Thanks, Zarina xx