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Les Hanois Lighthouse sits off the southwest corner of Guernsey, serving as a warning to ship’s captains of the treacherous shoals and reefs that sit just offshore here. Built in response to the worrying frequency with which ships were being wrecked along Guernsey’s west coast in the 1800s, the lighthouse that stands tall on the rocks at Les Hanois is both a local icon and an important building in the history of lighthouse engineering.
In 1817 Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands, was contacted about the possibility of placing a lighthouse on the headland at Pleinmont. Apparently mistaking this as a request for a signal light for channel shipping rather than for a warning light, the request was declined. With lights on Les Casquets just off the coast of Alderney, and on Portland on the Dorset coast, it was believed that sailors could adequately navigate the English Channel, and it wasn’t until three more ships had been wrecked on the rocks through the 1820s and 30s that Trinity House reconsidered the proposal in 1947. It was agreed that a lighthouse was necessary here, however the issue of who would pay for the building and maintenance of the lighthouse delayed construction; Trinity House did not have the jurisdiction to build a lighthouse on Guernsey, and Guernsey did not at the time have the funds to pay for one. This was finally resolved with the British Government agreeing to pay for the building and collecting a nominal maintenance fee from both Guernsey and Jersey, making up the difference by charging dues to Channel Island shipping docking at British Ports. In 1958 the location of Le Bisseau rocks, one mile northwest of Pleinmont, was settled upon as the location for the new lighthouse as it was more easily landed on and thus construction wouldn’t be delayed. Les Hanois was the first lighthouse built using a pioneering new technique suggested by James Douglass that was used for all subsequent sea rock towers. Douglass’ design saw all of the blocks in each course dovetailed together (a technique developed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author of Treasure Island, when he built the Bell Rock lighthouse) as well as vertically. When cemented together the blocks formed a solid mass that could not be broken apart without destroying the structure.
A cross section of Smeaton's Tower Lighthouse in Devon, showing the way that horizontally dovetailed blocks fit together to form an impenetrable layer.
Standing 36 metres above the high water mark, and almost 10 metres wide at its base, the white tower designed by James Walker has six rooms linked by a spiral staircase. In 1860 the Bailiff of Guernsey laid the foundation stone, and construction commenced. 2,500 tonnes of Cornish granite were used to build the tower, with the blocks being prepared and dressed on Castle Pier in St Peter Port by Cornish stonemasons before being numbered and transported to Le Bisseau by barge. Here, construction workers built the tower using a quick-drying cement, and when the weather was too poor for work on the lighthouse to take place they built the lighthouse keepers cottages at Portelet. The builders worked on the lighthouse in gangs of 16, and stayed in accommodation in Fort Grey when not working. The red light was lit for the first time on December 8th 1862, and flashed once every 45 seconds. It was visible at 13 nautical miles.
Approaching Les Hanois from the water, courtesy of Trinity House.
The lighthouse was operational until the lighthouse keepers and their families were evacuated on June 21st 1940, just prior to the German invasion of Guernsey. Whilst German troops occupied the lighthouse, the optic had been damaged by gunfire and it was not lit again until September 1945, after Guernsey had been liberated. In the meantime, though, the German military removed the traditional “banana” bunks found in all British lighthouses (they are curved to follow the walls) and installed six straight bunks perpendicular to one another in L-shapes, like a stack of jenga. Those bunks remain to this day, and Les Hanois is still the only lighthouse maintained by Trinity House that doesn’t have banana bunks.
A Stone Chance lantern and lens were installed in 1964, and then in 1979 a helicopter pad was built on top of the lighthouse to enable easier access for keepers and maintenance materials. In 1995 the light was automated and the lighthouse de-manned in early 1996 To facilitate this a solar array was installed underneath the heli-pad and the character of the light was altered to allow it to function adequately under solar power. It now emits two white flashes every 13 seconds and can be seen 20 nautical miles (37km) away. The light now functions not only as a warning light for the reefs off the west coast of Guernsey, but also provides a positioning fix for the 500-600 ships entering entering the Channel Traffic Separation scheme each day, the system that regulates the busiest shipping lane on the planet. Since automation, Les Hanois lighthouse is controlled remotely from Trinity Houses control centre in Essex, and the funding has reversed with the States of Guernsey bearing the maintenance costs with a nominal contribution from Trinity House, who undertake the work. A maintenance team now visit Les Hanois once every six months months for a fortnight each time, servicing the light, fog horn and all of the support apparatus as well as maintaining the building itself and its helipad.
Visible along much of the rugged southwest coast, Les Hanois stands offshore as a reminder of Guernsey’s rich maritime history and the sailors who risked (and in some cases lost) their lives fishing these waters and trading with our neighbours. Pleinmont Headland offers a fantastic view out over Les Hanois Lighthouse (take a look at our suggested walk around Pleinmont, here), and you’ll get a great birds-eye view of the lighthouse out of the plane window shortly after take-off from Guernsey Airport’s westbound runway.