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Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Needles lighthouse on Isle of Wight shines on
The Needles
The Needles lighthouse is among the UK's most recognisable landmarks

"There is nothing that a mariner likes better than to see a proper, hard light shining out," says attendant of the light, Sean Crane, as he approaches the iconic Needles lighthouse.

With the sea conditions always unpredictable, even getting onto the lighthouse is a difficult task.

Since 1859 its light has guided ships in one of the south coast's most treacherous stretches of water.

Work to repair the chalk and granite foundations has just been completed.

Narrow passage

The red and white Needles lighthouse guards the entrance to the western Solent.

Just off the end of the Needles formation is the Shingles, an infamous three-mile-long shifting shoal of pebbles just beneath the waves.

Sean Crane
Sean Crane checks the lighthouse is running efficiently each month

In between the rocks and the Shingles is a deep tidal race - a narrow channel with fast flowing currents.

Countless ships have been wrecked in these waters over the centuries.

Among the most famous shipwrecks are Vliegende Draecke and Campen, which were owned by the East India Company, bound for Indonesia when they sank in 1627.

In 1979, 8,000 silver coins were recovered from the Campen.

The Irex was wrecked in 1890 when her captain mistook the lighthouse light for a pilot ship's light and sailed toward it.

Soldiers at the Needles battery used a rocket to fire a line onto the stricken vessel and rescued 19 of the 36 crewmen although the captain, first mate and boatswain lost their lives.

In 1947, the Greek steamer Varvassi suffered engine failure and was wrecked on the rocks in a storm. Her crew, and her cargo of tangerines, were successfully rescued.

Needles lighthouse

Built by Trinity House in 1859 at a cost of £20,000
Designed by James Walker
Stands 33.25 metres (109.1 ft) high
Helipad added in 1987
Automated in 1994

The wreck is still a danger to shipping around the Needles.

Solitary life

Until it switched to automated operation on 8 December 1994, the Needles lighthouse was permanently staffed by three keepers.

It was one of the last three remaining manned rock lighthouses in England.

The keepers worked one month on then one month off.

Although that was dependant on weather conditions being calm enough to be able to arrive and depart the rock - they could be stuck in the lighthouse for up to six weeks at a time.

The three keepers would live in the basic accommodation quarters below the light.

The current attendant of the light, Sean Crane, only has to visit the lighthouse for a monthly maintenance check.

The light is powered from the Isle of Wight mains, but has an emergency generator and battery back-up so" there will always be a light working."

Being in the lighthouse in stormy conditions is an experience in itself.

Mr Crane said: "The tower does actually move a little when you get an extreme wave hit it - you feel a little vibration going right up through the tower.

The last shift before the lighthouse was automated in 1994
The last shift before the lighthouse was automated in 1994

"Its been there 150 years, so one more storm won't matter."

Future's bright

The £500,000 work to repair the foundations will ensure the lighthouse's stability for the next 50 years.

Despite global positioning (GPS) technology on board modern ships, lighthouses like the Needles are far from redundant.

Ron Blakely, the civil engineer who is overseeing the Needles project, said: "With the narrow entrance, we've got a marker of the safe routes.

"It works in parallel with the projecting light from Hurst Castle [on the mainland] - between them they do a very important job."

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22 Nov 10 |  Hampshire & Isle of Wight
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13 Nov 10 |  England


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