Beacons have been with us since early man formed tribal societies, both as a means of communication and celebration. The use of a light beacon to pass messages between military units was common in the Roman Legions (a fire was obscured by a cloak or shield), and the author Rosemary Sutcliffe in her novel ‘The Lantern Bearers’, tells of a great ‘light’ in the Roman fortress of Rutupiae (Richborough, in Kent) at the end of Roman rule in the province of Britannia in 410 AD.
A warning blaze at night, or column of smoke by day, would rouse the local fighting men, and cause non-combatants to flee. If necessary, the signal would be passed along a long chain of beacons, thereby alerting the whole country. The ideal location for a beacon, therefore, is a high spot, with unobstructed sight lines in all directions for as far as possible. There is a range of mountains in South Wales called the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog), which were named for the fact that many of the peaks carried beacons to warn of invaders. Here we see the beacon at Crich, in Derbyshire; a relatively new short stone tower, with a ‘basket’ for the combustible material on top, is perched near the top of a 1,000 foot hill. The plaque at the base of the tower is inscribed as follows:-
‘The Queen’s Golden Jubilee – This beacon, on the site of many predecessors, was commissioned by Crich Parish Council to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, and was first fired 3rd June, 2002′
Since the hill on which the beacon (and Crich Tower) stands offers a magnificent viewpoint – eight counties can be seen from the top of the nearby Tower, and a lit beacon could be seen almost from coast to coast - it is certain that the many ‘predecessor beacons’ have played a part in national, as well as local, history.
In 1588, King Phillip of Spain sent a huge fleet to pick up an army of 55,000 men from the then-Spanish Netherlands, and invade England, with the objective of deposing Queen Elizabeth I, and re-converting the country to Catholicism. This fleet was known as the Spanish Armada (Grande y Felicísima Armada), and its arrival off the shores of the West Country led to the lighting of beacons all over the country. Fortunately, thanks to admirable seamanship by the English sailors, and fortuitous stormy weather, the Armada was defeated. One of the beacons used was at Culmstock in the Blackdown Hills in Devon, and it is fairly certain that the existing beacon at Crich would have been fired also. It is uncertain whether or not the beacon would have been lit during the very last act of insurrection on British soil, the Pentrich Rebellion of 1817 (Pentrich is only 4 miles away from Crich), but certainly the rebels were met by a detachment of the 15th Light Dragoons when they tried to march on Nottingham Castle.
Beacons have been lit in celebration on many occasions – for example, ‘Fire over England’ in July, 1988 (the 400th Anniversary of the Armada), ‘Beacon Europe’, on 31st December, 1992, to celebrate the Single European Market (12 countries at that time), and the Millenium on 31st December, 1999. Crich Beacon was fired on 3rd June, 2002 as one of a chain no less than 2,006 beacons, worldwide, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The next time it was lit was on 4th June, 2012 – to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee!
Beacons are not just an historic means of communication, they still play a vital celebratory rôle in today’s multi-cultural Britain. Oh, and for those of you who might be wondering what the world would have been like if the Armada had succeeded (I am a big fan of allohistory), try the splendid novel ‘Pavane’, by Keith Roberts!