Channel Watch

Channel Watch

by Haydon Luke, Fairlight History Group.

In the late autumn of 2020, observant visitors to the Country Park and those living in the Coastguard Cottages noticed something unusual – the radar scanner had stopped turning. What had been an ever-present background feature of life in the Country Park at Fairlight for as long as most people could remember, had ceased. For those who noticed (and many apparently didn’t) the question was ‘what’s happened?’

An enquiry to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency headquarters eventually elicited the information that:

“HM Coastguard is aware that there is a technical issue with a channel radar at the Dover Straits and we are currently working to resolve this issue.

‘Owing to its design, there is an overlap in the provision of this radar located on this section of the coast.

‘Cover is – and will be – maintained throughout the period of repair to the radar at Fairlight to ensure operational capacity is not affected.” (Email from MCGA Press Office, 17/12/20)

No surprise, then, when that very same day an impressive array of vehicles, including a giant crane, appeared at the end of Coastguard Lane and started the process of removing the faulty scanner and installing a (temporary) replacement.

The whole process was completed with great skill and precision and within 24 hours the scanner, a slightly different pattern from the previous, was turning again.

The process will be repeated later in 2021 when the old scanner, duly repaired, is reinstated. Meanwhile, the Channel watch from Fairlight continues, as it has done in more or less unbroken succession since the Middle Ages.

Since earliest times, men have used high points on land and at the coast to keep watch and to pass messages or warnings from one high point to another.  Greeks, Romans and Persians certainly used those methods.  We cannot be sure that the Romans used Fairlight in this way, though because it is such a good site for a signal station chances are they did. 

The evidence from more recent times for Fairlight’s use in this way is compelling.  In the 14th century for example, during the wars with the French, orders to erect fire signals, ‘with watchmen and sentinels in all proper stations’, were sent to the sheriffs of nearly every county in England including Sussex.” (1324) Further orders issued in 1337 and 1338 detailed that the fire signals should be made ‘as well upon the hills distant from the sea as in other places near the sea coast, and as often in such places as shall seem to (the sheriffs) expedient, and as was formerly wont to be done . . . and lighted as often as danger shall threaten.’  The beacons were to be guarded by ‘four, five or six men at arms or armed men’. (Kitchen, F, The Ghastly War Flame, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 124, (1986), 179-81)

What is not clear is the exact location of the Fairlight beacon – whether it was on Fairlight Down roughly where North’s Seat is, on the church tower, or whether it was where the radar scanner now stands or some other location.

What is clear is that over time the use of beacons became routine.  Beacons were in use, for example, at the time of the French attack on Brighton in 1514 and they are firmly fixed in the popular imagination by their use at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  It is a map from that period that provides the evidence that Fairlight was a crucial and established part of that system. 

As part of the preparations for the war with the Spanish, the authorities in the counties fronting the Channel were required to ensure that the beacons were ready.  In Kent, William Lambarde was the man who made the survey, and his map of 1587 clearly shows Fairlight as a key link between the beacons further west and the network of sight lines which would convey the signal to the Medway and to the government in London.

At the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 there was a danger that Charles Edward Stuart, the young Pretender, would lead an army of invasion from France to reclaim the throne whilst George II was away fighting in the Low Countries.  And so, on Christmas Day 1745, Admiral Vernon wrote to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Hastings: “As it would be for His Majesty’s Service to have a speedy Communication of Intelligence either by night or day, of the enemy’s appearance, with any Embarkation for attempting to invade His Majesty’s Dominions, I desire that you would write letters to the respective Churchwardens of the Parishes, and here undermentioned, to hoist a flag upon their church steeple, as a signal for it by day, and keep a fire alight in an iron pot, as a signal by night, at the same place, to be repeated from the respective churches for communicating the Intelligence from Beachy Head to the South Foreland…1st The churches and castles from the South Foreland to Beachy head were: Dover Castle, Folkestone Church, Sandgate Castle, Sandgate Church, Rye Church, Fairlee (Fairlight) Church, Pevensey Church, The Ness (Dungeness).”

By the 19th century, however, beacons had become ceremonial and celebratory, such as those marking various royal jubilees in Victoria’s and our own Queen’s reign. 

Although the role of beacons in coastal defence diminished as the years passed, the need for coastal vigilance itself did not.  The need became greater as smuggling became more of a problem for the authorities. Increasingly, too, the responsibility passed from parishes and churchwardens to other organisations, and the military character of these increased.

But whether those watching were civilian or military, the need for keen eyes and a reliable method of signalling remained paramount for the coastal watch.  By the end of the 18th century smuggling was out of control. It was estimated that about two thirds of the brandy drunk in England had been smuggled in!  There is absolutely no doubt that some of this came via Fairlight and the paths up from the beach in the Country Park, especially Fairlight Glen. Smuggling and war intensified the need for watchers.

In 1795, during the war with France, the Royal Navy set up a series of signal stations all along the south and east coast of England.  The signal stations would communicate intelligence through a series of marks on a flagpole and outriggers. Signals by flags and balls were communicated to and answered by ships at sea. The stations were managed 24 hours a day with signals being made by fires and blue lights at night-time. The sketch shows the general character of such stations and the one here in the Country Park would have been similar. Though primarily military, soon their value for general coast-watching purposes was recognised by the authorities.

These arrangements were eventually consolidated into an organisation known as the Coast Blockade, staffed by demobilised sailors from the Royal Navy.  The Blockade’s methods were often tough and proved to be the most effective yet against smugglers.  This scheme lasted until 1831 when it was absorbed into the Coast Guard.  Over the next 100 years or so their duties gradually expanded from anti-smuggling and coast defence into humanitarian duties such as life-saving and rescue, and the management of wrecks and much else besides. 

The station we are familiar with in the Country Park at the end of Coastguard Lane was originally developed as part of the Coast Blockade and would have been like the one in the sketch.  Later, with the establishment of the separate Coastguard service, the row of cottages was added around 1900.  The proliferation of Coastguard cottages in Fairlight (and at Pett Level) is evidence of the importance of the security of this stretch of coast to the authorities and of the need to have many pairs of eyes on watch. So, from east to west there were blocks of cottages and their associated look-out stations at Pett Level (originally housed in Martello tower no.38), Cliff End, at the Haddocks (eastern end of Fairlight Cove), at the end of Coastguard Lane (where the radar scanner is now), and at Ecclesbourne Glen in the Country Park.  Five stations on a three mile stretch of coast, plus, from 1927, a small lookout on the Fire Hills – the remains of which still exist.

 The sea took its toll of some of these stations – the one in the Martello tower No.36 at Pett Level became unusable when the structure began to break up as the shingle moved and that in tower 38 at Cliff End, Pett was blown up by Royal Engineers in 1872, whilst that at Ecclesbourne Glen became uninhabitable in winter storms in early 1859.  New cottages were built further up the cliff there and they survived until the early 1960s when further cliff falls had made them uninhabitable. In any event, the Coastguard had all but abandoned Ecclesbourne as a station by 1910.  Pett Coastguard Station was sold off in 1926, and by 1933 Fairlight was the only constant watch station between Newhaven and Dungeness.

The Second World War and the years thereafter of the ‘Cold War’ gave a new impetus to the Coastguard, and the Fairlight Station was modernised in 1971, in the process receiving a visit from the Duke of Edinburgh on 25 June.  At that time it had 9 volunteer watchmen and 15 in the rescue section.

From a peak in the early 1970s, however, the Coastguard was steadily reduced in manpower so that by August 1982 Fairlight was downgraded to a secondary station with merely two Coastguards and with the lookout being manned only during bad weather and when searches were active.  On 1st April 1998, the Coastguard merged with the Marine Safety Agency to become today’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).  The only remaining station locally is the sector office at Rock a Nore in Hastings, opened in October, 1990.

As time passed electronic surveillance and helicopters, backed up by mobile patrols, supplanted the keen eyes of teams of local men on watch.  More recently still the MCA has now established an automatic identification system (AIS) network around the UK coast, for real-time tracking and monitoring of shipping movements from the shore. With the development of all these technologies the need for shore stations diminishes.

The Fairlight station was a casualty of this progress and the lookout tower (seen in the picture at left in the winter of 2005) was finally dismantled in 2012.  But Fairlight’s continued importance in the wider scheme of things, for the time being at least, is testified to by the presence of the constantly rotating radar scanner at the end of Coastguard Lane. Which is where we came in.

So, for now, but for how much longer, the scanner in the Country Park remains – one of three (the others are at Margate and at Dover) – covering that busiest of all shipping lanes, the eastern English Channel? 

By Haydon Luke

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