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Burnham-on-Sea High Lighthouse

Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

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Photo by  Adrian and Janet Quantock 

One of three lighthouses in Burnham-on-Sea:-

Before any of these the first light was in a church tower.

Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse is currently in use as a lighthouse the other two are not.

The High lighthouse or pillar lighthouse is one of three lighthouses in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset. A Grade II listed building, it is no longer functional as a lighthouse and is now holiday apartments. Although it also still serves as a day mark for coastal navigation.

Burnham-on-Sea is notable for its beach and mudflats, which are characteristic of Bridgwater Bay and the rest of the Bristol Channel where the tide can recede for over 1.5 miles (2.4km). Burnham is close to the estuary of the River Parrett where it flows into the Bristol Channel, which has the second highest tidal range in the world of 15 metres (49ft), second only to Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. The constantly shifting sands have always been a significant risk to shipping in the area.

The 30 metre (98ft) pillar or High Lighthouse was designed and built by Joseph Nelson for Trinity House, in the 1830's and equipped with a paraffin lamp, which shone through a half-gallery under a window. It was used in conjunction with the Low lighthouse, Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse, which is still operating, to replace the original Round Tower Lighthouse, Burnham-on-Sea Round Tower, which itself had been built to replace the light kept burning in the tower of St Andrews Church to guide fishing boats into the harbour.

The ground floor was 5 metres (16ft) in diameter and the top room 3 metres (9.8ft). It was automated in 1920.

In the 1990's it was deactivated and sold by Trinity House and bought by a member of the Rothschild family. The red stripe on the building is still used as a day range.

The Rothschild family owned it until 1996 when it was bought at auction by Patrick O'Hagan. Conversion for residential use included the removal of the 6th floor and the construction of stairs where there had previously only been ladders.

It is now available for holiday lets. It can sleep 6 with 3 bedrooms and is split over 8 floors, you can see details of this, the current inside and some views from windows on its own website at www.lighthouseholiday.com They also have a history page.

The story of the three lighthouses, and the church tower

The Bristol Channel has the second greatest tidal range of any stretch of water in the world and can be extremely dangerous. In the 1700's it was estimated 2,000 boats used the River Parrett each day to load and unload cargo from Bridgwater Bay. Their route was surrounded by treacherous sand-banks.

The first version of the story starts  back on a stormy night in 1750 when a sailor's wife lit a candle in the window of her home at Burnham-on-Sea to guide her husband home. From his tiny vessel, far out in the Bristol Channel, the seaman saw the signal and it guided him safely back to Burnham - through raging seas.

After hearing the story of the candle in the window, seamen agreed to pay the woman a levy to keep the light burning:

These fees were:-

  • Coasting Vessels paid 3/-,

  • British Ships 5/-

  • Foreign Ships 10/-.

This would have been a lot of money in that time, and its not clear if this represents a fee per year or whatever, but with a lot of ships this would have produced, if true, a considerable income.

A local curate the Rev. David Davies realised there was money to be made. The church sexton was sent to buy the business from the old woman for the vast sum of 5 pounds, which does not seem much compared with the income she would have been getting or going to get. The story says she died a wealthy widow, but perhaps more facts are missing.

The curate lit a beacon on the roof of the St Andrew's church tower. He later built a 4 storey round tower next to the church and this became Burnham's first lighthouse, the remains of which still stand to this day, although truncated and having castellations added to avoid confusion.

In 1813 Rev Davies negotiated with Trinity House, Britain's official lighthouse Authority chartered by Henry VIII in 1514, a 100 year lease to continue his commercial enterprises. In return he paid them 135 pounds each year.

By 1830 Trinity House decided to buy back the remaining 85 years of the lease agreement and paid Rev Davies 13,681, 17S 3d.

There is a slight problem with this, in that 80 years has elapsed and the enterprising curate is still a curate in the same position, so he's still working and now well over 100 years old. Perhaps he should have bottled the water that was keeping him going, but no that's a part of the second version.

A second version of the story

Another version says that during the 18th century a light was placed on the top of St Andrews Church tower to guide fishing boats into the harbour.

A local vicar, either John Goulden in 1764 or Walter Harris in 1799, raised a subscription amongst the local population to replace the light on the church, with a lighted tower. This was built in 1800 to 1801,when the curate David Davies paid the verger 20 to build the round tower attached to his house.

Some funds were raised from local merchants and ship owners, however by 1813 funds were insufficient and David Davies was given permission to levy dues to supplement the 135 annual income, as this wasn't enough for the lights maintenance. A 100 year lease was attached to the permission to levy fees, however later, the outstanding 85 years of the lease was sold to Trinity House around 1829.

Funds from the sale to Trinity House were used by the then vicar, Rev David Davies, to improve the area in an attempt to create a spa town.

Another slightly different variation says

The Rev. David Davies was granted a lease for a permanent light in Burnham on Sea, in the early 19th century. This was a lucrative enterprise. The dues were five shillings for British ships, ten for foreign ones and three shillings for coastal vessels. And the port of Bridgwater, a little further up the river, was getting increasingly busy.

Beyond this the various versions continue in parallel

In 1829 Trinity House bought the lease.

Three years on, a pair of leading lights was built to guide ships into the River Parrett. This may have been undertaken in two stages as it' said that Trinity House asked Joseph Nelson to design and build Burnham High Lighthouse, on the sand dune and that he later designed the low lighthouse on the beach.

Joseph Nelson used wooden scaffold poles, ropes and pulleys, employing strong men to heave the massive blue stone blocks eight storeys into the air, to create the High lighthouse. Originally the lighthouse tower was equipped with a paraffin lamp the old oil store can still be seen in the back garden of one of the keeper's cottages. The lighthouse itself was heated by coal fires.

Early photographs show it once had two chimneys and an elaborate weather vane on the roof and the many postcards prove it was a popular tourist attraction.

Burnham High Lighthouse became the first lighthouse in Britain to be automated back in the 1920's. At that time the two keeper's jobs became redundant. Their cottages and much of the surrounding land was sold-off by Trinity House to become private houses.


Early postcard showing how it looked in earlier times, possibly 1910.

Image from Camera Images archive

Lighthouse information Grid


Burnham-on-Sea High Lighthouse, Somerset

Current status:

No longer in use, light ceased operation in 1996
The tower remains in service as a day range

Geographic Position:

Within the town not far from the beach based low light.

Located on Berrow Road, just north of Stodden's Road, about 500m east of the low light in Burnham-on-Sea

Grid Reference:


Ceremonial County:



Tall white tower with red strip down front

Map Link:

 Getamap Ordnance Survey

Aerial photo:

Google satellite view

Other photos:

Geograph photo photo  Geograph

Originally built:


Current lighthouse built:


Height of Tower:

98ft 30m

Height of light above mean sea level:

30m+27m (I think)

Character of light:

No light now but red strip is part of day range

none now - was Occulting White 7.5s

Character of fog signal:


Range of light:

Was 17 miles

Owned / run by:

Used as holiday apartments www.lighthouseholiday.com

Getting there:

Located on Berrow Road just north of Stodden's Road in Burnham-on-Sea, about 500m (0.4 mi) east of the low light


No access unless you use a holiday apartment


Information on history    Burnham-on-sea information

Other Useful Websites:

Wiki     LD


Other Relevant pages:

For more articles, lists and other information see the Lighthouses Section

Lighthouse Map of England and Wales

Featured List of Lighthouses - England and Wales  

List of Minor Lighthouses and Lights - England and Wales

Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse

Burnham-on-Sea Round Tower



Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Grid or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

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By: Keith Park   Section:  Lighthouses Section Key:
Page Ref: Burnham_on_Sea_High Topic: Lighthouses Last Updated: 09/2012


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