W03: Beacons

The use of the word ‘beacon’ is often juxtaposed with ‘navigational aid’, but is it one and the same? In common English parlance, a beacon is a signalling device - the forerunner of the carrier pigeon or the telegraph - but not necessarily a navigational aid. The use of beacons, or hilltop fires – certainly in British history – was as a means of sending signals, usually for warning purposes, the approach of an invading army, for example, across large distances. They can be used in daytime or at night, but obviously are more visible at night. A typical dictionary definition of ‘beacon’ in the marine context is as follows:

Beacon [1]:

(1) A stake or other erection surmounted by a distinctive topmark, erected over a shoal or sandbank as an aid to navigation.

(2) A prominent erection on shore which indicates a safe line of approach to a harbour or a safe passage clear of an obstruction.

However, in older days, fire beacons, on the tops of cliffs or hills, were used as a means of warning on the approach of danger. Thus, news of the arrival in English waters of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was signalled from Plymouth to London by a chain of such fires ignited as soon as the flames from the previous fire were seen. In fact, the news of the Armada’s arrival in the Channel was brought as far north as York within 12 hours by means of beacon fires.

In the UK, there are many geographical features that bear the name of Beacon, for example, Dunkery Beacon, a hill in North Devon, England having a top that is visible for many miles. Such hills were named in historical times because they were used as prominent locations from which to make an easily visible signal. It is true that this would probably have been by means of a fire, but it is not a requirement.

Even in 2002, a chain of beacons was lit in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II – nothing to do with navigation. However, it was inevitable that the use of beacons could be extended into aids to navigation and it is common to use the word, beacon, to refer to such aids. Note that a beacon does not have to be lit. It can be any artefact visible or recognisable at a distance for whatever purpose. This paper will discuss all those beacons that are navigational aids. However, all beacons are not navigational aids and all navigational aids are not beacons. (See Figure 1)