By DAISY WALLAGE Monday, July 30, 2012
– with permission from EDP24 online
With an endless sky, tantalising glimpses of the The Wash and wildfowl flying overhead, this stunning, sometimes lonely view was lost for decades as time took its toll on east bank lighthouse at Sutton Bridge.
Now, after months of loving restoration, visitors can finally climb to the top and bask in the uninterrupted views that so inspired the artist and conservation pioneer Sir Peter Scott more than 70 years ago.
Owners Sue and Doug Hilton bought the lighthouse, on the mouth of the River Nene, in November 2010 and are steadily achieving their goal of opening a museum and visitor centre at the site as well as restoring the landmark tower itself.
New, locally crafted steel handrails on the lighthouse stairs will allow visitors to explore beyond Sir Peter’s living room to his second floor bedroom and the lamp room during a series of open weekends next month.
“It has restored a stunning view,” Mr Hilton said. “It’s been a kind of mad but constructive whirl fitted in amongst everything else we have going on in our lives, but the lighthouse has a personality of its own and won’t be left out.”
Sir Peter, son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, lived in the lighthouse from 1933 until the outbreak of the second world war.
It was there, surrounded by the unspoiled beauty of the marshes, that he made the transition from a wildfowler to a famous wildlife artist and writer.
The 24-year-old went on to become one of the world’s most influential conservationists, a founder member of both the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
Mr and Mrs Hilton felt strangely compelled to take on the project, just as the previous owner Commander David Joel had been when he snapped up the lighthouse in 1985.
It is said Cdr Joel, himself an artist, drove 200 miles to buy the derelict lighthouse within hours of seeing it advertised and it seems the 82-year-old building still knows how to charm.
Work to restore the large ponds is only under way because workers from Birse Engineering and Fenland Ditching were so taken by the lighthouse.
The companies had been working on a Centrica project to install wind farm power cables nearby and are donating manpower, equipment and thousands of pounds worth of materials to the project.
“They had to pass the lighthouse every day and they fell in love with the place,” Mr Hilton said. “They insisted on helping with the lion’s share of the work to rebuild the ponds and on supplying clay for the new liner.
“Before the ponds were filled with a black sludge and the birds wouldn’t even go in them. We had to come up with the new designs quite quickly and it’s fantastic to see the work being done.
“We had not anticipated even starting until very much later in the year. Now when people visit they will be able to see the progress we’re making.”
The ponds were previously pumped from a ditch, but the lighthouse birds will now benefit from less salty water after a new 50m bore hole was drilled on site.
Once finished, the ponds will be a scale model of The Wash, with the four rivers leading into it, and will be used for education purposes.
“It will help schools to understand which rivers are where and they can then follow the story of where they go and what they do,” Mr Hilton said. “We are here to connect people to their surroundings for their good and that of the environment.
“The area the ponds occupy is of global significance in the conservation and environmental fields. It is where the young Peter Scott first formed ponds for the bird collection that made his realise the need for conservation on a global scale and leading subsequently to the formation of the World Wildlife Fund.
“The lighthouse birds of the 1930s also formed the original stock of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.”
Sir Peter left the lighthouse in 1939 for duty with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and found it in a poor state of repair when he returned.
Pressure to grow food during the war saw the lighthouse effectively move a third of a mile inland, as more of the coast was reclaimed from the sea.
Without the free flowing tidal pools and saltings he needed to keep his wildfowl collection on, he could never return, Mr Hilton said, and a new chapter in the lighthouse’s history began.
The couple are transforming Sir Peter’s garage and boathouse into a cafe and museum celebrating his work and with planning permission in place, they hope to open the visitor centre in August next year.
“We have been collecting display cabinets and have the biggest private collection of Sir Peter Scott memorabilia,” Mrs Hilton said.
From this weekend, the lighthouse will be open every Saturday and Sunday in August from 11am to 4pm, plus bank holiday Monday.
Entry costs £5 for adults, £4 for concessions and under 16s while children under five go free.
Find out more at www.snowgoosewildlifetrust.org.