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The Beacons and Their Story

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Beacons on high hills roused those men whom we vaguely call "The Ancient Britons" to coming danger just as they warned our more immediate ancestors of some Border foray or French raid. Nowadays, if we go about the country, we notice, on asking the name of this or that hill, that it is frequently called "So-and-so Beacon." We look up to the remote summit, high in the air, and picture generations of men busy about a pile of faggots and brushwood and then waiting eagerly, anxiously, with the firelight playing upon their faces, for an answer from across the wide distance of a shire.

Everybody likes to attain the ultimate height of a hill - the toil of climbing is all forgotten in the view at the top. Every healthy-minded person enjoys a bonfire. Unite these two attractions, then add the thrill of danger and the interest of signalling, and you begin to understand the possibilities in a beacon.

There are beacon sites all over England, some remembered, some which have actually been used within living memory, but many more which are forgotten. We shall presently examine two particularly, and these shall serve as typical examples.

For of the various beacons which were devised to suit varying circumstances we can distinguish two general sorts. First, the grand beacon, the imposing pile of brushwood or furze at the summit of one of the greater hills; and, second, the tar-barrel or pitch-pot or torch, set up on a pole and usually fastened to a church tower or castle keep. For in England there are large tracts of country which are not sufficiently commanded by any conspicuous height, and in such parts, where a greater number of fires would be necessary, the pitch-pot or " cresset " type of beacon was more economical.

There is a famous poem of Macaulay's which many young persons are constrained to learn by heart. All who have undergone this feat of memory will recollect examples of these two types of beacon which we have just mentioned. At the end of the poem the poet speaks of the fiery message (which tells of the approach of the Spanish Armada) as flaming "On Gaunt's embattled pile" - a cresset on Lancaster Castle - and that it was "The red glare on Skiddaw" - a great bonfire, this - which "Roused the burghers of Carlisle."

The fells of Lancashire and the long chain of the Pennines from the Peak of Derbyshire to the mountains of the Lake District provided an almost endless line of beacon sites, some of which could simultaneously summon great parts of Lancashire on the one hand and Yorkshire on the other. From the Lancashire height of Pendle Hill (1,831 feet) York Minster is said to be visible in good weather and, for that matter the Isle of Man, some ninety miles away, as well.

The history of the Fire Signal must be nearly as old, in England, as the knowledge of fire itself, and the bare Downs of Sussex, Wiltshire and Dorset are ideal for the purpose. Furthermore, these places are known to have been the habitat of Early Man, partly, at least, because he could safely walk on these heights unhampered by swamp or forest and be sure of a good view of any enemy who might arrive. The Downs, then, must be among the very oldest beacon sites in the country.

It is thought that the Celtic tribes used beacons not only for signalling, but for ritual purposes. The Romans may have made use of them, and subsequently the ancient beacon-hearths were used at the Pagan feast of Beltane in the spring.

To determine the period of a beacon-hearth is difficult, for the top of a hill is often crowned by a barrow or tumulus. And this would obviously be the place to build one's pile of combustibles. On the other hand, what may look like remains of a prehistoric barrow may really be only a more recent mound for a beacon-hearth. That such mounds are often found in Ancient British camps makes the problem harder. At Dowsborough, in the Quantock Hills of Somerset, one may find a beacon-hearth in a British camp, and there are others to be seen similarly placed at Ditchling Beacon and at Mount Caburn, both in Sussex.

The latter hill can be seen close to the railway between Eastbourne and Lewes on the Lewes side of Glynde station, and is worth a little study. From the lowlands round Ripe it appears as a great knoll at the end of an isolated range of Downs cut off from the main line of chalk hills running westward from Beachy Head. The name of Mount Caburn, incidentally, is perhaps derived from the Celtic "Caer Bryn" - hill fort. The camp on the summit must once have been a very formidable fortification indeed. On the east and south faces of the hill, those which can be easily seen from the train, the grass slope is extremely steep, and if you climb it you will also find it extraordinarily slippery. This hill rises straight out of the level of the rivers Glynde and Ouse, whose marshes, in former times, once added a further defence to this stronghold. Here, you see, our discovery of a beacon has opened up all sorts of possibilities. The beacon in the camp at the top is 490 feet above the sea.

A few other hill tops used as beacons may be mentioned at random. Pilsdon Pen (909 feet), for instance, which is the highest hill in Dorset and about four miles from Beaminster; and the hill called Shoulsbury Castle, Somerset, whose beacon is said to be visible right across the Bristol Channel from the mountain called Pen-y-Fan, nearly 3,000 feet high, in Wales. Pen-y-Fan is one of a range in Brecknockshire, significantly called the Beacon Hills. A tumulus on a hilltop seems to have been used at Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, on the north-east border of the county, and this commands parts of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire. The Monks Kirby beacon forms the apex of a triangle whose other two points are the hills at Burton-Dasset and Bickenhill (the last named perhaps a corruption of Beacon Hill), both in the same county. These latter could be seen from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire and from Staffordshire and Worcestershire respectively. The greatest distance between any two of these points is about twenty-two miles.

But now let us explore our principal example of a great hill crowned by a beacon-hearth. At the apex of a wedge of Downs between the Cuckmere Valley and the Newhaven Ouse is Firle Beacon. Its height is 718 feet. We approach it from the village of West Firle (there is no East Firle), and there is a road, of sorts, to within about a mile of the summit. For motor cars the descent is rather dangerous.

The beacon, when one reaches it, seems to be the remains of an old barrow. It stands up, a low mound, and makes a definite summit from all sides. As we stand upon it with the wind from all Sussex blowing in our faces, we see to the right, or east, the line of Downs bending backwards towards the Cuckmere gap and Alfriston, while to the left they undulate towards the gap in the range formed by the river Ouse. When we turn round and face south we look right out over the Channel, with Newhaven and its stone jetty far away to the right or west, and Seaford Head to our left. Between Firle and the sea the country seems all downland - long, curving humps like the backs of basking whales. There is nothing to interrupt the view except the state of the weather. For the winds only allow gorse, and that of a rather stunted sort, to grow up here, where even when the day seems still down below, there is a breeze here. For our other example of a beacon we will go to Middlesex. On the northern outskirts of Barnet, to the east of the common where the great battle was fought in 1471, is the little village of Monken Hadley. As one walks towards the toll-gate the church tower becomes visible and, at its summit, there is something unfamiliar. Here is, so far as can be ascertained, the last surviving cresset in England outside of a museum. For a near view it is necessary to ascend the tower, and a dark, difficult and somewhat perilous ascent it is. The cresset is fastened to an angle-turret at the south-west corner of the church tower. The brazier or fire-box itself rather resembles a gallon tankard. The bottom is provided with iron bars. Into this combustibles were put, and the draught through the bars must have made a great flare. The brazier is held between four iron fingers which rise from an iron bracket. The bracket is attached to an oaken post as thick as a whippingpost, almost, and this is in turn buttressed by four oak supports. The whole thing is immensely strong.

One can gain a good idea of the country which this beacon warned. The view comprises a circle in which the tower seems to stand somewhat west of the centre. On a clear day one could probably see High Beech in Epping Forest, and certainly the dark line of woodland away on the eastern horizon is part of Henry VIII's great hunt. To the north-west lies Enfield Chase, where Elizabeth used to gallop after the deer. To the south the ridge from which the Alexandra Palace protrudes four towers, like grotesque listening ears, marks the last height above London. Looking this way, the hill of Chipping Barnet lies to the right, and so the Hadley Beacon would be uninterrupted and visible from Finchley and High-gate. Westward, there are timbered fields towards the Holyhead Road, and to the north-west Ridge Hill can be made out.

At the foot of the tower is a cluster of red roofs, chimneys and gables, and to one side a small graveyard - all in miniature from this height.

In the reign of Elizabeth the locality was called, significantly, Beacon's Hill. The cresset was blown down in a gale in January 1779, according to the account of a vestry meeting for that date in the parish records. It was lighted March 10, 1863, on the occasion of the marriage of the Prince of Wales (afterwards Edward VII) and during the Peace celebrations of 1919.

There is a theory that the brazier was used to guide travellers through the wooded country of Enfield Chase, and it, or its predecessor, was probably fired when the news of the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 arrived. It is interesting to note that a representation of this type of beacon, the cresset, sometimes appears on trade-tokens of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

An old record shows that in the seventeenth century there was a beacon of the cresset type on Hertford Heath. It was not, however, fixed to any building, but to a tall pole. Orders for its repair have been traced for the years 1624 and 1667. On the latter occasion "two Justices were to examine into the state and repair of the beacon on Hertford Heath for this part of the country and give orders for the repair of the same." This beacon seems to have stood about a mile-and-a-half out of Hertford Town on some high ground commanding the hill country about the Essex border.

It should be realized that it was very necessary to have some ready means of spreading alarms in former times. Until the days of the Tudors, raids by French pirates and Barbary Rovers frequently took place. We are apt to forget nowadays how the south coast was constantly harried by such marauders. Many a youth and maiden of Devon and Cornwall was Captured - the one for the galleys and the other for the slave markets of Algeria and Morocco. As well as such local alarms there were constant rumours of invasion at various times, and in the north there was always the chance of Moss Troopers coming over the border to burn and harry.

In the reign of Edward III contrivances called "pitch-boxes" were set on poles as alarm signals and as guides to ships at sea. They were used in Elizabeth's time to guide shipping in the Thames. The power to erect beacons was vested in the Sovereign, and a special commission had to be obtained before anyone else was permitted to do so. Certain families received grants from the Crown for this purpose, and some of them bore a cresset or beacon-fire in their coat of arms in consequence. It was evidently considered an honour, and this in itself points to the importance of the old beacon in our national life. One such family, the Belknaps, had as their crest "A fiery Beacon proper Or, on a Griffin Vert," according to the heraldic reading.

Here is an illustration of what was thought of beacons in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It is taken from a quaint book called "A Perambulation of Kent," written in 1570 by a man who subscribes himself " William Lambarde of Lincolne's Inn, Gent." He prints a most interesting map or chart of the beacons in Kent, showing by lines joining beacon to beacon those which were mutually visible. This is a most curious and unique piece of work. Mr. William Lambarde (Gent.) says:

"As in warre celeritie availeth no less, than force itself: so... the Right Honourable Sir William Brooke (who hath been sole Lieutenant of this shire, since the first of hir Maiesties Raigne) foreseeing how necessarie it was to have the forces of the countrie speedily draw together, for the encounter of any hostilitie: and finding, that upon the fiering of the Beacons (which are erected for that service) not only the common sort, but even men of place and honour, were ignorant which way to direct their course, & therby (through amasednesse) as likely to run from the place affected, as to make to the succour of it: caused the true places of the Beacons to be plotted in Carde, with directorie lines, so many sundrie waies, as any of them did respect the other: By which any man, with little labour, may be assured, where the danger is, and thereof informe his neighbours.

"... And now, if any man shall thinke, that this laying open of the Beacons, is a point not meete to bee made publicke: I pray him to give me leave to dissent in that opinion from him. For, as the profit to the Realme & subject is manifest... so there is no secret hereby disclosed... Yea rather the enemie is prevented, when he seeth that we can and do make so good and readie use of our Beacons... But as (no doubt) the necessitie of them is apparent: So were it good, that for the more speedie spreading of the knowledge of the enimies comming, they were assisted with some horsemen (anciently called of their Hobies, or nags, Hobeliers) that beside the fire (which on a bright shining day is not so well descried) might also run from Beacon to Beacon, and supply that notice of the danger at hande."

Scotland, of course, had its beacons, and it is recorded that during the Napoleonic scare, when all the kingdom had been stirred up to be ready, at any moment, to fight for its very hearths and lives,- a beacon was lighted on Home Castle, Berwickshire. This was done under a misapprehension; but it had the effect of showing what a formidable means of alarm a good system of beacons might be, and - incidentally - the stout temper of the inhabitants.

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