PUBLISHED: 12:38 02 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Peter Booton discovers an unusual home on Portland, which also has a most fascinating history
Of the three lighthouses that stand at the southernmost tip of Portland, only the most recently built red-and-white-banded tower, which dates from 1906, now functions as a working navigational aid to shipping in the English Channel. The two older lighthouses, originally called 'upper' and 'lower' because of their relative locations at the Bill, were built in 1716 by a local consortium who were granted a 61-year lease by the Corporation of Trinity House.
However, when their manning of the lights proved unsatisfactory, Trinity House took over and, in 1789, rebuilt the lower lighthouse at a cost of £2,000. 'Upper' was refurbished the same year and installed with highly polished reflectors and oil-burning 'Argand' lamps, named after their French inventor, which made Portland the first lighthouse in England to be fitted with such devices. Less than 10 years later, when Napoleon was threatening to invade, two 18lb cannons were also installed.
Both lighthouses were rebuilt in 1869 and, that same year, were visited by an interested King George III while on one of his frequent trips to nearby Weymouth. They remained in service until the present lighthouse was built in 1906, when they were sold by Trinity House to private buyers: the Old Higher Lighthouse, as it is known today, selling for 400. Its near neighbour, the Old Lower Lighthouse, is now Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre where censuses on migrating birds are carried out.
After passing through the hands of various owners, famously including the birth-control pioneer and founder of Portland Museum, Dr Marie Stopes, the Old Higher Lighthouse was acquired in 1981 by the present owners who had been looking for an off-duty retreat from their business, running a home for the elderly near Dorchester.
Fran Lockyer recalls: "We'd bought a souvenir magazine of Portland and in it was an article on Marie Stopes. It mentioned the lighthouse and said, 'It now awaits a buyer'. So we went along and had a look. It had been empty for a number of years and was derelict, overgrown and vandalised. Les and I thought it was wicked that it had been allowed to get into such a state. There was no glass in any of the windows, half the roofs were down and there wasn't one single room that didn't have water coming in. The tower had no top on it so the rain poured in. Also, there was no water, gas or electricity and the only living accommodation was in the two keepers' cottages, but there wasn't a habitable room in either!"
Clearly, the old lighthouse needed considerable work before they could move in and so Les lived in a motorhome on the site and worked there more or less full time. However, as they still had their business in Dorchester, Fran was only able to come down and help out at weekends. Enclosed by a perimeter wall of local stone, the site at that time included the roofless lighthouse tower adjoined by two cottages, one each for the night- and day-keepers, a paraffin store and the 'long lower ladder shed', a tumbledown stone outbuilding which contained pigsties and stables.
"First we did up the cottage where Marie Stopes had lived and then we moved into it," explains Fran. "Between 1982 and 1983 we restored the second cottage and the following year we put a top on the tower. Then in 1988 we built the swimming pool and converted the old paraffin store into self-contained accommodation for guests. We named it Branscombe Lodge because that is what a previous owner had called the lighthouse. During the recession in 1991, our son Tony, who is a builder, was laid off and so he helped us build the bungalow in which we live now, on the site of the former pigsties and stables."
Dr Stopes owned the Old Higher Lighthouse from 1923 to 1958 and was visited by a number of famous guests, including George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Thomas Hardy who came to tea with his wife. During the Second World War, Dr Stopes rented out what was her summer home to naval officers stationed on Portland. There they held weekend parties and enjoyed visits from their family and friends. On one occasion the officers were entertained by three ballet dancers, including a young ballerina by the name of Margot Fonteyn who was chaperoned by her mother. Their return journey to London, in an old motor car nicknamed 'Goliath', took six hours and they arrived just in time for a rehearsal of Sleeping Beauty.
Following a short period in the 1960s when it was a restaurant, the property earned notoriety for a while as a 'house of ill repute'. Les and Fran were unaware of this until after their first visit to the local pub where a man remarked that they lived in the 'red-light district'. Les takes up the story: "In those days the radio station at the Bill had tall pylons for catching the signals and on top of each was a red light. We thought he was referring to those. Then the same man said, 'Didn't you think there was something odd about the locks on your doors?' We didn't get any keys when we bought the place and I'd tried to get some cut, but the locksmith said they were 'high security' locks and he couldn't copy the keys. It seems that the lighthouse's 'clientele', who were said to be important people, each had a special key!"
Mindful that their home, a Grade II Listed building, was situated in a scenic location and possessed a long and fascinating history which interested many visitors to Portland, Fran and Les decided to offer their facilities to guests. Stopes and Keepers are now on long-term lets and Branscombe Lodge's self-catering accommodation is available all year round. Guests enjoy free access to the tower and may use the powerful gun-sight binoculars, installed by Les, which are thought to have come from a Second World War British aircraft carrier.
Supposedly, Dr Stopes' only son, Harry, was conceived at the top of the tower 'beneath the stars' in the summer of 1923. Could that perhaps explain its attraction for those guests who have insisted on spending a night there in more recent times? Whatever the truth of the tower's potency, at least two couples are known to be delighted with the outcome!
Location: Portland Bill
Accommodation: 'The Point' (Fran and Les's 1991-built bungalow): sitting room, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms. Keepers Cottage and Stopes Cottage (the original cottages adjoining the lighthouse which were built at the same time) each have two bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen and bathroom. Branscombe Lodge Cottage has two bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen on the ground floor, with a large sitting room on the first floor
For details of the self-catering accommodation at Branscombe Lodge Cottage (visit Britain 4 Star) (01305 822300) or visit www.oldhigherlighthouse.com
Carpentry for the rebuilt lighthouse tower: Clark's Boatworks Ltd, Crown Wharf, 1-5 Castletown, Portland. (01305 860265)