The National Trust and The National Coastwatch Institution working together around the Lizard

A Partnership born on the Lizard

The National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) is a voluntary organisation set up in 1994 to restore a visual watch along UK shores after many small Coastguard stations had to close down because of Government cuts. When two fishermen from Cadgwith lost their lives off the Cornish coast below the recently closed lookout, local people decided to restore the visual watch and the first station opened at Bass Point near Lizard village. NCI was born. Others quickly followed suit and by 2006, thirtythree operational stations will be keeping watch around the British Isles.

The National Trust is an independent charity, founded in 1895 for the preservation of places of historic interest or natural beauty. The National Trust is particularly active on the Lizard Peninsula, where they own and manage over 20 miles of spectacular coastline and over 40 buildings for the benefit of the nation. From the sheltered beauty of Frenchman’s Creek on the Helford, to the wild open cliffs of Black Head and Predannack and the busy tourist attractions of Kynance Cove, Lizard Point and Mullion Harbour, all are managed by the Trust for the benefit of conservation and public access.

When the NCI approached the National Trust in 1994 with a view to using the disused Coastguard station at Bass Point as the first NCI station, the Trust were happy to oblige. Not only was this the birth of the NCI, but also the start of a long-term partnership between the two charities.

This year, the National Trust will be converting a further two buildings into Coastwatch Stations.

The small black hut overlooking Cadgwith was originally built as watch house by the coastguard service in about 1875. Later the focus of coastguard activities shifted to the Lizard and this building was reused as a huer’s hut, from where the pilchard lookouts (‘huers’) scanned the sea for shoals of fish. Using a system of semaphore, the huers would direct the small seine boats below in order to encircle and catch the shoals. Today the NCI are reusing the hut for its original purpose, as a Coastwatch station. The station will be manned on regatta days and during other events, keeping a watchful eye over this busy little fishing cove.

At Nare Point, commanding panoramic views across the mouth of the Helford and Falmouth Bay is a disused Cold War MOD observation point. The building was part of a torpedo testing range in Falmouth Bay between 1952 and 1993. Today it forms an important part of the landscape, a guide to navigation, and a link with an all too easily forgotten part of our recent past. It seems fitting that in peacetime, such a building is now being used for saving lives rather than warfare, thanks to the support of the National Trust’s Enterprise Neptune Campaign, and funding from the MoD Veterans Challenge Fund and the Tanner Trust.

It was also at Nare Point that Ealing Film Studios were commissioned to create a replica decoy model of Falmouth station to distract enemy bombing raids during WW2. Little evidence remains today of the simulated railway system except for the original control building and a concrete shelter.

The National Coastwatch Institution is presently recruiting watchkeepers for their newest watch station at Nare Point. Anyone interested in becoming a watchkeeper, or wanting more information about the NCI, is invited to contact Tom Symons 01326 240126. Visual watch-keeping means someone is on scene watching and listening, aware of local conditions even before an incident takes place, providing an accurate picture of events and thus helping to speed rescue. Most of the work of the station is routine surveillance. Watchkeepers must remain vigilant at all times, know how to deal with an emergency and report to HM Coastguard to co-ordinate the various search and rescue services.

They keep watch on potentially vulnerable craft and people; canoeists, sailors and fishermen can easily get into trouble in the unpredictable waters around the Lizard. Watchkeepers also monitor Channel 16, the distress channel, listening out for vessels in distress. Records are kept through logging of all passing vessels, aircraft, walkers etc, as well as giving information to HM customs, police, and harbour authorities.

What doPortable PMA watchkeepers do ?

Watchkeepers must be ready for anything from contacting HM Coastguard in an emergency to informing a local farmer that a sheep is stuck on a ledge. Fishermen and yachtsmen frequently telephone the look-out for local weather conditions before setting out from the safety of the harbour. Walkers too may call in for advice before tackling hazardous coastal paths and dolphin, seal and basking shark sightings are reported to wildlife organisations.

Extract from HVMCA newsletter No.33 Autumn 2006

© Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area