Since earliest records began, our relationship with the sea has been a tumultuous one. We have constantly been humbled by its awesome power, and those who have tested its patience have sadly paid the ultimate price. Whilst humanity has succumbed to that reality, we have claimed some control from mother ocean – on the land.
On the island of Jersey, standing with stoic resolve, embellished against a clear sky, is the pearl white lighthouse of La La Corbière. Built in November 1873, the lighthouse was the first to be constructed from concrete anywhere in the British Isles. Sir John Coode was entrusted in designing La La Corbière and for nearly 150 years, it has stood as a beacon of merciful light beckoning ships away from danger.
In recent years this stunning lighthouse has gained greater attention, not for its integral part in coastal navigation, but for its stature. Thousands descend on the cobbled causeway, which disappears beneath the waters at high tide, to marvel at La Corbière’s striking presence. It has become a haven for photographers who capture breath-taking sunsets and seascapes and has even become a perfect backdrop for fine cuisine at the local restaurant.
But ultimately, La Corbière is a working lighthouse, where in 1976 an automatic system was installed which now operates the light and alarms. Before then keepers would ensure that the 18nmi lamp was lit and the fog horns would sound to warn passing ships. Four lighthouse keepers, working in pairs, would spend 48-hours out at La Corbière, each man working 6-hour shifts. These shifts were partnered with immense peril, whether it be fog, storms or tidal surges and the lighthouse keepers would risk their lives daily in all weathers.
This risk of life would cause tragedy on the fateful day of 28 May 1946. Peter Edwin Larbalestier, an assistant lighthouse keeper saw a visitor who had become trapped on the causeway against the rising tide. Peter valiantly attempted to save them but sadly drowned in the incoming sea. A plaque adjacent to the causeway was erected in his memory, whilst also becoming a warning of the treacherous nature of the Atlantic Ocean.
Throughout La Corbière’s history, events like this have unfolded beneath the iconic white silhouette of the lighthouse. In 1995, whilst sailing from Jersey to Sark, the French catamaran “Saint-Malo” struck a rock 900 metres north of La Corbière. With visibility good at the time, though accompanied by a strong wind, the sea around the lighthouse was moderate to rough making any rescue operations perilous.
Emergency services quickly responded and thankfully all 307 passengers on board survived. To honour the bravery of all those who helped in the rescue, a statue rests just beyond the site’s carpark.
Far too many lives have been lost thanks to the treacherous rocks that lie beneath the surface of the ocean around the coastline. This perilous notoriety has caused La Corbière to be known as the ‘dreaded Corbière’ by local fishermen. And this labelling has seemingly become a tradition to those who have stood before the 11-metre-tall structure.
Even its name La Corbière denotes foreboding, as it translates into “the place where crows gather”. And as crows or ravens are regarded as birds of ill omen, some would argue when it comes to the surrounding rocks at La Corbière, the name seems apt. But as time has gone by, much like the superstitions of old, seagulls have replaced the crows and the serene elegance of the lighthouse far outshines its tragic past.
It is of no surprise that many heritage organisations regard La Corbière as one of the greatest examples of a lighthouse anywhere in the world. Its vast age doesn’t show, and most of the original clockwork mechanism used to rotate the lamp still stands as pristine as ever. It is, quite literally, a structure proudly bathed in the light of timeless beauty.
To many Jersey locals, this lighthouse has become a symbol of the community – unchanging, unyielding and a constant in the lives of those who live there. It is held with deep affection, so much so, it appears on the bank notes and coins of the Channel Islands. And most importantly, it has become a symbol of endurance.
It has survived the battering force of storms, the howling bellows of the gales and the darkest days of the German occupation of World War II. It remained standing then and continues today, as more than just a beacon of light, but hope and safety to those who need it.
Scanning the horizon of this most captivating coastline, La Corbière feels like much more than just a lighthouse. Its instantly recognisable outline is an emblem of Jersey, and of the sacrifice many have made to the sea. It reminds you how uncontrollable the waves can be, how really, we are servants of the ocean. We may govern the land, but the sea governs us.
This is why Victor Hugo described La Corbière lighthouse better than anyone else – as “the herdsman of the waves.” And thanks to this shepherd; for all those who sail these waters, they can do so knowing that a light will always shine, ensuring their way home.
Thanks to Visit Jersey and Jersey Heritage for their wonderful help!