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In July 1588 the Spanish Armada was sighted off the coast of Cornwall: England faced its greatest threat – an invasion by the fearsome tercio regiments of King Phillip II.

The English were forewarned and had prepared themselves: along the south coast and throughout the hinterland they built a system of beacons. Once lit, the beacons spread the alarm across the country by the light of their flames – “leaping from hill to hill”.

The Scarborough maritime heritage website has a good description of how the system worked. Local militias were given the task of fuelling the beacons and keeping watch on neighbouring beacons – two people by day, three by night, and each had to be an honest householder above thirty years of age.

The beacons were grouped in sets of three on the coast (inland, they were grouped in pairs) and operated by an agreed pattern of signals:

“If the coastal [watchman] saw any ships at sea or in the river … [he] had to judge whether their actions, change of course or anything else gave suspicion that they were enemies liable to do harm on land or to our ships sailing on the sea. [He] might light one beacon to warn our ships or the inland districts. This would not lead those inland to light their beacons.

“If the coastal watchmen saw a great number of ships giving “vehement susipion to be enemies”, and not to be doubted that they meant to invade, two out of the three beacons at shore sites and one of two beacons inland were to be lit. This was a warning for every man to “put himself in and be ready.”

And then the Tudor version of Defcon 1:

“The third stage would come if the great number of ships, appearing to be enemies, came to land to invade, then all three beacons were lit at the coast and all pairs of beacons inland. All beacons were burning. Captains of the mustermen would lead their forces to the place where the first beacon was lit. Meanwhile, the country folk were to drive all cattle, sheep, horses and victuals inland, to deny them to the enemy.”

One of the beacons was at Lytchett near the Dorset coast, about 100 miles east of the first sighting of the Armada. I visited there a few months ago to see what it’s all about:

panorama of Lytchett Beacon

The odd thing about England is that, despite its high population density, you don’t have to travel far beyond the city to find yourself in the depths of the countryside. Lytchett is a good example – remote, almost hidden from the road behind hawthorn hedges, but only an hour away.

Lytchett Beacon – now known as Beacon Hill – is tucked behind a caravan park. Its slopes are dense with trees and the climb is steep. At the top you hope to find a great vista, but the effect has been ruined – in the 19th century the crown was planted all about with scots pine and sycamores by some landscaping busybody, so no trace remains of the beacon and there’s hardly any view to speak of:

view from the crown of Lytchett Beacon, over Poole Bay

Not much to see. But it was a nice day out in a beautiful part of the country.

The Armada is a rich source of history, and this is just one detail – I’ll have more posts about it, so please check the categories at the top of this post.

In the meantime, if you’re disappointed with my little adventure you may light up your inner landscape with Thomas Macaulay’s poem about the firing of the beacons in 1588 and the spreading “flame of war” – The Armada – a lesson in triumphant Victorian geography!


ps. Good article on beacons east of Poole Bay, at Christchurch – emphasis on the French scare of 1539.