You might recall that last week I mentioned that reader Linda Chambers used to live in my home village and would see my dad most mornings climbing a nearby hill in his trademark white, cable-knit sweater. By coincidence, this week I came across an article Dad wrote 14 years ago which talked about what he saw going up that very hill.
“I’ve seen a huge dog fox walking along the top of a fence like a tightrope walker and watched a pair of fox cubs at play,” Dad says, “I’ve rescued a baby tawny owl with an anxious mother watching me, noted badgers lumbering over the road, had grey squirrels gambolling in hedges to accompany me and enjoyed precision-timed aerial displays by a flock of wintering golden plovers. I can add to this the sight of cuckoos and kestrels, soaring buzzards, new-born lambs, shy deer, charms of goldfinches, of fieldfares, moles digging in the verges, black rabbits, white pheasants and a bewildering array of wild plants with hedgerows containing gooseberries, elderberries and sloes.”
We villagers have always referred to this hill as simply ‘The Beacon’, although I think its official name is ‘Beacon Bank’. Dad’s reward for the hard work of the climb was that once at the top, he was blessed with spectacular views in all directions – the North York Moors to the North and East, his home valley and Vale of York to the South, and then the Yorkshire Dales to the West.
It is this uninterrupted vista for miles around which meant our forbears chose it as the perfect location for a beacon, a fire that would be lit as an urgent signal to other settlements nearby warning that enemies were approaching, or that help was needed. Neighbouring villages would light their own beacons, demonstrating that they had received the message and were passing it on, and so the chain of fire would make its way quickly across the land.
Beacons are believed to date as far back as Anglo-Saxon and Viking times (9th – 11th centuries), although possibly the most famous example of their efficiency was when they were used to alert Queen Elizabeth I to the threat from King Phillip II’s approaching Spanish Armada. On 19th July 1588, a fleet of invading ships was spotted off Lizard in Cornwall, and the warning beacon was lit, sparking a trail of signals that led right up to the capital. It is said that once the message reached Sussex, it took just another 30 minutes to get to London, and the attack was ultimately thwarted.
Beacons were not simply fires though. As many of us know, trying to light a fire in the open air with ordinary wood is not that easy. To ensure the blaze took off quickly, large ropes would be doused in pitch, which of course would set alight immediately and keep burning for a long time, even in rainy weather. Not only that, they gave off a thick plume of black smoke which, during daylight hours, could be seen much more readily than flames, mighty useful if you’ve just spotted a fleet of enemy ships on the horizon.
Once the Spaniards were defeated, the beacons were used again as way of celebrating the victory and that festive sentiment continued on down the centuries. In 1897, beacons were lit to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and then again in 1977, 2002, 2012 and 2022 to honour Queen Elizabeth II’s various jubilees.
This weekend, we are celebrating the coronation of King Charles III, and I wondered if there would be any beacon-lighting going on. Although some communities will be lighting their own fires, there is no official beacon event. However, perhaps to reflect a change of monarch in an ever-changing world, there will be a ‘Lighting Up the Nation’ ceremony on 7th May during the celebratory concert at Windsor Castle. Landmark buildings across the country will be lit up using ‘projectors, lasers, drone displays and illuminations’. I tried to find out which buildings were taking part but, at the time of writing, could not put my hands on any information about them. I suppose we will just have to wait to find out.
If you are celebrating this special weekend, I hope you have a wonderful time, and do let me know how you marked the arrival of a new king, and the dawn of a new age.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 5th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 3rd May 2023.