At the point where the river Gironde meets the Atlantic, Cordouan lighthouse is one of the few buildings that justifies the label “unique”. It is a functioning lighthouse, but also a place of worship, a royal staging post, a fort, a hermitage and a museum. At 68metres it is the tenth tallest traditional lighthouse in the world, and it is both the oldest and the last manned lighthouse in France.
It is the only such building to house its own chapel, and, in 1611, when it was first completed, it was considered to be the eighth wonder of the world.
Cordouan has kept watch over a series of firsts: by charging two groats to passing mariners for rights of passage, the hermits who lived on the site provided the first known instances of “lighthouse dues”. It was for Cordouan that the engineer Joseph Teulère devised his first turning lighting dish in 1790.
The mouth of the Gironde estuary has had a fearsome reputation since ancient times, and was long known as a sailors’ graveyard because of the treachery of its waters.
The islet on which Cordouan lighthouse sits is cut off from the mainland except at low tide, which perhaps appealed to the series of hermits who took up residence there from at least 880 AD, lighting beacons to warn mariners of the danger, whilst praying for their souls.
The first more permanent structure, known as Le Tour aux Anglais, was built on the instructions of the Black Prince, the eldest son of England’s King Edward III, at a time when the region of Guienne was in English hands. It was 15 metres tall and manned by the enterprising hermits who charged lighthouse dues.
When the English tower fell into disrepair, Henri III of France commissioned a lavish replacement from Parisian architect, Louis de Foix. The resulting lighthouse was built between 1584 and 1611. It had a grand entrance hall and four small keepers’ apartments, each no more than three square metres in size.
Above that was a floor containing the King’s apartment (in which no royalty has ever slept); then higher still, the chapel with its intricately decorated mosaic roof; then a secondary lantern; then the lantern itself. Henri III died before the project could be finished, and when Henri IV took it on, de Foix added ever more lavish details.
The original lantern was lit by burning oak chips in a metal container and could be seen 8-9 kilometres out to sea. 1782 saw the addition of the first parabolic lamps, but these were quickly made redundant when sailors complained about the lack of light they gave out.
Teulère installed his system eight years later, with the help of a rotating mechanism specially designed by Dieppe watchmaker Mulotin, and using whale, olive and rapeseed oil.
Augustin-Jean Fresnel’s rotating system of three concentric lamp wicks was introduced after a further thirty years, and this lasted until 1854 when the current lamp was installed. This has been fuelled successively by petrol, a 6,000W bulb and a halogen lamp. Its three automated flashes every 12 seconds can be seen from 40 kilometres out at sea.
Cordouan has four lighthouse keepers to maintain it, prevent vandalism and theft, act as guides for tourists, and help manage the local environment. They no longer inhabit the cramped quarters, having made a base camp up near the lantern.