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Work to save tower fit for a king

The Cordouan lighthouse was conceived as a beacon and a palace. After centuries of saving lives, continuous work is needed to protect this historic monument

Engineer Louis de Foix was so consumed by the construction of the Cordouan lighthouse, 7km offshore on a small islet near the Gironde estuary, that he poured his entire fortune into the project. Destitute, he died before it was finished, having dedicated decades of his life to the project, which was finished by his impoverished but equally enthusiastic son.

The Cordouan lighthouse, constructed between 1584 and 1611, is the oldest in France. Small beacon towers had existed on the site since 880 and a wooden structure had been erected there in the 14th century. But the construction of the lighthouse was ordered as the dangers of navigating the estuary were affecting the Bordeaux wine trade.

Engineer and architect Louis de Foix was commissioned by Henri III to design and oversee the construction, which was to be a “royal work”, part lighthouse, part palace, part fort. It is constructed on a 2.4 metre high circular base, 41 metres in diameter, on top of which are four more floors, each slightly narrower than the one below, like a wedding cake.

The ground floor provided living quarters for four lighthouse keepers, with a richly decorated central entrance hall. Above that was the king’s apartment, including a drawing room, anteroom and some other smaller closets. Above that is a chapel with a stunning mosaic roof, above which was a secondary lantern, topped by the main one.

 The original light (oak chips burning in a metal container) was 49 metres above the sea and could be seen from approximately 6km away. 

The entire building was constructed not only to last but to be as impressive as possible, decorated with gilt, carved wood and stone, arched doorways and statues. Constantly battered by the Atlantic Ocean, the lighthouse always needs repairs. Parabolic lamps were added in 1782, and major renovations were carried out between 1782 to 1789 during which the 30 metre tower was heightened. In 1790 the topmost lantern was 60 metres above the sea and was equipped with the very first turning light (designed by a watchmaker in Dieppe) fuelled by a mix of whale, olive and rapeseed oil. In 1823 a rotating design using rapeseed oil pumped into the lantern by a suction and force pump was installed. 

It was renovated again in 1855 and became a historical monument in 1862. Now 68 metres above the sea, the lamp was finally converted to gas in 1907, then to electricity in 1948 and in 2006 it was fully automated and still functions today.

Lighthouse keepers are still employed, partly to show tourists around, but also to maintain the building and prevent vandalism.

Nature however is as destructive and violent as ever. The ocean crashes against the lighthouse incessantly, damaging the stonework and even the foundations, meaning that maintenance is ongoing. The current round of repairs has been taking place every winter for the last four years, and it still is not finished. Replacing the stone blocks takes great skill and patience as each one has to be replaced individually and many are highly decorated and carved. The techniques used are reasonably straightforward, says the architect in charge of the works, Franck Lamendin.

“Working on a lighthouse means there are extra difficulties with access and supplies, and managing the team because we’re out at sea, working at great heights in all weathers,” he said.

He and the stone masons can only access the lighthouse at certain tides, and only then in good weather.

“The team generally try to travel to the lighthouse on Monday morning and come back to the mainland on Friday afternoons, and every one of them volunteered for this job.

“You couldn’t force people to do it, they have to want to,” he says. One of the trainee stone masons this winter was a woman and he says it is an increasingly common career choice for women.

This winter the weather was reasonably clement, the waves were not too high, the winds not too strong, and the work advanced well.

The next two winters will be spent repairing the north facade and then a year for the west facade, and after that there may be plans to restore the interior. “It is sumptuous, amazing, the most extraordinary building,” says Mr Lamendin, who is as absorbed and passionate about the lighthouse as was its creator Louis de Foix.

“A lighthouse is more than mythical and iconic, it’s a person, a real personality to me. It defends humans.

“It’s a fantastic gift, at the end of my career, to be working there. It’s the same for everyone else on the team. We love this place.”

Around 22,000 people visit the building every year, which is open to the public from April until the end of October, and climb the 301 stairs to enjoy the breath-taking view from the platform surrounding the lantern. According to the tides and the weather, access is only possible on certain afternoons from 2.30pm to 4.30pm and almost always involves a short ferry rides followed by 20 minutes of wading through knee-high waves and scrambling over slippery rocks.

Only 30 people at a time can visit and get a taste of what life is like there. (The keepers also have a Facebook page detailing their lives in the lighthouse. During the winter the keepers rotate, two of them spending a week there, and then a week ashore, and in the summer the rotation is a fortnight in the lighthouse and one week ashore.)

To arrange a visit see

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