Île Vierge: the highest lighthouse in Europe.4 min read
Île Vierge (Virgin Island) is located just 1.5km off the coast, to the north-east of the entrance to the Aber-Wrac’h. Different hypothesis are available about the name of this small island of seven hectares. Probably come from to the difficulty of sustaining plantations on this windswept island? Or from the chapel that was built on the island and dedicated to the Virgin? Or still, is this name related to a Franciscan monastery that was erected in 1440? It is a mistery!
In the mid-15th century, the Friars Minor known as Cordeliers or Observantins, founded a monastery on the island and stayed for around 60 years, before returning to the mainland Aber Wrac’h. Life was too difficult, even for a monk who wishes for poverty and loneliness, and this led the clerical authorities to close the monastery, while building the abbey of Our Lady of the Angels at Aber Wrac’h.
Now, apart from the seagulls and walkers, there is no soul on Virgin Island since the departure of the last lighthouse keeper, after the automation in 2010.
The fire of the first lighthouse of the Ile Vierge made its appearance in the maritime landscape on August 15, 1845. It is endowed with the lens of Fresnel and with its 33 meters height is visible about 32 kilometers.
The old lighthouse could have been dismantled and its stones reused for the construction of the new, but a suspension of lighting was unthinkable in this area. In addition, it was the lighthouse keepers’ home.
The history of the two lighthouses of the Ile Vierge dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. This northern part of the Iroise Sea marks the entrance to the English Channel. It is the most used maritime corridor in the world and it is therefore essential that it be well marked, especially as the Brittany coast at this place is very dangerous, because of storms from the sea and currents caused by the tidal movement. The construction of the first lighthouse of the Virgin Island was thus imagined in 1843, but for this the French State must first acquire the island of 6 hectares. The region is not very prosperous and lives largely from the activity of seaweeds, which sell to the industry for the manufacture of iodine. The Ile Vierge, with its large unoccupied expanses, serves as a place of drying. In 1844, the French State buys the island with its rights of seaweed, drying and grazing, for the sum of 6000 Francs.
So, the first lighthouse was built using the stone found on site, granite, and it was commissioned in 1845. With a fire at 33 meters above the sea, with the Fresnel system and a range of 18 miles, it unfortunately becomes quickly obsolete. And as early as the 1860s, one thinks of reinforcing the lighting of the area. The Créac’h lighthouse on the island of Ouessant was built in 1863, but it was not until 1896 that the state asked for a new lighthouse project for the Ile Vierge. A better fire placed there would allow the ships coming from the sea and entering the English Channel to avoid a detour by Ouessant to go to recognize its lighthouse.
So, the final plan is presented on January 8, 1897, for maximize the geographical reach of the lighthouse, thanks to a fire at a height of 75 meters and a new lenticular device invented by Léon Bourdelles, Director of the Lighthouses Department and beacons until 1899. The reach of the lighthouse is now 27 miles. The project was the work of engineer Gaston Pigeaud and the work began in 1897 and ended in 1902. At the time of its inauguration, the lighthouse of Ile Vierge was the highest in the world, and now it remains the highest in Europe. This is a difficult job for the workers. The climate is not always good in Finistère zone, and freezing in winter makes the granite, extracted directly from the island, very hard. However in five years this tall tower of 82.5 meters, with walls thick up to 4 meters, was well built. At the same period is built the lighthouse Eckmühl, inaugurated in 1897. The Ile Vierge’s new lighthouse is inaugurated on March 1, 1902 at 18:25, usual time of ignition, but without great ceremony. It was electrified in 1956, and fully automated in 2010.
It’s possible visit the Lighthouse. Inside, there are 365 steps up to the top of the granite tower, the inside of which is completely covered with 12,500 opaline tiles. Opaline is an expensive material that has been chosen here for its isolation properties. Made from glass powder and sheep bone powder, these tiles protect the lighthouse from condensation. In 2011, it is classified as historical monuments.
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Photos by ©️Anya Ph, Ivan (Random-Times.com), Historic photos from web (public demain). Principal sources: Abers-Tourisme.com, Pharesdefrance.fr, Wikipedia.