Overlooking the sea at Bude, in Cornwall, stands an elegant little tower. It was first built in the 1830s, but after being battered by the elements it was rebuilt a little inland fifty years later. The erosion of the cliffs on which it stands means that the Storm Tower is again under threat, and it must once more be dismantled and moved to safety.
In the first decades of the 19th century Bude was developed as a resort, thanks largely to investment by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, 10th Bart (1787-1871) of Killerton, who owned much of the land in the area. His favoured architect was George Wightwick (1802-1872), who would design a number of new buildings in the town, and by 1836 Bude was able to style itself the ‘fashionable Watering Place of the West’.
In 1835, when he was working on a new church at Bude Haven, Wightwick was asked to draw up plans for a more modest structure. The Storm Tower, known locally as the Pepperpot, was intended to fulfil three purposes. The principal of these was shipping safety, as vessels were all too frequently wrecked or endangered close to Bude. The tower provided a base for the coastguard, with one window directly aligned on the nearby Coastguard Station, and it also acted as a landmark for ships: when vessels were in danger, a flag was hoisted and tar barrels were set alight as a warning signal.
The tower also offered a haven to anyone caught in bad weather on the clifftop, and was a picturesque ornament to the coastal walks in the developing resort.
As is acknowledged on the design above, Wightwick drew his inspiration from the Tower of the Winds in Athens, and the octagonal tower had the eight principal points of the compass engraved into the appropriate faces. The cliff on which it stands was already known as Compass Point, which presumably inspired the architect’s design.
By 1881 the tower had to be ‘demolished in consequence of its dangerous condition’: frosts had caused the cliff to crumble and there were cracks in the tower. Sir Thomas came to the rescue and paid to have the tower rebuilt ‘on a spot as near as circumstances will permit to the original site’.
At this stage the tower ceased to be precisely orientated to the points of the compass, but instead it was positioned to maintain the important sightline to the Coastguard Station.
The Storm Tower became a well-known landmark, and even featured in fiction. The now largely forgotten novelist George MacDonald holidayed in Cornwall, and inspired by the dramatic coast he set his 1868 novel The Seaboard Parish (first serialised in the Sunday Magazine) in Bude. The Storm Tower is accurately described as ‘a small building standing square to the points of the compass, with little windows from which the coastguard could see along the coast’. In 1890 the tower appeared in a story by H. Fell in All the Year Round, the weekly journal ‘conducted’ by Charles Dickens. In the melodramatic His Little Maid, Olive, our young heroine (‘a fine lady’), gazes into the eyes of her lover (predictably, a ‘rough sailor chap’) as a storm obligingly rages around the tower.
In 2021 local newspapers reported that the Storm Tower was in grave danger, and that it was ‘to be moved inland before it vanishes into the sea’.
Funding was secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local councils, but the strength of local pride in the tower is most apparent in the success of a crowdfunding campaign which raised around £60,000 in 56 days. Work to move the tower was scheduled to begin in March 2022, with Historic England and Historic Environment Planning satisfied with the proposals outlined in the planning application for ‘listed building consent to dismantle, relocate and rebuild a grade II listed structure’. Natural England, however, has asked for further information as, in their words, it is not currently ‘possible to ascertain that the proposal will not result in adverse effects on the integrity of the site in question’. Permission for work to begin can not be granted until Natural England are satisfied so, regretfully, Bude-Stratton Town Council has announced that work will be delayed until March 2023.
Update summer 2023: work has begun to move the tower. You can see a film of the start of the ongoing work here https://www.itv.com/news/westcountry/2023-05-09/historic-storm-tower-to-be-moved-brick-by-brick-to-stop-it-collapsing-into-sea
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