Tuesday, 8 November 2011

To Beacon or Not to Beacon?

Some of you may have read the suggestion that, to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, beacons should be lit on church towers on June 4th 2012.

There is information about the plan for the beacons and their history on
As this website points out, there is a long tradition of lighting beacons around the country to mark Jubilees - it was done in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's 60 years on the throne and I can remember the beacons lit to mark our present Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. We spent a very wet day in a punt on the River Cam with some umbrellas, a wind-up gramophone and a picnic and then went to a very wet barbeque on the Magog Hills where an enormous beacon was lit as part of a chain of beacons across Britain. The beacons symbolized the unity of the Queen's realm. It was a day I shall never forget. Many of you will recall other national occasions such as the 400th anniversary of the sighting of the Spanish Armada in 1988, Beacon Europe (to mark the opening of the single European Market - possibly less memorable!) in 1992, the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day in 1995, the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002, and the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar in 2005. 

All great fun and the stuff of forging a common national identity. Being a huge fan of the Queen and the monarchy myself, I certainly think we should all do something really notable to celebrate such a remarkable reign and a wonderful monarch. However, I am somewhat dismayed at the suggestion that beacons should be lit on church towers! In the past, most of the beacons have been lit on the ground. Of course, a beacon needs to be conspicious - that is what makes it a beacon! However, the notion of churches carrying heavy(40kg) cylinders of liquified petroleum gas up narrow spiral staircases and setting light to it in sometimes very confined spaces is worrying. The gas is extremely flamable and combines with air to form an explosive mix. Locating the beacon on a tower will bring the flames into very close proximity with the building and with flag poles. The emergency services will already be stretched that day and, should an accident occur, it will not be easy for them to gain speedy access to anyone injured at the top of a mediaeval tower and to get them to hospital quickly.

OK, I'm sounding very archdeacon-like and unusually risk averse, but I really can't see the problem with celebrating her Majesty's Jubilee by ringing a peal of bells and having a party, with beacon or bonfire, on the nearest piece of open high ground; this has been the tradition for hundreds of years. Ecclesiatical have issued some guidelines which begin by stating that a beacon does not need to be located on a tower and there are significant hazards in doing so. They strongly recommend that the beacon is situated at ground level, away from any buildings; I have to say that I agree. If your PCC is determined to go ahead with a beacon on the tower, Ecclesiatical set out some useful, indeed vital actions that you need to take, including ensuring that the LPG is safely stored before the event, informing the emergency services of your plans and removing all combustible and heat vulnerable substances and possible ignition sources from your tower. You really do need expert advice if you are going to go ahead with a tower-top beacon and you can begin by visiting 


You will also need the permission of your archdeacon and insurance company and our Chancellor will be issuing some guidelines for this diocese in the near future. My plea is that you find something memorable to do with fire (or even without it), in safety, on the ground!! 

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