Beacons, or fire beacons, were fires which were lit to give warning to local people of the approach of an enemy. They were sited on high hills, usually as part of a defensive signal system, or chain, stretching back from the coast to inland areas. The signal was given by smoke during the day and light by night. Upon seeing the signal, men from the countryside round about would gather together and march to defend whichever coastal landing place was threatened.
Devon’s long coastline made it vulnerable to attack, and 89 beacon sites are believed to have existed here, dating from the Roman period through to the Napoleonic wars.
A booklet produced by Devon County Council in the mid-1990s gives further detail of these. It provides a general background to fire beacons and a map of sites in Devon, as well as images and plans of the only English beacon to have been archaeologically excavated at that time (and also, perhaps, since) at Culmstock (monuments MDV1880 and MDV11532). A similar ‘beehive’ beacon house is located at Shute (monument MDV11210).
View the digital version of the booklet.
Culmstock Beacon in 2015.
Although rebuilt, Culmstock Beacon originated in the Tudor period and was in service in 1588 at the time of the Spanish Armada. The fire, made from gorse and broom, was held in fire baskets on a pole. The beacon watchers would have accessed it via a ladder through a hole in the roof.
Reconstruction drawing showing Culmstock Beacon as it may have appeared in the 16th century.
Reproduced from ‘Fire Beacons, warning signals across the countryside: a short history of beacons and other signals with special reference to Devon’. Devon County Council.