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The lighthouse of Oostende

Oostende (Ostend in English) is possibly the best-known coastal city of Belgium, it certainly is the largest city of the Belgian coast and it has its own airport (OST). Most importantly it's also the second largest port of the Belgian coast and is best known for the ferries that used to run between Oostende and Dover or later Ramsgate. Sadly these ferries are no longer running but the port has kept its importance by switching to other trades like offshore support for the windmill industry.

The port is also the reason why there is a lighthouse, the current lighthouse is still in use but it's not the first lighthouse of Oostende, let's look at the history of lighthouses in Oostende!

There has been shipping movement near Oostende for a long time and Oostende was a fortified city with at least 2 forts of which one still exists today, it is known as Fort Napoleon and is located right near the current lighthouse. By 1367 the first real beacons were built to guide ships in the right direction, these beacons were built out of wood with a fire being lit on the top. These beacons proved to be inadequate though, and yet the system was held on for about 400 years.

In 1771 the first real lighthouse was built with the approval of the Queen of Austria as Belgium didn't exist yet and Oostende fell under the control of Austria, this lighthouse was to replace the inefficient wooden beacons, it was 34 meters high and still used a fire, this was a coal fire at first but by 1776 the coal was replaced by oil and later the tower was also equipped with a Fresnel lens, becoming what we now consider to be a modern lighthouse. Because the tower was also used as a signal post it got the nickname "vlaggenstok" (flagpole), and tourism made sure there was a small pavilion built around it. However, by 1860 the city had been built up so much that the light was impossible to see from the West and it was turned off permanently. The coast guards used it as a lookout point and some kind of construction was built on top, giving it a strange appearance as you can see in the postcard above. Due to lack of interest the pavilion was broken down by 1877 and the tower stood alone. It survived World War 1 and was even temporarily reactivated after the war because the newer lighthouse was destroyed, but was demolished by the Germans in World War 2 (1944). Today on this location you can see the National Monument for the Seafarers.

When the light was turned off in 1860, it was replaced by the new lighthouse, this was built on the Eastern side of the port and was 60 meters high, it was equipped with a petroleum lamp and had a visible range of 15 miles out to sea. The light could be reached by a spiral staircase of 273 steps. This was one of the most beautiful lighthouses ever built, it had Gothic style windows, classic lighthouse keepers cottage and was brightly painted to become the focal point of the area. The lighthouse became known as the "new lighthouse" as the old one was still around although inactive. Sadly this lighthouse did not survive World War 1 and was destroyed in 1915 either by German explosives or by shelling from British battleships, this is up for discussion and has never been fully determined. As a result, the old lighthouse, although not functional was quickly reactivated in a temporary way after the war and lasted until 1920 when this function was taken over by another temporary wooden construction on the Fort Napoleon near the former new lighthouse, this temporary lighthouse was equipped with an electric light. Meanwhile the new (3rd) lighthouse was under construction and in 1926 it took over from the wooden lighthouse that was demolished soon after.

The 3rd lighthouse was of a completely different design and was equipped with the most modern light and machinery. It was built out of reinforced concrete with a granite base that houses most of the electric machinery, the tower was 65 meters high and at first stayed grey but was later painted with white and red bands so it could also serve as a day-beacon. The spiral staircase of 295 steps gave access to the electrically driven lens-system that rotated around a light of 4.800 candela. There was even a radio-room with a radio-beacon to further assist shipping in the area and this lighthouse remained active until 1940. At the outbreak of World War 2 it remained active until the last moment, when the German occupiers demanded the lighthouse keeper to destroy the equipment, stopping all active duty. The lighthouse remained intact throughout the war in this inactive state but at the last moment, the German forces retreating from the area blew it up together with the old 1771 lighthouse, leaving Oostende without any lighthouse to quickly reactivate.

After the war, a quickly assembled metal construction was built to operate a light for Oostende, giving the planners some time to design a new lighthouse. Work began in 1947 and by 1949 the temporary light from the metal construction was installed in this new lighthouse that started operations soon after.

This new lighthouse was again built out of reinforced concrete and is 65 meters high, the design is more modern than the previous lighthouses but the tower was not painted and left grey. This tower had a difficult time to say the least, it was opened to the public that could access the outer promenade via spiral staircase of 324 steps, the public gave it the nickname "Lange Nelle" (Long Nelly). However, after a while there were concerns about the safety of the tower, it was constructed from 2 half-pipe concrete parts, this proved to be unsafe from a construction point of view, furthermore the steel rebar proved to be insufficient or too close to the surface, making it vulnerable for corrosion from the salty humid air, there were even concerns that it would collapse.

The Belgian government invested heavily in the lighthouse and the problems were resolved by dedicated repairs to stop corrosion from the outside and ring-shaped elements on the inside. In 1953 the gas-powered light was replaced by electric light and in 1998 the entire equipment was modernized. In 1994 the pale grey concrete was painted with bright art representing the sea by blue wave-like bands on a white background, the sides of the 2 platforms were painted yellow, giving this tall lighthouse its unique appearance. This lighthouse is still in service today, however it was never re-opened to the public, until recently there was another concrete tower nearby, this was the well-known radar tower of Oostende, however, the radar-tower was replaced by a new tower on the edge of the new entrance to the port and was demolished. The lighthouse once stood lonely on the eastern side of the port but by now there is a whole new housing development under construction, the area is called "vuurtorenwijk" (lighthouse district) and is perfect to park your car and visit nearby Fort Napoleon and have a walk on the new harbor breakwater or beach, and the lighthouse is always there when you look up.

Some interesting items in my collection are the following:

Another 2 postcards of the second lighthouse:

A postcard of the destroyed second lighthouse after World War 1:

Another postcard of the third lighthouse, this time painted with white and red bands:

A small model of the fourth lighthouse:

I have been there many times and always take at least one photo of Lange Nelle, sometimes taking the time to spend some hours there in the evening to see and photograph the light, some of the results can be seen below.


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