Lt. Twisden and ‘Golden Cup’ Signal

Rescue excavation at Golden Cap cliff edge 1992Taken by a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Osprey, Portland.

Rescue excavation at Golden Cap cliff edge 1992Taken by a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Osprey, Portland.

Once, before we started to dig, there were clouds of tiny black insects that flew into our faces like sand.

When the wind blew, the golden sand was blown from the cliff face, it gradually covered everything. Over time, it had buried the 2m high line of stone cairns, converting them to vague undulating mounds.

When the fog came down, you couldn’t see a thing, you needed to watch your step, you could be anywhere.

On the wet days, we looked out to sea and waited for the next black bank of cloud to roll in. There’s nowhere to hide, a tepid thermos crouched beside a gorse bush is a bit hopeless, better to keep working and keep warm.

But on the warp factor 10 days, when the world is gin clear and the sun bakes Golden Cap, the views are breathtaking. The distant, curving sweep of Chesil Beach, lures the eye to the axe-head profile of Portland. And to the west, Lyme Bay fades out to Devon’s Start Point.

The view from Golden Cap east to Portland on a good day

The view from Golden Cap east to Portland on a good day

The micro-macro shift of concentrated measuring, at the section face, of individual stones, and then looking up to be surprised by the Marshwood Vale and the vista across Dorset into Somerset.

I’ve never worked here in winter. My daughter was still a baby the first time. She was at university the second. In this equivalent span of years, John Twisden had occupied and experienced Golden Cap. He and his crew and his family. We found their loose change,a button, remains of meals and the vessels they ate from.

Discovery of a mixing bowl belonging to John Twisden's signal station

Discovery of a mixing bowl belonging to John Twisden’s signal station

Napoleonic signal mast like the one erected into the Bronze Age cairn at Golden Cap

Napoleonic signal mast like the one erected into the Bronze Age cairn at Golden Cap

From 1796-1814 they lived in a little wooden signal hut, its foundation cut into the sides of the cairns for shelter. Their job was to watch for French invasion, for Napolean’s army, and to signal with an arrangement of flags and black canvas balls to neighbouring stations on equally isolated hill tops miles away. The signal mast was erected in a deep pit cut through the centre of one of the Bronze Age cairns.

Once or twice when the fog came down, there were false alarms. Rumours spread, riders were sent and the militia were assembled but the enemy soldiers never came.

 

 

Every few years, John, his wife Anne and family marched down the hill to Stanton St Gabriel Chapel and baptised their latest baby. It’s now a ruin but its good to stand where they stood. He was just a name for a while but it turns out that he came from a wealthy family, a disinherited orphan. He joined the Royal Navy at 12 and sailed on the ‘Victory’. Journeyed to America and the Carribean and commanded gun boats guarding the English Channel. His Admiralty letter to go to Golden Cap must have seemed like a career set-back, and as it turned out, he was retired from there when the war ended.

Stanton St Gabriel Chapel

Stanton St Gabriel Chapel

He worked on the canals in Devon, even invented and patented a new canal lock device before he won a court case and regained his family’s ancestral home and estate. Bradbourne House in Kent. A good Jane Austen novel perhaps, probably not enough balls and socialising.

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