Looking like a medieval attempt to build a rocket, the St Catherine's1 Oratory or the Pepper Pot as it is locally known, is an eight-sided tower with a cone roof and four buttresses which look like a rocket's fins. It is Britain's oldest medieval lighthouse and rests on the top of St Catherine's Down, the southernmost point of the Isle of Wight. The tower is 35.5ft tall and is over 750ft above sea level.
It was built as a lighthouse on what was known as Chale Down2 and was maintained by monks who lived in a chapel nearby. Yet, after Henry VIII's breakaway from the Catholic Church in 1538 and the suppression of the chantries in 1547, the lighthouse was abandoned and the chapel was soon in ruins. Little remains of the chapel today, yet the Pepper Pot itself remains intact.
The Story of the Pepper Pot
There is a local story about how the Pepper Pot was built. In April 1313 the merchant ship St Marie of Bayonee, carrying wine from Tonnay in the Aquitaine region of France, ran aground on Atherfield Ledge in Chale Bay. All the sailors survived and the wine was salvaged by the local islanders. All 174 casks of wine had soon disappeared - the wealthier islanders in the area had gotten hold of most of them. One, Walter de Godeton, who lived in Chale Manor, managed to get the most, and soon had 53 of the casks.
The law, though, arrived on the island to try and sort the situation out and Walter de Godeton was caught, charged with illegally receiving the casks and was fined 227.5 marks, just under five marks per cask.
This, though, was not the end of the story. The owner of the wine was the monastery of Livers, in Picardy, France. To have taken their wine was sacrilege. Walter de Godeton was summoned to the ecclesiastical court in Rome and was hauled before the Pope. The Pope told Walter that he would be excommunicated from the church and his soul would be damned to burn in Hell for all eternity unless he atoned for his sin by building a lighthouse on top of Chale Down to prevent any more shipwrecks, with an oratory for a priest to pray for the souls of those at sea. This Walter de Godeton did, finishing the lighthouse by 1328.
The Truth Behind the Story
Much of the story is true, but sadly unconnected with the Pepper Pot, which is older than the story suggests: it had been repaired in 1312, before the St Marie of Bayonee came aground.
However, Edward II's courts of Southampton, Winchester and Westminster record that on the Saturday after Easter, 22 April 1313, a shipwreck occurred near Chale. The ship was the Ship of Blessed Mary from Bayonne which had been loaded with a cargo of 174 casks of wine at Tonnay. The owners of the wine were Elie Byger, Frederick Campanare and Bernard Columers and they were from Gascony, an area of France which was still ruled by the English king.
The men accused of taking the wine were Walter de Goditon, Richard de Hogheton, John Beysem and Ralph de Wolverton, and they were summoned to court. Four times they did not arrive for their court summons, but appeared at the fifth court order3. There they were ordered to pay for the value of the wine at five marks per cask, yet because the wine had been in a shipwreck, the value of the wine was finally settled at a lower price. The restitution and damages were awarded on the 27 February, 1314, with Walter being fined a total of 267.5 marks with damages of 20 marks and all his goods were to be detained until he had paid. It is likely that he did have to keep the lighthouse in good repair, but sadly there are no records telling us whether his soul has been damned to spend eternity burning in Hell or not.
St Catherine's Lighthouse
After St Catherine's Oratory was abandoned, Chale Bay witnessed several shipwrecks. It had even become known locally as the Bay of Death. So, in 1785 a new lighthouse was started not far from the spot of the old Pepper Pot. However it was soon realised that the area in which it would be built was too often plagued with fog and mists, and so would be almost useless. Work was abandoned, but the half-built lighthouse was nicknamed the Salt Shaker by locals.
The area is now owned and looked after by the National Trust and English Heritage.
There is, though, a new lighthouse just over a mile away, the modern St Catherine's lighthouse. This was built shortly after the wreck of the Clarendon in 1837 and is situated on the coast at the foot of the Undercliff, just west of Niton. The elevation of the light proved to be too high, as the lantern frequently became mist-capped and in 1875 it was decided to lower the light 13m by taking about 6m out of the uppermost section of the tower and about 7m out of the middle. Doing this, though, destroyed its beauty and gave it a dwarfed appearance.
A further disaster occurred during World War II. On 1 June, 1943, a bombing raid destroyed the engine house killing the three keepers on duty - RT Grenfell, C Tomidns and WE Jones. Sadly, St Catherine's Lighthouse was automated in 1997 with the last keepers leaving on 30 July.