Shining a light on 
life of Sir Peter

Doug and Sue Hilton at East Lighthouse at Sutton Bridge where they plan a visitor centre as a tribute to Sir Peter Scott. Photo (TIM WILSON): SG010812-124TW
Doug and Sue Hilton at East Lighthouse at Sutton Bridge where they plan a visitor centre as a tribute to Sir Peter Scott. Photo (TIM WILSON): SG010812-124TW

AS HOLIDAY homes go, the East Lighthouse at Sutton Bridge is far from perfect.

It’s miles from anywhere for its owners, who have to travel up from Kent to stay there. And it’s damp in places.

Nevertheless, Doug and Sue Hilton bought the place in 2010 for a commendable reason: the new owners share the ethos of its most famous former inhabitant, Sir Peter Scott.

Like him, they feel it is important to make wildlife accessible to the public so they will learn to value it.

Alongside that commitment to putting people in touch with wildlife is an almost mystical relationship that has developed with the lighthouse itself.

Doug and Sue are enchanted by the lighthouse, which still seems to contain the spirit of the wildfowler turned conservationist Sir Peter, who became internationally known as a wildlife artist and writer. It is many years since Sir Peter formed his collection of rare geese and painted in his studio at the lighthouse, but items of Peter Scott memorabilia and furniture in keeping with what he might have owned erase the years of neglect and the stamp of intervening owners. It is possible to imagine it is still the home of the man who was a founder of the World Wildlife Fund, a founder of several wetlands bird sanctuaries and a huge influence on international conservation.

Looking for more reasons the couple might have fallen in love with the place, there is the enormous picture window that offers great views across the marsh to the sea. From there, the couple are able to see the dark spots against the wide sky that, with the aid of binoculars, they are able to recognise as Brent geese and Pink-footed geese flying in their tens of thousands in winter to feed on the fields.

As the geese fly over, Sue and Doug hear their calls, with Brent geese making a sound like little grunts, “like a WI meeting at tea break,” jokes Doug.

From that sitting room window ­– which gives the room the feel of a ship – it’s also possible to see people on the Peter Scott Walk, and that prompted the couple’s first ambition: to be able to provide a stop for trekkers, somewhere they couple have a cup of tea and cake and appreciate the lighthouse’s associations with Sir Peter.

That has happened in the garage, where Sue’s paintings on silk are also for sale as well as her brother Paul Spike’s pottery.

But the lighthouse has exerted an even greater hold over the Hiltons who believe that magical things have happened to ensure that their full ambitions for the East Lighthouse can be fulfilled and the building can finally become a proper tribute to Sir Peter.

Centrica and Birse Engineering stepped in with an offer to restore the wildfowl ponds and the couple, whose Snowgoose Wildlife Trust has just been given full charitable status, have been offered £100,000 from Sutton Bridge Parish Council towards their plans for a visitor centre on the site.

“Since we have had the lighthouse we have really been stretched in terms of time,” said Sue. “We just don’t stop working really and then we have the journey time as well. But it’s especially exciting this year because things are really taking off here. It’s happening much faster that I thought it would.”

Doug agrees: “It’s not about us really. It’s about the lighthouse and what the lighthouse wants it gets, and it got us too.”

n The lighthouse is open each weekend in August – and Bank Holiday Monday – so people can see the wildlife ponds, have a tour of the lighthouse and climb to the top of the tower if they would like. There are quiz sheets for children to spot items and tea and cake are available in the garage.