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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Longplayer, Trinity Buoy Wharf's 1000 year musical composition

A millennium of musical chimes in a lighthouse once used by Michael Faraday.

The Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf

On the north bank of the River Thames in east London, opposite the Millennium Dome, is Trinity Buoy Wharf. This is the place where the River Lea flows into the Thames, but only after changing its name to Bow Creek because of the bow-shaped loop it forms here.

Part of the Wharf Map of the River Thames by G. D. Evans 1905 (public domain, source: Wikimedia)
 

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Here you can see the only lighthouse on the Thames. Built in 1864, it was never used for navigational purposes, but was a laboratory for testing and developing lighting for the lighthouses, lightships and buoys operated by the Corporation of Trinity House.

 

The 19th century scientist Michael Faraday conducted optical experiments here and it was also used to train lighthouse personnel. 

Michael Faraday conducted optical experiments here

The Trinity House Corporation was founded in 1514 under a Royal charter from Henry VIII to regulate pilotage on the River Thames and to provide for aged mariners.

 

In 1566, Trinity House was empowered by Elizabeth I to set up "so many beacons, marks and signs for the sea whereby the dangers may be avoided and escaped".


Its first lighthouse, an evolution of the beacons, was built in 1609 at Lowestoft. By 1837 Trinity House was responsible for all lighthouses in England.

 

It remains the official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. It is also responsible for lightships and buoys.

 

The Corporation's historical headquarters is in Trinity House on Tower Hill, close to the Tower of London. Designed by architect Samuel Wyatt and built in 1796, Trinity House was damaged in World War II and rebuilt in 1953.

Trinity House (public domain, source: Wikipedia)

In 1803 Trinity House established buoy manufacturing workshops and a mooring for its buoy-laying yacht at the intersection of Bow Creek and the Thames. This is the origin of the name Trinity Buoy Wharf for this area.

 

Trinity Buoy Wharf is now a centre for the arts and culture, with a range of creative organisations and venues. Its lighthouse no longer shines its light, but the building is open to visitors.


Perhaps its most remarkable, and unexpected, feature is Longplayer, a 1,000 year musical composition which never repeats.

 

Longplayer began playing at midnight on 31 December 1999. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, it will continue without repeating a musical phrase until the very end of 2999, when it will start again from the beginning.

 

The composition is played on singing bowls arranged between among rafters in the roof of the building and controlled by computer software. 

Longplayer's singing bowls

According to the Trinity Buoy Wharf website, Longplayer "is designed to be adaptable to unforeseeable changes in its technological and social environments and to endure in the long term as a self sustaining institution".


It is a unique and slightly eerie experience when you climb the stairs and start to hear the chiming of the singing bowls. The sight of the bowls spiralling around the loft space is also like no other.

The singing bowls spiralling around the rafters

The chimes of the composition follow as you ascend further into the former light chamber.


There, at the top of the lighthouse, you are greeted by panoramic views across the Thames towards the IFS Cloud Cable Car, the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf. All the while, the sound of the Longplayer bells floats up from the space below.


The video below gives an idea of this experience.

One of London's most unusual experiences, Longplayer is open every Saturday and Sunday (April to October 11am-5pm, November to March 11am-4pm). Entry is free.

 

Walks and tours available for booking

The London On The Ground Summer 2023 schedule of walks and tours is now available to book. For details and tickets, please click here

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