Ancient Lights

[Image: Via Wikipedia].

"Ancient lights" is a colloquialism for the "right to light," guaranteed under English law, whereby windows that have seen twenty years' worth of "uninterrupted" daylight cannot be blocked by the construction of new buildings.
Or, as Wikipedia explains it:
    In effect, the owner of a building with windows that have received natural daylight for 20 years or more is entitled to forbid any construction or other obstruction that would deprive him of that illumination. Neighbors cannot build anything that would block the light without permission. The owner may build more or larger windows but cannot enlarge his new windows before the new period of 20 years has expired.
"Once a right to light exists," we read, "the owner of the right is entitled to 'sufficient light according to the ordinary notions of mankind'." Even better, British courts apparently "rely on expert witnesses to define this term."
Whether "this term" refers to sufficient light or to ordinary notions of mankind is hard to tell.
In any case, the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors, or RICS, suggests that you should never "settle for living in the shadows."
The RICS believes, in fact, that "many people are allowing adjacent buildings to block their natural light, unaware that they have a legal right to it. Light blocking can be classified as a ‘nuisance’ alongside noise and air pollution and culprits range from large new commercial developments to a neighbour’s building extension or a new garden shed. Even a tall hedge can be a problem."
The tone of the RICS abruptly shifts at this point, however, as they begin to explain how you can actually prevent your neighbors from acquiring ancient light rights. There is a "need for vigilance to prevent neighbours acquiring a right to light," they warn; after all, such an acquisition "may hamper future development and investment possibilities" on your own property.
"It is possible to prevent a building acquiring a right to light," the RICS explains, "but despite the procedure being simple, it is rarely used." The "procedure" involves a man called Vinnie, and he –
The actual solution is a kind of ghost architecture. In other words, following consultation from the RICS, you draw "a notional screen of unlimited height," along with other "imaginary legal partitions," around your home, thus defining the light rights of your property.
You then ring your neighbor's doorbell, hand him an envelope, and explain what you've been doing. He nods quietly, ceases construction on his new guest bedroom – and then throws a brick through your window.
You retaliate.
The other neighbors soon join in, choosing sides, talking strategy, letting the air out of your car's tires and stealing your newspaper. Within a week, the quality of life on your street has plummeted; there are threats, loud noises, and an unexplained smell...
Meanwhile, "[i]n the center of London, near Chinatown and Covent Garden, particularly in back alleyways, signs saying 'Ancient Lights' can be seen marking individual windows."

('Ancient Lights' found via

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Anonymous Richard said...

This really is one of the best blogs on the net. Fantastic stuff. I love it. Seriously.

April 25, 2007 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Museum of Ephemerata said...

I wonder if a system of mirrors would be a way to move forward with ancient light-blocking construction? The offending party simply builds a mirror maze directly into their structure that delivers ancient light - perhaps even a surplus of such light - into deserving windows.

April 25, 2007 6:11 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Wow, "a notional screen of unlimited height." The mind boggles. Has any one told Charlie Rose about this? He is a big fan of notions.

April 25, 2007 8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a right to sunlight for everyone in Japan. It's hard to find information about it in English on the web, though.

April 25, 2007 10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful idea. The right to light, that is, not the selfish nonsense about blocking other people's access so someday you might sell your home to a condo developer.

(Googling) It looks like we may have a provisional right to light in Toronto, but it looks like it's being contested. With advertising companies owning Toronto city council, it'll probably be overturned so we can all enjoy 10 metre billboards...

April 26, 2007 12:48 AM  
Blogger spacedlaw said...

That's ... amazing (for lack of better words).
I think I shall HAVE to use this in a story. It ALREADY feels like it IS a story.

April 26, 2007 2:55 AM  
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April 26, 2007 5:02 AM  
Anonymous Museum of Ephemerata said...

Is there a converse "right to dark" law anywhere that limits light pollution? Or at least "right to dark" vigilante groups? The International Dark-Sky Association secretly training an army of sharpshooters to take out rural streetlights by helicopter...

April 26, 2007 10:38 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Is there a converse "right to dark" law anywhere

But then the question would be: could you prevent your neighbor from obtaining this right - and how? Shine lights through their windows for 20 years?

April 26, 2007 3:57 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

It would only require a notional unlimited brightness light presented as a document of speculative intent.

Then your neighbor could counter-speculate a notional shade of unlimited opacity . . .

April 26, 2007 5:53 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

For that matter, could you shine ancient darkness into someone's home? And, if you could, would that violate the laws of physics?

Could you thus be sued?

Also, what about smell - is there a case where someone had rose bushes growing near their kitchen window, but on a different property, for twenty years, until someone moved in next door and ripped out the rose bushes?

Could you then sue them under an "ancient smell" law?

April 26, 2007 7:05 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I would hang an ancient reverse prism in the window to break your ancient night into the darkness spectrum. Thereby creating a dazzling display of nothing across my ancient walls. An un-glow of smug satisfaction would spread across my ancient face.

April 26, 2007 10:31 PM  
Blogger spacedlaw said...

Am most in favour of the possibility to claim ancient smell - or ancient sight : if you've had a nice scenery outside your window for so amny years, you do not particularly want to have it replaced by a construction - no matter how elegant (criterion which somehow, most of the time, seems to fall short; next door neighbours seem to be doomed to have atrocious taste in buidings)

April 27, 2007 1:41 AM  
Blogger Y.E. Vulva said...

"ancient lights" - implying more than one source...?

if only sun ra had lived in one of those places!

April 27, 2007 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm... the plight of the lowly apartment dweller continues.
as a renter, one owns nothing beyond the right to live in someone else's place.
with buildings in such close proximity to the property line, what do these property owners expect?
having lived in apartments in brooklyn and sf, with no direct sunlight whatsoever, i had to go outside to soak up some rays.

April 27, 2007 2:10 PM  
Anonymous nakliyat said...

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April 28, 2007 6:31 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

anonymous, it sounds like you a have a lucrative future in property development.

April 29, 2007 12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geoff, this must have been after the 152 years of "window tax" where people with more windows paid extra.

Daylight robbery, I say.

April 30, 2007 6:19 AM  
Blogger Pete Nisbet said...

How about trees blocking your light? My local council owns woods outside my front door, and have neglected them, allowing new shoots to grow unrestricted. Over the past 18 years they have now grown into large trees that are blocking the light into my front windows to the extent that I frequently have to turn the lighting on all day when it is cloudy.

Don't I have rights under 'Ancient Lights' to request them to cut the trees down?


July 18, 2007 2:24 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Pete - Interesting point. Sounds like a question for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

You might seriously consider asking them, in fact; it'd be interesting to hear what they have to say...

July 18, 2007 3:01 PM  

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