uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

The long way around: Whitehaven and Plover Scar

It’s a long way from the north coast of Scotland to the Isle of Wight and, particularly with two young children, regular breaks are essential. So why not tie these breaks in with visiting lighthouses?! We had to drive from Stirling to Leicester yesterday and, of course, if you take the most direct route you aren’t going to go anywhere near a lighthouse, so a bit of a detour was in order.

We decided to aim for Whitehaven as our first point. I’d visited back in 2012, but there was some sort of event going on in the harbour and there were far too many people around for my liking. I had just travelled around the coast of Scotland and got quite used to not seeing lots of people! As a result, on that occasion I didn’t do it justice.

Whitehaven lighthouses

The three lighthouses in Whitehaven (l-r Old New Quay, West Pier and North Pier)

This time we parked up and immediately headed for the south side of the harbour. We could see all three lighthouses in the harbour as we set off, as well as the watchtower, which is often mistaken for a lighthouse. The first one we came to was the Old New Quay light. It’s quite an amusing name: how can it be old and new, you might ask? Well, I believe it is related to the various stages of development in the harbour. There was the original quay and then the new one was built (the one with this lighthouse) as the New Quay. Then it was extended further with the north and west piers, so it became the Old New Quay!

Whitehaven Old New Quay

Whitehaven Old New Quay lighthouse

 

They’ve done a lot of renovation work on this pier in recent years, with that particular effort completed in 2017. It’s looking good, in fact a lot of the harbour is. The two other lights need some work, but it was reported this week that funding has now been approved for improvements to be made to the towers.

Whitehaven Old New Quay pier

Whitehaven Old New Quay Pier

Continuing on, we walked right out to the end of the west pier and what is probably the most well known of the Whitehaven lighthouses. It does need a bit of work done, but it’s going to look great once it’s finished. It’s quite an ornate tower. It reminds me a little of Smeaton’s tower. It’s nice that you can walk up the steps around the far side of it and see higher up the tower from the upper level of the pier.

Whitehaven West Pier lower

Whitehaven West Pier lighthouse

Whitehaven West Pier upper

Whitehaven West Pier lighthouse viewed from the upper level

From here Bob and the kids went to the beach to throw stones in the sea while I walked over to the north pier. On the way there I walked past the watchtower, another nice building. I particularly like the sun dial on the side.

Whitehaven watchtower

Whitehaven watchtower

Crossing over the lock, I then walked along to the north pier lighthouse. This is clearly the pier to use if you want to go fishing it seems, and the gulls knew it too! The tower at the end is a nice castellated affair with its year of “birth” on it. Another point for getting great views across the harbour from.

Whitehaven North Pier

Whitehaven North Pier lighthouse

I’m glad I have now spent more time in Whitehaven. It’s a lovely harbour to walk around with a lot of points of interest.

Our second, and last, stop of the day today was Plover Scar. I’m not sure what had happened between me and Plover Scar, but I’d not taken any pictures of it back in 2012, although I did see it. It’s amazing when you look back at how little effort you put in during those early days when you really only care about the bigger lights. Clearly my lighthouse outlook has changed since then as Plover Scar had remained on my to do list.

It was always going to be a challenge, What with tide times and the fact that we were taking the kids, but Bob had researched the former and we would just have to deal with the latter as best we could. We spotted the top of the tower on the approach road and then it disappeared while we parked up near Cockerham Sands holiday park. There was a nice little path around the coastline from here. The lighthouse came into view and the tide was far enough out to enable us to reach it. There was, however, a field of cows ahead of us that the footpath takes you through. Neither of us trust cows and we knew we had to get down onto the beach at some point anyway, so we headed down before reaching the cow’s field.

 

The walk out to the lighthouse wasn’t quick, in part because we had the kids there, but they enjoyed the walk (or should I say “carry” in the case of the little one) out there. The tide was still receding as we walked out, but we were aware that it was due to change soon and the tide charts showed that it changed pretty quickly with the transition from low and high being fairly quick.

Plover Scar distance

Plover Scar lighthouse with the tide out

We finally reached the lighthouse and it was a great feeling to have made it. You can never really appreciate the size of a lighthouse from a distance and it was good to get up close to this one.

Plover mid distance

Plover Scar lighthouse

The tower was repaired and renovated after it was hit by an empty cargo vessel one night in March 2016. The lantern was removed that year for renovation works to be carried out on it and repair to the tower followed in 2017. It is certainly looking good now. What a pleasure it was to see it close up.

Plover Scar close

Looking up at Plover Scar lighthouse

Although the walk back from the lighthouse needed to happen within a certain time frame due to the light disappearing and tide turning, it was still a fantastic walk to an excellent lighthouse. 🙂

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A grand day on Oxcars and Inchkeith

Inchkeith is one of those places I’d been desperate to reach for a long time. When you look across at it from Leith or even from higher points in Edinburgh it looks so close, but I’d not made it there. That was until the very end of last month! Bob had made contact with Forth Sea Safaris about attempting to go out and they had agreed to take us, weather permitting of course.

We arrived at Burntisland, our departure point, and I was extremely pleased to see the water so calm. The boatman, Stewart, had said that it was looking like it would be better than it had been for a long time. Sometimes you get very very lucky with these trips. Other times not so much. We met up with our island-bagging friend Charlie who had signed up to join us and quickly introduced him to the inner light in the harbour. It’s not changed much since we were last there, still rusty!

Burntisland Inner lighthouse

Burntisland East Pier Inner lighthouse

Stewart arrived and off we set, waving goodbye to the resident seal in the harbour (and her pup). We sailed nice and close to the lighthouse on the end of the west pier. This one is looking very good and Stewart informed us that this one has had some work done to it fairly recently, including modernisation of the light. It was great to be able to see this one as it’s visible from the harbour, but still just a little too far away to get a good picture of.

Burntisland West Pier lighthouse

Burntisland West Pier lighthouse

After leaving the harbour I mentioned the old lighthouse that used to live in Burntisland harbour and is now on display in Leith Docks to the others. Stewart said he recalled there being something on the end of an old breakwater. After a minute or two he realised that he’d actually walked right past the tower in Leith Docks just a few days before. Imagine walking past a lighthouse and not thinking anything of it!

Now, the main target for the day was Inchkeith, but seeing as we were in the area anyway and I’d not been very close to Oxcars lighthouse we went along to that one first. It was, in fact, the addition of Oxcars to the itinerary that meant such an early start that day as we wanted to catch it at low tide – for landing, of course! There was no doubting the water was calm enough for landing and the RIB had a nice little platform on the front, which was very helpful for getting onto and off of islands. We were stepping off onto seaweed unfortunately, but it wasn’t so bad and within a short time we were there at the bottom of that fascinating tower.

Oxcars approach

Oxcars lighthouse

It looks so different at low tide. I’d only seen it at high (or higher) tides before and never realised just how much rock was there. We were able to walk out onto the two little jetties and get some pretty good pictures.

Oxcars lighthouse

Oxcars lighthouse from the jetty

Stewart had told us that the ladder up to the base of the red and white banded section of the tower would be ok to climb up, but not to go any further as the ladder isn’t in a good way. That was fine with us (well me anyway). It was a similar experience to landing at the Barrel of Butter where you know you are somewhere that very few people go. Some people look at islands and think “I’d love to go there”, but they look at a bit of rock with a lighthouse on top and only the hardcore lighthouse and island “baggers” would really try to attempt it. What a wonderful lighthouse though and a real bonus for this trip. Just fantastic.

Oxcars from below

Looking up at Oxcars

Stewart took us around Oxcars so we could get some pictures of the lighthouse with the new Queensferry Crossing bridge in the background. A very picturesque view.

Oxcars and bridge

Oxcars lighthouse with the Forth Rail and Road bridges

Inchkeith beckoned and, as the tide was still dropping, we knew there would be a ladder to climb. When Bob had been to the island previously the ladder was loose at the top, but thankfully Stewart reassured us that it had been fixed. It was quite a long way up and I must have made the ladder on Oxcars look really difficult as Stewart very kindly offered me a rope. I politely refused – I must make it look harder than I actually find it!

The lighthouse was sitting up there looking all majestic as it does. I could tell immediately that this was a special place. For a start Inchkeith has a lot of history and there is evidence of that all around with the range of buildings in various states. One of my favourite tales from its history is the alleged research that was undertaken when a mute woman was put on the island with her two young children. I’m not sure how long they were said to have been there, but the aim was to see what language the children would speak. Again, I don’t know what the outcome was!

Inchkeith arrival

Arrival on Inchkeith

We walked up the path and wandered through a gate into a walled area containing what would have been the old keepers’ accommodation. Before we explored that we turned right towards a circular brick wall. It didn’t look like much, but it is the remains of an old experimental tower that was used for testing new light techniques. It was designed by Thomas Smith and built around 1785 and was used to test a new oil-burning reflector light system. The terracotta tiles on the floor are still there and the wall is still standing up to a point, so it is difficult to imagine what it previously looked like, but there is a picture showing it slightly more intact in the book At Scotland’s Edge by Keith Allerdyce.

Inchkeith experimental

The remains of the old lighthouse tower on Inchkeith

The nearby cottages are not in a good way, missing doors and windows and just how you would expect rooms to look if they are open to the wind and rain for years on end. I’ve said numerous times before that it’s a shame that a lot of the cottages have gone this way, but I suppose they have served their purpose now and it would be a very difficult place for somebody to live now, although not really that far from civilisation. Presevation of the buildings would be wonderful, of course, but if there is no one to preserve them for… (apart from the occasional lighthouse enthusiast).

Inchkeith old house

Inside one of the old houses on Inchkeith

We crossed an overgrown stretch of foliage and then arrived at the archway the marks the entrance to the active lighthouse. The old air tanks for the foghorn are still there and the area looks very abandoned. Stepping through the arch you are then greeted with the lighthouse, uniquely painted entirely in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s bamboo/buff/etc. paint. The lighthouse is no longer owned or maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board after it was passed over to Forth Ports in 2013.

Inchkeith lighthouse

Inchkeith lighthouse

There’s no doubting it’s a fantastic tower, a little castle-esque.

Inchkeith lighthouse2

The best angle on Inchkeith lighthouse

I suppose, though, you are always aware that it is surrounded by neglect. The old engine rooms across the courtyard are exposed to the elements too and in a sorry state.

Inchkeith engine room

Inside one of the old buildings close to the lighthouse

On the plus side, and a big plus side it is, the views of the lighthouse and across the Firth of Forth are simply wonderful from up there. I’ve spent a lot of time on islands off of the west coast of Scotland, but those on the east have a very different feel about them. They aren’t so remote for a start, but still feel away from it all. There’s also a lot more life there, we saw countless snails and even the resident chickens gave us a noisy welcome.

View from Inchkeith

The view from the top of Inchkeith

We decided to wander on over to where the old foghorn used to be. We’d recently seen the foghorn that was originally on the island at the National Museum of Scotland’s large item store in Granton. We had to navigate our way around some old wartime buildings to get there, but we made it to the old, and partially collapsed, lookout point. There were more wonderful views to be had from here.

Inchkeith foghorn

Looking down to where the foghorn would have been

Due to the tide being too low for us to get back off of the island for a while, we’d had plenty of time to explore and while the others went off for a more off-piste exploration of a different bit I was able to sit down, enjoy the views and soak in the loveliness of being in such a great place. It was sad to see so much neglect of buildings there, but it was also interesting to see how nature was taking control again as it does when there is no one there to stop it. A thoroughly enjoyable day and definitely well worth the wait. 🙂

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The lights of the Humber Estuary and River Ouse

While in Hull for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers AGM weekend at the end of last month, it was the perfect opportunity to improve upon my previous efforts to visit the lights along the south bank of the Humber Estuary and the River Ouse. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a day I was excited about, mainly because our first stop was Killingholme and I didn’t enjoy my last visit there.

I did try to approach it with a more positive view that perhaps I had just been tired that day or maybe it was the stress of constantly feeling like I was getting lost at roundabouts that made me enjoy it less. I was willing to give it another try. Almost immediately after arriving in the area I was reminded of the smell and then we encountered the approach road to the lighthouses and the feelings began to return again. Bob had remained positive about it until this point, but he’d not been there before. He was just enjoying all of the industrial scenery around, it seemed. When we reached the end of the road and arrived at the first of the three lighthouses I knew exactly why I didn’t enjoy the place.

Killingholme North Low

Killlingholme North Low lighthouse

The lighthouse next to the road is looking even worse than it did seven years ago and has even more damaged cars surrounding it. I’ve looked into the lighthouses here over the past year and found this website. It is the comments further down the page that tell of happier (and not so happy) times at the lighthouses there. There’s also an interesting explanation as to why the North Low light might be falling into disrepair. It sort of makes me more intrigued by the lights, but I’d read this before I went recently and I couldn’t get past the feeling of the place.

Killingholme High

Killingholme High lighthouse

Not hanging around for too long, off we went and the next priority was for Bob to go up a quick hill, not that there was much “up” involved. I waited in the car as I often do on these occasions.

The next stop was Whitgift, where I’d only seen the lighthouse from the road on my last visit. This time we walked right up to it. It’s quite a nice tower and much better maintained than some of the other smaller lights we’d seen. I don’t have a huge amount to say about it to be honest. I’m glad I’ve been closer to it now.

Whitgift

Whitgift lighthouse

Now the next one I do have a bit more to say about and that’s the old River Ouse Apex light. I had seen this one through the fence back in 2012 and I’d also stopped at the nearby Yorkshire Riverways Museum in Goole, which had a nice cafe. On the way there this time though I discovered that the Museum actually closed earlier this year, which was a shame. We decided to still drive along though so Bob could see it, and I’m so glad we did. When we arrived the gate to the area the lighthouse is in was wide open, and who can resist an open gate when there is a lighthouse on the other side? We went in, but didn’t expect to stay long in case someone turned up and shouted at us.

River Ouse Apex1

The old River Ouse Apex light

 

We’d been there a few minutes when a car drove in through the gate, the driver got out and it looked like he was locking the gate behind him. I mean, I love a lighthouse, but I didn’t fancy being locked in a compound with one! We spoke to the man and it turned out he wasn’t locking the gate, he had just closed it and was off to play guitar with a friend in the little building there. Phew, we weren’t in trouble! He said it was fine for us to wander around so we returned to the lighthouse feeling considerably more relaxed and taking a bit more time to check it out. Considering it’s no longer in use and not even in its original location it looks a lot better than some of the other active lights in the area. It’s a really interesting tower and I was so pleased we arrived when we did so we could get a much closer look.

River Ouse Apex2

River Ouse Apex lighthouse

The final stop of the day as we continued our journey north was Teesport. This area is not an easy one to find a lighthouse in as it is rather industrial. Thankfully through the research I carried out for my book, it was simple enough to find. There’s no public access to the tower itself, but we could see it through a fence. It’s a fairly understated and functional tower as you would expect in such an area.

Teesport

Teesport Front Range lighthouse

We spotted the rear light (which is incredibly tall) as we drove along the road on the approach to the lighthouse. It’s a long way back from the front light, hence the need for it to be as tall as it is. We didn’t linger here for too long as we felt that we were probably being watched by a number of security cameras and personnel, so we got some pictures and off we went, noticing the security car hanging around close by as we drove off. Clearly they aren’t used to lighthouse enthusiasts in Teesport!

A good lighthouse day, even if it wasn’t the most inspiring. When you do these things you need to accept that there will be some good days and some not so good days. Although this particular Sunday hadn’t been so enjoyable, the following day was to balance it out perfectly. More on than very soon! 🙂

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In Yorkshire with ALK friends – part two

I’ve found myself encountering more and more lighthouses in various states of dereliction recently, and although you don’t necessarily get used to it, it’s no longer shocking in the way it was with, for me, Ailsa Craig. When I saw the state cottages there I found it so sad, but I’ve seen many like that and worse since then. It’s a very rare occurrence to see a vast improvement in the state of lighthouse towers, and often their associated buildings, when the light no longer shines from it. A couple of Saturdays ago I was to witness exactly this though.

I’ve been to Spurn once before, on my original 2012 tour, and I was excited to be going back there as part of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) AGM weekend. I knew that it had changed a lot since my first visit and I was excited about going to what felt like an entirely new place. The two key changes that have occurred since my visit are that the tidal causeway leading out to what is essentially an island was washed away in 2013. When I was there before I drove out quite happily (I mean, I did nearly get my car stuck in the sand, but driving out and back was fairly uneventful otherwise), but now the only way to get out other then on foot or by bike is to join the Spurn Safari Unimog – a fantastic vehicle! Secondly, the lighthouse itself, while still recognisable as the same structure, has had the TLC it desperately needed. No more paint flaking off on the outside, and as a member of the public you can get inside it now and climb right to the top. The change is incredible really.

Spurn 2012

Spurn lighthouse in 2012

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have opened Spurn Discovery Centre on the “mainland” side, and this was where we met that morning. They’d laid out plenty of lighthouse-related items and artefacts for us, they had videos playing and Spurn-related books laid out – and then there was tea and coffee. We knew we were going to be well looked after here!

Spurn Discovery Centre.jpg

Spurn Discovery Centre

Once we were all gathered we set off for the Unimog. It’s a monster of a vehicle, and I know I wondered if we would be going over big old boulders in it and bouncing about all over the place. It was actually good fun and there were a couple of times I thought we might topple over, but the people who drive these things at Spurn certainly know what they are doing. The only thing that made me feel a little uneasy was that one of the volunteers there had said to me the day before that every day there are noticeable changes on the way out there. I suppose it’s impossible to know a “road” fully if it is in a constant state of change. One of the things I found impressive is that there are a number of groins still out there, jutting up out of the sand. They don’t look in particularly good condition, but they are still there, and obviously were able to withstand the conditions in which the road was destroyed six years ago.

Spurn Unimog

Our chariot – the Unimog

We arrived safely at the lighthouse and parked up in the same place I’d parked last time. It was more overgrown than I remember it being with higher sand banks, but it could just be that I don’t recall it correctly.

Spurn lighthouse

Spurn lighthouse now

We all went on inside the lighthouse. I could go into great detail about everything in the lighthouse, but (a) I’m sure I would miss a few things, and (b) this post would become far too long. The amount of time and effort the team there must have put in is astounding. It’s all been so well done and each floor has something different to offer, from details of wildlife to be found there, to the geology of the area, and of course the process of restoring the lighthouse. Of course you are then treated to some wonderful panoramic views at the top of the tower. The lens isn’t there anymore, but that wasn’t a problem for me as it meant I could stand on the raised platform in the middle and see out, which I couldn’t have done otherwise. From here I was able to spot the older lighthouse tower on the sand (more on that in a bit).

View from Spurn lighthouse

The view from the top of Spurn lighthouse

There was a lot to fit into our short time out there so, when we left the lighthouse, we were taken over to the most unexpected part of our tour: some military underground tunnels and rooms. These have only very recently been uncovered and there has clearly, yet again, been considerable effort put into discovering what is there and making it safe for the public to go inside. The walls in one room in particular were covered in graffiti and in another was a collection of items found during the excavation work. It was amazing really and added an extra element of wonder and interest to Spurn. What a treat that was!

Spurn tunnels

The military tunnels at Spurn

It was time to move on, so we left behind our hard hats and torches and continued along the track towards the RNLI buildings. On the way there, a few of us took a slight detour to go and get a closer look at the old lighthouse tower on the sand. Although it now boasts a not so fetching water tank on top, it is a beautiful tower. It once had the words ‘Explosive Magazine’ on the side and you can still see the remnants of this lettering half way up the tower. I wasn’t really wearing the most appropriate footwear for wandering out to it and my feet got a little wet, but it was so worth it!

Spurn low light

The low light at Spurn

We caught up with the others at the Lifeboat station. The original plan had been to have a tour of the station with the crew, but they were out on a call-out at the time so Andy from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust gave us a bit of history of their work out there. The Humber Lifeboat crew are the only full time all-weather crew in the UK. There are a number of buildings around the station, which used to be the homes of the crew and their families until the families were moved off of Spurn in 2012, which was by all accounts a very sad occasion as they had formed quite a community there. The work they do out there is amazing. The crew are paid for the time they spend at the station, but as soon as a call-out comes in and they go out they become volunteers. At the ALK dinner that evening the Coxswain, David Steenvorden, gave an incredible talk about his life in the crew, which was a real eye-opener. To hear his stories after being there that morning was wonderful.

Humber RNLI building

The Humber Lifeboat station

We left Spurn in the rain, but with a feeling of having been somewhere really special. Recently I’ve found that returning to places has uncovered new details and points of interest that I missed the first time around. I knew Spurn would do just that, but it went beyond that. It was like being there for the first time as I’d not appreciated it anywhere near as much as I should have done on the first visit. I felt very calm as I left Spurn – so much so that I nearly fell asleep in the Unimog!

That afternoon was the AGM and it was particularly important for me (aside from my events duties) because I had copies of my book there to sell and everyone seemed excited about it. The most important bit though was being able to hand over a copy each to a couple of people who had helped so much with it. The first was Ian, a former keeper on the likes of Skerryvore, Duncansby Head and Sanda. He’s been mentioned a few times in my blog over the last year and was one of the first ALK members I met. He checked over the dates and designers for my book (as well as various other things he picked up on in the final draft). The second was John, my flat-pack partner in crime, who has also had a few mentions on here. John helped to make the book so much better than it would otherwise have been and was the person I called upon to discuss the details of lights of all shapes and sizes. I’ve thanked him countless times, but feel he needs regular reminders of just how grateful I am. Thanks you two!

Books

John and Ian with their copies of the book

Well, that was the end of another ALK AGM and what a great weekend it was. Going to two places that are both fairly accessible was good fun, but the experience of sharing it with others who appreciate lighthouses as much as I do is invaluable. Many of them feel like old friends already because I have communicated with them so much over the past year. All I can say is bring on next year’s event! 🙂

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In Yorkshire with ALK friends – part one

Last year I took on the role of Events Coordinator for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) as part of their wonderful and newly-formed events team. The key event in the ALK calendar is their AGM, which is a weekend of lighthouse-focussed activities as well as the meeting itself and a dinner. This year’s event took place last weekend and we based ourselves in Hull.

The fun began early for us on the Friday. We were due to be at Withernsea lighthouse that morning, but felt the need to cram in a few lighthouses on the way there. The real reason was that I needed a closer look at the two lights at Thorngumbald after my rather lazy visit last time! Of course we couldn’t pass through Paull without stopping to see the lighthouse there. As far as I could see it’s not changed significantly since my last visit. It’s a private residence now, and a rather nice one too – if you could cope with living in a building that is said to be haunted! This lighthouse was built in 1836, but switched off in 1870 when the sand banks in the area had moved to such an extent that the two lights at Thorngumbald were introduced.

Paull

Paull lighthouse

The pictures of the Thorngumbald lights from my first visit to the area I had described as “Where’s Wally” as they were taken from a fair distance away. But I was prepared this time for reaching them. The only hurdle came when the area that you would normally drive along to park was being dug up. So we ended up parking near a gate with a sign that said “No parking” on it. The alternative would have been walking from Fort Paull, but that was closed so we really had no choice. Anyway, it was a nice stroll along to the lighthouses. They are in a pretty bad way.

Thorngumbald low

Thorngumbald Low with the High light in the background

Both lighthouses are listed buildings, but are in desperate need of some love and attention these days. The low light, interestingly, used to be moveable to adjust the line of the leading lights as the sand banks altered. You can still see the remains of the tracks, but it’s not moveable now. The lights are both still operational, but you wouldn’t think it to look at them.

Thorngumbald high

Thorngumbald High lighthouse

Onwards we went for our first official stop of the day: Withernsea lighthouse. Although Withernsea is open to the public I’d not managed to get inside before so I was looking forward to this one. While we waited for the lighthouse to be opened we popped into the little art gallery at the back, which contains locally produced art work. There’s some great work in there. It’s really interesting seeing the different ways people depict local scenes. The lighthouse building looks quite big from the outside, but when you get inside you realise just how big it is. Once inside, everywhere you look there is something to see. From the entrance area and shop to the local history and Kay Kendall museum to the cafe right at the back… and that’s without even entering the lighthouse tower itself.

Withernsea

Withernsea lighthouse

The tower is beautiful with the spiral staircase adorned with various flags. The base of the tower holds RNLI and lighthouse artefacts and as you near the top of the lighthouse there are some display cabinets with more lighthouse-related items. Included here are some exhibits on loan from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers that originated in Withernsea, which was nice to see. The views from the top of the tower are very unusual for lighthouse views, you don’t expect to see houses and cars in every direction, but that’s certainly what you get at Withernsea. It’s a unique place and can probably only really be likened to Southwold in terms of location. The people there are really friendly and speak so fondly of their lighthouse. It’s well worth a visit – especially when it’s so easy to get to!

Withernsea view

The view from the top of Withernsea lighthouse

That afternoon tours had been arranged of Spurn Light Vessel, which is currently moored in the Marina in Hull. Although it is currently officially closed to the public my fellow events team member had managed to organise access. I’d seen this one when I passed through Hull on the way to Paull etc. in 2012 – although it was moored in a slightly different place within the Marina then (I recall parking illegally for a short time to take a picture of it). I’d not been on a light vessel before so was quite intrigued to see where the people would have lived while manning it.

Light Vessel

Spurn Light Vessel

It’s cosy on board to say the least. What a life they must have had! When you take into consideration the limited space and the fact that they would have been rocking and rolling about too, it’s not the sort of life I would have chosen. At least as a lighthouse keeper you were on solid ground. One of the other ALK members there raised a point that I’d not thought about before and that was what it must be like to be out there on a light vessel when the tide changes. Frightening! There are a few rooms including a bathroom with an interesting bath and a fairly cramped bedroom. I admire anyone who could cope in those conditions because I certainly couldn’t.

Light Vessel bedroom

The bedroom on Spurn Light Vessel

It was a real insight into something I’d not given a lot of thought to before, and I certainly have a new-found appreciation for light vessels and, in particular, those who served on them. Hopefully it will be open to the public again very soon and when it is, if you are passing, be sure to stop off and take a look around. 🙂

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Exploring in Blyth and North Shields

Last weekend was the Association of Lighthouse Keepers AGM in Hull and it was, of course, essential that we make the most of the journey down by visiting a few lights I still needed to stop off at.

The first of two stops for the day was Blyth. I’d not been back to Blyth since day 8 of my original lighthouse tour back in May 2012 when I’d seen the old high lighthouse and the light on the end of the pier. I’ve actually just found this page, which shows some old images with yet another lighthouse marking the entrance to Blyth harbour, which no longer exists. What I hadn’t realised on my previous trip was that there was in fact a third light in Blyth and that was the reason for this visit. The little white tower can be seen from the opposite side of the harbour on Quayside, which is where we originally saw it from. In fact, I’d not informed Bob of the situation in Blyth and there was me gazing at a tiny white tower while he spotted the lighthouse on the end of the pier and thought I was going mad looking at completely the wrong thing! Bob suggested driving around to the other side of the harbour to see if we could walk along to the lighthouse. It’s looked like there was an industrial area fenced off so I wasn’t sure if there would be access. There was only one way to find out.

Blyth Lower Snook distance

Blyth Lower Snook from a distance

It wasn’t exactly a quick drive to get there as we needed to head back inland, drive north to East Sleekburn and then around. When we got there we still weren’t sure as the fencing was quite high, but it did appear that people had been walking around the outside of the fence. Off we set following that track and it was clear fairly quickly that the area was not out of bounds and we were soon approaching the little light. It’s not the most fantastic of lighthouses, but it does have one thing that makes it stand out a bit (and finally won Bob over) was that it has a fixed blue light shining out of it. There is a tall framework glorified post a little way back from it, which also features a fixed blue light, hence why this little one is called the “Lower” Snook light. It’s a nice little one and I’m pleased we took the time to get to it. Funnily enough, as we walked back to the car, we realised there was a gate in the fence that you could walk through so certainly no restrictions on access by foot.

Blyth Lower Snook

Blyth Lower Snook with the rear range light visible in the background

Our second location for the day was North Shields. I’d been rather lazy with the two white towers here before and only seen them from South Shields. I’d also been informed a number of months ago by a good friend that there are actually four lighthouses in North Shields, which somehow had initially escaped my attention. None of the four are operational now so they all have rather confusing names. So there’s the Old High Light, which is now a private residence on the corner of Beacon Street! There is a plaque on the tower that says: “Since 1536 Trinity House, Newcastle has built several leading lights in North Shields. This one was constructed in 1727. Following changes in the river channel it was replaced in 1807 by the New High Light.” It must be a wonderful place to live with views across the harbour and then on to South Shields.

Old High Light

North Shields Old High Light

The people living nearby obviously have a great affection for lighthouses, being able to see so many of them from their location (Tyne Entrance North and South, Herd Groyne and the three other North Shields lights). They have model lighthouses in their gardens and lighthouses on the glass panes in their front doors.

Lots of lights

The many lights of North and South Shields and the entrance to the Tyne

Just along the road from this one is the New High Light. This one is also privately owned now and really well looked after as far as I could see. It has 1808 on the front wall of the tower and a beautiful plaque that explains that it was rebuilt in 1860. Another one with commanding views across the river and out to sea.

New High Light

North Shields New High Light

Down in the harbour area is the New Low Light, a twin of the New High Light. This one bears a plaque saying: “The new Lighthouse and Keeper’s house were erected in 1808-10 by the Master and Brethren of Trinity House, Newcastle, to replace the Old Low Light. It still serves as an important navigational aid to vessels entering the river.” That’s not entirely true anymore as it no longer bears a light, but still nice to know the history.

New Low Light

North Shields New Low Light with the Herd Groyne light in the background

Just around the corner from this one is the Old Low Light, which looks the least like a lighthouse of all of them. The plaque on this one says: “Built inside Clifford’s Fort 1727-33 and extended 1775. It’s white gable was painted black and its light window blocked to obscure it as a navigational landmark when converted to Almshouses in 1806-8.” This building is now still known as the Old Low Light and houses a heritage museum and community centre. Unfortunately we were too late to go inside this time.

Old Low Light

North Shields Old Low Light

North Shields (and South Shields for that matter) are really interesting places in terms of lighthouses. Plenty to see there. Before we continued our journey to Hull, we had an amazing dinner at The Staith House close to the Old Low Light, which features plenty of interesting decor including pictures of the nearby lighthouses and nautical maps of the area on the walls. It had been a great day and really interesting to explore a couple of areas I’d previous visited in haste in a bit more detail. 🙂

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A lens special

Throughout my lighthouse “career” (if you can call it that), I’ve tended to stick to the towers. Not literally, of course, but I’ve not necessarily been distracted by the intricate details of the lights and how they all worked, the lighting sources, how the keepers lived – although I find it all very fascinating, and knowing some former lighthouse keepers now that area is of particular interest. In terms of visiting things though, it’s always been about the towers – until now!

I have a growing fascination with the optics, or lenses, that once projected the light out of the towers. Perhaps it’s because I’m seeing more of them or they are becoming less common with technological advances. Or maybe they are just incredibly beautiful. Whatever the reason is behind it, I am very much enjoying discovering lenses.

I had seen the former Inchkeith lens in one of the large halls at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh earlier in the year and a couple of weeks ago I got to see it again. Most people use the platform it sits on as a seat and probably pay it very little attention (and get in the way of my photos), but it really is beautiful. It is a first order dioptric lens designed by David A Stevenson and it served its purpose in Inchkeith lighthouse, in the Firth of Forth, for 96 years before it was replaced in 1985. It is accompanied by the mechanism that rotated the lens. I recently spoke to a lady who curates the lighthouse exhibits for the museum (more on that very kind lady in a bit) and she said that they did try getting the lens and mechanism up and running in the museum in the past, but there were a number of technical problems with it. They have a number of other lighthouse-related exhibits at the museum with a dedicated section including a couple of films related to the keepers and the trials and tribulations of lighting the Eddystone Rocks off of the South Devon coast.

Inchkeith lens

The Inchkeith lens

A few days later we found ourselves back in the centre of Edinburgh for a day. We were going to head towards the museum again, but our son decided that he wanted to walk up Carlton Hill to see the tower and buildings up there, so that was the decision made, up we went. We’d not necessarily planned to go into the Nelson Monument up there, but again the little man decided we would. As it was his birthday weekend and a bit of climbing up a tower is good exercise off we went. There are some great views from up there, including the island of Inchkeith where the lighthouse mentioned above can be found. It was back on the ground floor that we found an item of particular interest. Well, it was actually Bob who discovered it just as we were about to leave. It was the old lens from Rubha nan Gall lighthouse, just to the north of Tobermory on Mull. This one is a fixed Fresnel lens, named after physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel who invented this type. It was removed from Rubha nan Gall lighthouse in 2012. That was quite a good find as there is very little information available about this one being hidden here. I’m hoping that will change now though since I’ve seen it and am telling everyone!

Rubha nan Gall lens

The Rubha nan Gall lens

Now, this is where it gets really exciting. Back at the beginning of the year during a visit to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses I was talking to their Collections Manager, Michael Strachan, who is really into lenses and knows all of the different types, which I am still getting to grips with. His knowledge of lenses is extensive and he particularly likes the hyper-radial type (the biggest and most powerful of all, so it’s completely understandable). I can’t recall exactly how the subject came up, but I must have mentioned that I was planning on going to Sule Skerry this year and he informed me that the old hyper-radial lens from Sule Skerry is now in the possession of the National Museum of Scotland. A little while later I discovered that it was kept in storage at the museum’s facility in Granton. I was in contact with the curator at the museum, Julie, and we left it that I would contact her when I was next in the area to arrange a visit to see it.

Although I’d not forgotten about it, I did leave it too late on this occasion to contact Julie, but she did get in touch and managed to make it along to my talk at the National Library of Scotland last month. She quickly introduced herself after the talk and we agreed that I would let her know when I was next in the area. By this point I was becoming a bit obsessed with wanting to see the lens. To be honest I’ve been a little obsessed with Sule Skerry lighthouse in general since visiting it in May – or maybe the obsession began before that when I could only refer to Sule Skerry as “the place that cannot be named” due to getting over-excited every time I thought about it.

I did know that I would be passing Edinburgh at the end of last week on the way down to the Association of Lighthouse Keepers AGM in Hull. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to call upon Julie’s very kind offer to finally see the lens. Thankfully she was available and she also informed me that they are currently re-building the old Tod Head lens and mechanism next to the Sule Skerry lens – this was just getting better and better!

We turned up in Granton last Thursday and met Julie who took us straight to the large item store. There are certainly some large items in there. We skirted around the outside of them before arriving at the incredible lens that I had been so desperately waiting to see.  Needless to say it is huge and I would have quite liked to have tried to see how many people you can fit inside it, but there were only three of us there and I don’t think we would have been allowed inside it anyway. I’m guessing at least 8 people there. It’s just incredible and when you see the size of it and the profile of the tower it came from with its oversized lantern, I immediately wanted to invent time travel so I could go back and see it in action with its powerful beam sweeping around – probably as I get blown off of the island! I did try to recreate what it must have been like by walking around the outside of it whilst filming, but there’s no light in the middle anymore so it didn’t really work. The lens was built by Barbier and Benard and was first lit in 1885. It was removed from the tower on 23rd April 1977. I can’t seem to find any pictures of the tower with the lens inside, so I may need to do some asking around to uncover one. If anything the visit here has possibly made me even more obsessed. I think I’ll be ok though, but I’m now even more desperate to go back for a re-visit.

Sule Skerry and Tod Head lenses

The Sule Skerry lens with me to give an idea of its size. The Tod Head lens and mechanism can be seen in the background.

As expected, the Tod Head lens (another Fresnel) and mechanism were just next door to the Sule Skerry lens. This had actually been transferred here from the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. There’s still some work to be done on it, but it’s getting there and it was quite nice to see it partially constructed with some of the parts still left to go on stored close by. When you see the lenses fully constructed you don’t tend to think about how difficult they must be to build, but seeing them partially constructed gives a bit of an insight into how much of a puzzle it must be. Perhaps not so much in this case when everything is so clearly and helpfully labelled. What a job that must be to do though! It was great to see this one having recently been inside the tower at Tod Head. It’s nice to be able to link these lenses to their original homes.

Tod Head lens

The Tod Head lens (so far) and mechanism

Julie then showed us around some of the smaller lighthouse-related items they hold in storage, including a beautiful model of one of the old lights that was on the Eddystone (I think it may have been the Rudyerd tower judging by the shape of the tower. There was a 3kW bulb (or lamp) which was rather impressive, but the best bit (of the small items) had to be a small piece of lead. There is a story associated with this particular piece of lead and it relates to the Rudyerd tower built on the Eddystone Rocks, which was first lit in 1709. The story goes that in December 1755 the lantern caught fire at the top of the tower and the keeper on watch at the time, Henry Hall, attempted to put the fire out by throwing water upwards at it using a bucket. Molten lead was dripping down from the lantern and some of this lead dripped into Hall’s mouth and down his throat. Hall died 12 days later and the piece of lead extracted from his stomach is that very piece that we saw at the museum stores last week. It’s a very dramatic story and there is even more details about it and the lengths the doctor who extracted the lead went to following the incident on the Trinity House website.

Lead from stomach

The piece of lead found in Henry Halls’ stomach

Just before we left the stores Julie took us right to the back of the grounds where we found the old foghorn from Inchkeith, which she explained will be moved inside soon.

Inchkeith foghorn

The old foghorn from Inchkeith

What a fantastic time we spent with Julie. The stores are a treasure trove of various items and Julie is working her way through them, getting everything sorted out, dated, etc. It’s fascinating. As I said to Julie, when you go to a museum you have no idea that you are probably only seeing a relatively small percentage of what the museum actually owns or holds. This visit gave a great insight into exactly how it works.

For anyone who is interested in joining a tour of the stores then the museum do run monthly tours and you can find out more about them here. You can also organise a private visit like we did. It comes highly recommended. 🙂

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