uklighthousetour

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

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. 🙂

Leave a comment »

One opportunity leads to another…

As mentioned in my previous post, we set off towards Montrose on Saturday pre-positioned for a visit to Scurdie Ness on Sunday. Not only was it going to be a visit to the lighthouse though, it was also an opportunity to get inside thanks to the combined efforts of the organisers behind Angus Coastal Festival and the Northern Lighthouse Board. Not an opportunity to be missed!

Leaving our accommodation just to the south of Aberdeen, we decided to pay a quick visit to Tod Head lighthouse while we were in the area. I really like Tod Head, it has a wonderful silhouette. We parked up and had a quick wander around – I say quick because we were keen to get to Ferryden and walk along to Scurdie Ness for the start of the event at 11am. I hadn’t really gone beyond the lighthouse before, so I thought I’d give it a try as the headland looked nice in itself and I expected the views back to the lighthouse to be wonderful. I wasn’t wrong. Why had it taken me so long to go for a walk down there?! There are the remains of an old concrete path with old pipes alongside leading towards the edge of the headland. We later discovered this was where the foghorn used to be, although nothing remains of the foghorn building itself now. When I received a message from Bob asking where I was I thought it was probably time to head back.

Tod Head from coast

Tod Head lighthouse

While we were keen to get there, Bob suggested he take a closer look at the light at Gourdon, which I’d seen up close on a previous visit, but he’d had to settle for a view from the car that time. It’s a difficult one to get a picture of unless you are content to photograph it from behind. Nice little tower though.

Gourdon

The little lighthouse in Gourdon

We arrived in Ferryden, parked up and began the walk along the beach and then up to the road. The sun was trying to break through the clouds, which is always a good sign. We spotted the lighthouse across the river, which we’d been to a few weeks ago and, of course, there are the various daymarks along the shoreline too. On the way to the lighthouse a lady passed us, obviously keen to get there too, and she arrived a little before we did at 10.35am. She wandered over and asked if we had been at Tod Head just before going down and I realised it was the lady who owns the lighthouse there. She was aware of my book and had a copy back at home so she was pleased to meet me and very kindly invited us back after we had finished at Scurdie Ness. I also said a brief hello to Fiona, the Communications lady at the Northern Lighthouse Board, who I’d met for the first time at their office last week.

Scurdie Ness approach

Scurdie Ness lighthouse

They obviously decided to get going with the trips as there were already a few of us lingering around, so off we went. There is not a lot to see at all going up the stairs, just an endless supply of spiral staircase – or at least that’s how it felt – and a few windows. The Northern Lighthouse Board’s website says there are 170 steps to the top, and that sounds about right. We reached the first floor where Tam Cairns (who showed me and the rest of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers group around Cape Wrath lighthouse in May) and the Retained Lighthouse Keeper for the area, Donald, gave us a bit of an introduction. We then continued up to the next level. There’s not a huge amount to see inside the lighthouse now, as is the case with most operational towers these days. So it was really just cabinets with bits of equipment or batteries inside.

Scurdie Ness stairs

The stairs inside Scurdie Ness lighthouse

We were greeted at the top by four of the modern lights that the Northern Lighthouse Board are introducing to an increasing number of their towers. A friend of mine calls them “puddings”. They contain an LED, which you can see if you look closely enough. Apparently these puddings are £17/18,000 each and are imported from Australia, but require hardly any maintenance unlike the old equipment which was becoming increasingly unreliable. I feel sad that the lights are being replaced by these puddings as it means the loss of a sweeping beam (these new lights just come on and go off). I mentioned this to Tam and he explained that what they have found with this type of light is that crews on board ships see the light flash, but because it doesn’t rotate they find it difficult to keep track of where the tower is between flashes. To resolve this they have been trialing a new set up at St Abbs where a very low level light, which is constantly on, is positioned inside the lamp room too and that light can always be seen. It appears to be working, so they are likely to employ the same set-up elsewhere too.

Scurdie Ness lamp room

The “puddings” in Scurdie Ness lamp room

I also asked about the new light arrangement in Duncansby Head lighthouse as they now have an LED inside a rotating optic, which is great and I hoped they would roll that out further, but alas it seems unlikely. Apparently the light at Duncansby Head needs to have a greater range than the puddings are capable of achieving. I found this quite fascinating as often we think of new technology being able to achieve more than older equipment, but clearly that is not the case here.

Scurdie Ness view from top

The view from the top of Scurdie Ness lighthouse

After we left the lamp room we took a spin out around the balcony. There are wonderful views from up there, particularly looking back along the river and, of course, I caught the obligatory lighthouse shadow on the ground below. The queue was well and truly forming below so we felt it was probably time to give someone else a turn. Down and down we went and then we spent a while eating the specially prepared Scurdie Ness lighthouse cake, drinking tea and chatting. The owner of Tod Head, Rohan, still seemed happy for us to visit and, once again it was an opportunity we couldn’t possibly have turned down.

Scurdie Ness owl

The owl at the top of Scurdie Ness lighthouse

We met Rohan back at the lighthouse a little while later. As we were standing outside I said to Bob that I was looking forward to seeing inside as I had a feeling it would be very different from any other lighthouse I’d been inside before. I wasn’t wrong. Rohan bought the lighthouse around the time I first visited it in May 2012 although she hadn’t moved in by that point. Since then she has been gradually doing it up while also maintaining what is a very old building. Rohan has had some incredible work done there. The living room area is fantastic with metal beams still visible and the old unit which used to house some of the main controls sitting in the corner, not to mention the amazing rounded tower that takes over a corner of the room. What I wouldn’t give to have a bit of lighthouse tower in my living room! She has tried to keep hold of a number of the old fixtures and fittings and the kitchen cupboards still feature “Wear eye protection” and “Hand protection must be worn in this area” as well as “Optic battery 12V Nominal”.

Tod Head looking up

Looking up Tod Head tower

Of course, the most amazing part was the tower. It’s not a tall one, but that really adds to its charm. There is a lower ground floor, which Rohan said they filled in as it used to just be full of mucky sludge. It’s currently being used for storage, but everyone needs that kind of space. We set off up the tower and came out on the first floor. Up here there was a little hatch in the wall that Rohan opened up. It was within the lower part of what used to be a door. She has tried to establish what the door there might have been used for in the past, but has not found any explanation so far. At this point, if you looked up you could see a square panel of glass through which a circular glass design, made up of 12 different sections, was visible. We got another look at both from the next floor up where it was fantastic to look down through the square pane and see the basement floor right at the bottom. The walls here were lined beautifully with wood and this little door leading out to the balcony looked perfect too. There was a small sign leant up against the wall saying that we should wear ‘hedgehogs’ upstairs if we planned on standing on the glass floor. I threw on a pair of pink ones and off I went.

Tod Head door

The little door leading out to the balcony

Now, I’m going into an increasing number of lamp rooms these days and it’s always nice to see a light still in them, but this one was amazing. The floor was incredible, the views were stunning and it was also rather hot too with all of the glass making for a lovely greenhouse feel! What a fantastic place to go on a stormy day and watch the waves crashing about below, or even on a nice day such as the day we were there when all is relatively calm and beautiful. There was a lot to love about it.

Tod Head lamp room

Inside the lamp room at Tod Head

The amazing tour continued back down on the next floor and then out onto the balcony. One of the many unique things about Tod Head lighthouse is that it has an extension to the balcony on the seaward east side. Whereas on most lighthouses you struggle to see the lantern properly from the balcony, this bit means you can step back and get a better view – and, of course, there were those brilliant views of the coast again to the north, east and south.

Tod Head lantern

The view of the lantern from the platform at Tod Head

We were up against time a bit as Rohan had some kids visiting for one of their birthdays, but we just had time to sit down at her dining table for a while and chat. I signed her copy of the book and she also offered us the privilege of being able to sign her table, which I was more than pleased to do. Evidence that I was in this beautiful lighthouse. I did tell Rohan that if she ever wants to give her home away then to just give me a call. I can certainly see the appeal of living there.

Before we left I had a quick picture with Rohan taken outside the lighthouse. It was so lovely to meet her and I felt very privileged to have been invited into her home. It was a very special day and a perfect example of why you should never (where possible) turn down an opportunity as you never know where it might take you. 🙂

Leave a comment »