uklighthousetour

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

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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