Lighthouses by their very nature can be tricky things to get to. So when one which was originally out at sea – perched on a dangerous windswept reef for good measure – moves to the mainland, why not? The lighthouse in question is called Smeaton’s Tower these days and has been standing in a park in Plymouth for well over a century at this stage. Originally it was known as the (third) Eddystone Lighthouse and was built on rocks which bear the same name. The name Eddystone Rocks is a little misleading because they’re not just a few random rocks 19km off the English coast but a large, dangerous reef. Needless to say, many a seagoing craft met a watery end on the reef and there is still a lighthouse out there. Even though this lighthouse is no longer serving the purpose for which it was built, it is still more than just an oversized garden ornament in a public park.
The first lighthouse to be built on the reef was a tower designed by a man named Henry Winstanley. It was completed in 1698 but lasted just 5 years. It was swept away during the great Storm of 1703, killing 6 people including Winstanley himself who had been making modifications to the tower at the time. The second one designed by John Rudyard was completed in 1709 and remained in situ until 1755 when it was destroyed by fire. Its unfortunate 94 year old lighthouse keeper died several days later after swallowing molten lead which was falling from the burning lantern room at the top of the tower. Somewhat bizarrely, the piece of lead which killed him survives to this day.
When it came to building a third lighthouse, engineer John Smeaton was entrusted with the task. He based the shape of it on that of an oak tree, a structure from nature which had proved to be rather good at withstanding the elements. He went back to Roman times for the type of mortar he used – hydraulic lime is what was used in the Pantheon in Rome and we know how long that has lasted. Crucially, hydraulic lime sets underwater which made it ideal for the job in hand. The lighthouse itself was built from dovetailed blocks of granite, precision cut and interlocking once they were assembled. The blocks were worked on in Plymouth, not very far from where the tower now stands. They were shipped out to sea and the lighthouse built on the reef. After over 3 years of work, the lighthouse finally came into operation in 1759.
The lighthouse operated successfully out at sea until the rocks on which it was built began to succumb to erosion. It was noted in 1877 that any time large waves hit, the lighthouse would shake. A replacement lighthouse was commissioned and built close by and it survives to this day. When that was completed in 1879, Smeaton’s lighthouse fell into darkness.
Thankfully the original plan to blow up the lighthouse didn’t come to fruition. It was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was reassembled on Plymouth Hoe. In 1884 the rebuilt tower was renamed as Smeaton’s Tower in honour its creator. It has remained open to the public since then. The remnants of the lighthouse’s foundations can still be seen at sea, close to the tower which replaced it. Interestingly, the design of the replacement lighthouse wasn’t a million miles away from Smeaton’s tower. While it was still in operation, a Scottish engineer called Robert Stevenson visited it. He tweaked Smeaton’s ideas when designing the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Scottish coast. When the time came to build the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, engineer James Douglass used Stevenson’s specifications. If the Stevenson name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. The Stevensons were something of a lighthouse building dynasty and there have been books and documentaries made about them.
The bottom part of the tower isn’t original, of course, and has some spiral steps up to the first floor. After that though, it’s all ladders. Unlike the two other lighthouses I’ve been in which had spiral staircases along the walls, this one has floors with the same shape as Polo Mints. The different rooms in the tower are furnished with a mixture of genuine and replica furniture. There is a table which was in the actual lighthouse. Perhaps the most startling piece of furniture in the place was the bed. Living on an off-shore lighthouse was not the job for you if you were a tall person who didn’t like sleeping in cupboards.
One of the notices on the wall reminds visitors that this is an 18th-century building that was designed for 3 people. Looking around the building, it’s hard not to wonder how tough life must have been for the 3 people living and working there at any time. Cramped is one word to describe the conditions. On the other hand, these guys were probably the nimblest ladder climbers around.
At the top of the lighthouse is the lantern room, complete with a replica of the candle holder which would’ve been there at the start. These days it offers a nice view over Plymouth and out to sea. On a good day it is possible to see out as far as the Eddystone rocks and where the story began. Plymouth itself was bombed extensively during World War II, destroying a lot of the city. It’s a miracle this wonderful building didn’t bite the dust too.
Date of visit: 5th October 2013
Click on a thumbnail to launch the gallery