(Above) Portland Bill Lighthouse off the Dorset coast. Image courtesy of Trinity House
Exhibition: Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks at National Maritime Museum Cornwall until December 2011.
For centuries they have been iconic beacons of light protecting our seas and the lives of sailors who navigate our shores. Now a new exhibition at National Maritime Museum Cornwall celebrates the grandeur of these triumphs of engineering and explores the lives and stories of the lighthouse keepers who manned them.
Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks takes sketchbooks, notebooks and photos loaned by former keepers, as well as a large number of artefacts donated by Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority, to offer a paean to a forgotten and fading way of life. In the UK the last manned lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in November 1998.
Relieving the shift on Bishop Rock Lighthouse 1969. © Gibsons of Scilly
Among the artefacts is a massive four-ton optic, which with its dazzling array of prisms and lenses, forms a sculptural centrepiece to the exhibition.
It's just one example of why lighthouses, constructed miles out to sea on rocky outcrops, are rightly considered to be some of the greatest engineering achievements of the industrial age. The Bishop Rock Lighthouse, for instance, stands on a rock ledge just 16 metres wide, four miles off the Isles of Scilly.
Solid bronze doors recovered from Bishop Rock are on display. Despite being situated 40 feet above sea level and weighing over 100kg each, they were smashed open by colossal waves during a storm in 1994.
A four-ton optic from Bishop Rock Lighthouse. Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall
As well as bearing witness to the destructive power of the ocean, visitors have the opportunity to step inside the lonely world of the lighthouse keeper via a reconstruction of a lighthouse living quarters. Original curved furniture has been sourced from Godrevy Lighthouse together with personal objects reflecting the daily routines of the men who lived and worked there.
It was a life of strict routine and relative isolation. To fill their time, when not tending to the light, they would write poetry, craft ships in light bulbs or come up with ingenious ways of supplementing their limited supplies by activities such as kite fishing. Examples of all these crafts and skills are on display.
The exhibition also tells the story of lightvessels, which were ships that acted as lighthouses in places where it was impossible to build one. Crews would spend weeks at a time imprisoned on the ocean, out at sea but going nowhere, without an engine for propulsion. Life on board a lightvessel was perhaps the most gruelling of all.
Original lights from the lightvessels can be examined together with intricately crafted models of these unique ships.
Storm lashed Longships Lighthouse. ©Tim Stevens, image courtesy of Trinity House.
“From the power of the ocean to powerful emotions, feats of engineering to feats of daring, as an island nation, lighthouses have played a significant role in all our lives,” says Jenny Wittamore, Assistant Curator at National Maritime Museum Cornwall.
“You might think you know about lighthouses, but Life on the Rocks shows that there is more to their story than you ever imagined.”
The exhibition is supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Trinity House is the General Lighthouse Authority (GLA) for England and Wales find out more at www.trinityhouse.co.uk.