Souter Lighthouse

We were up in the North East over the weekend for a family wedding. We stopped overnight and on the way home decided to visit the Souter Lighthouse at Whitburn. Opened in 1871 and operated until 1988, it is now owned by the National Trust. Standing on the cliffs between the Tyne and Wear, it was the first lighthouse to be powered by electricity.

Unlike most lighthouses, which are perched on rocks in inaccessible places, it’s built on a cliff  so the lightkeepers’ families were able to live with them. The complex included accommodation for several families. It must have been fairly cramped – each family, which was quite large according to the census records, had only four rooms – two up, two down.

After looking round the living quarters and the working areas of the complex we were able to climb the tower, accompanied by a guide. It was a steep climb up a spiral staircase and then an almost vertical ladder. According the NT website for the property, there are 76 steps – but it seemed like more! On the way up we stopped to look at the “Middle Light”. This was a fairly ingenious system which made use of the “wasted” light from the beam when it rotates to face the land. A series of prisms redirects the light down to a lens which directs the beam through a window in the side of the tower. Facing out, the left hand side of the window is clear while the right hand side is coloured red. This beam was used to warn vessels coming from the south to avoid rocks in the bay. If they could see the clear beam they were O.K. but if the red beam was visible they were in danger of hitting the rocks.

There was a good view of the coast from the top of the tower, but the main attraction for me was the lamp mechanism.  There are actually two fresnel lenses, one on top of the other. The beam from the lower lens was white while the upper one gave a red light. The whole lamp assembly weighs over four tonnes. It’s supported on a bath of mercury, one and a half tons of the stuff, which has two purposes. First of all it keeps the lamp perfectly level. Secondly it makes it easy to rotate the lamp assembly by reducing friction. We were able to prove this for ourselves by pushing it around with our fingers. Mercury, of course, is highly toxic, and the lighthouse keepers must have been exposed during their day to day activities, particularly when they had to remove impurities from the top of the bath and also when they had to periodically clean the liquid metal by passing it through a chamois leather, which they had to do every few months.

A lighthouse fresnel lens (Source: Wikipedia)

The guide was very informative and we picked up quite a few gems of information. He told us that the windows at the top of the tower were not made of ordinary panes of glass. They have to be specially shaped to match the curvature of the lens. Each individual pane (and there were quite a lot of them) costs around £900 to replace.  Also there were blinds that were pulled down to cover the windows during the daytime. This is because as well as magnifying the lamp beam at night, sunlight coming through the windows is also magnified and produces concentrated rays of sunlight that can start a fire.

When the lighthouse was constructed, it was in open country (as it very much is today). However, not long after Marsden village was built on the north side of the site to house workers from Whitburn colliery which was just to the south of the lighthouse. There 135 houses in all, and around 700 people lived there. It must have been strange living so close to a lighthouse. It’s a wonder anyone got any sleep, especially when the foghorn went off. There’s nothing left of the village or the pit any more. Everything was demolished after the pit closed in 1968.

So today the lighthouse is out in the country again. The land to the north extending as far as Marsden Rock,, known as “the Leas”, is owned by the National Trust and Whitburn coastal park is to the south. There’s a path along the cliffs and there are great views down to the sea and plenty of opportunities to watch the sea birds nesting and swooping over the waves.

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