“WHETHER at home on sea or on land, we have a special affinity to lighthouses,” says Roger O’Reilly in his new book on the country’s 100 top lighthouses.

And he’s right. Although they are intended to warn shipping off the rocks, they actually draw us humans in, making us want to climb a cliff or ride out on a boat to visit them.

“Maybe it’s the idea of strength and resilience, a guiding light in the darkness, that feels so relevant in our challenging times, perhaps it’s just a childlike fascination with tall towers and spiral staircases, with splendid isolation and romantic seascapes, but everyone seems to have a favourite.”

The Northern Echo: Lighthouse by Roger O'ReillyLongstone lighthouse, by Roger O'Reilly

As well as providing pen portraits of the history of each of his lighthouses, Roger also draws distinctive, retro poster style drawings of each, which are quite fabulous.

Eleven North East lighthouses, from Bamburgh down to Whitby, feature in the book, including those on the Farne Islands, where the first two lighthouses were built in 1776 and were coal-fired. Unfortunately, their light was often obscured by thick clouds of coal smoke, so they were rebuilt as oil-powered. In 1826, William Darling moved from decommissioned Brownsman Island lighthouse into Longstone on the outermost of the Farnes. It was from here, of course, that his 22-year-old daughter, Grace, watched horrified as, in a terrific storm on September 5, 1838, SS Forfarshire hit Big Harcar rock and broke up.


The Northern Echo: Find out more about Victorian heroine Grace Darling at the exhibition. Oil on canvas by Thomas Brooks (1818-1891) [Grace Darling Museum/RNLI].Grace Darling, by Thomas Brooks (1818-1891)

By first light, Grace could see survivors clinging to the rock and so she and her father rowed to their rescue, with Grace keeping the cobble steady as her father pulled aboard four men and one woman – Sarah Dawson, the only female survivor who had lost her children, aged seven and five.

They got them back to the lighthouse where Grace remained to nurse them as William, accompanied by a couple of crew members from the Forfarshire, made a second daring journey to the wreck site. Between them, they saved nine lives although, tragically, Grace died of TB just four years later.

The Northern Echo: Souter lighthouse, taken this week by Ian Maggiore, a member of The Northern Echo Camera ClubSouter lighthouse, taken this week by Ian Maggiore, a member of The Northern Echo Camera Club

Strangely, her niece, Isabella, is said to haunt Souter lighthouse which was built in 1871 in response to 160 ships being wrecked off the Sunderland coast in the previous decade, some of them apparently lured onto the rocks by “false lights” being shone on the shore by those who might profit from shipwrecked cargo.

The Northern Echo: Giant waves crash over Souter Lighthouse in South Shields in Tynemouth, as extreme weather has continued to wreak havoc across the UK. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday March 2, 2018. See PA story WEATHER Snow. Photo credit should read: OwenGiant waves crash over Souter Lighthouse on March 2, 2018. Picture: Owen Humphreys

Souter was the first lighthouse in the world to be powered by electricity, and Isabella lived there in the 1880s as her father was the lighthousekeeper. She was said to be keen on cookery, and now visitors are said to hear pots and pans being bashed about and to see spoons spookily raise themselves.

The Northern Echo: Lighthouse by Roger O'ReillyDown at Whitby, there were two lighthouses built in 1858 two miles south-east of the town on the clifftop near Hawsker. Whitby Low was 45ft tall and, 330 yards away, Whitby High was 66ft tall, and when ships lined the two lights up they were in danger of getting caught by the notorious Whitby Rock.

Having two lighthouses required two complements of lighthouse staff, so in 1890 Whitby High was fitted with an “occulting light” – when a ship entered the danger zone, a clever piece of technology meant the lighthouse looked to be emitting a red warning light and when the ship moved to safer waters, the light turned white.

This enabled Whitby Low to be demolished.

However, Whitby High is high: 240ft high, and so is regularly obscured by a low cloud. Whitby Low was therefore replaced by a foghorn.

“It featured a pair of Raleigh trumpets powered by compressed air,” writes Roger. “These gigantic metal horns still adorn the building, which is now a private residence. The fog signal – referred to locally as the “Hawkser Bull” – continued in use until 1987.”

The Northern Echo: Lighthouse by Roger O'Reilly

The book is full of gripping lighthouse-related stories, none as gory as that which is set in 1801 on the Smalls lighthouse which is 20 miles off the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. In 1801, two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell, were despatched for a long and lonely tour of duty, even though they didn’t get on.

Griffith became unwell and died, but Howell didn’t dare dispose of the body for fear of being accused of murder, due to their animosity. Unable to leave because of a severe storm, he kept the body in the lighthouse until the smell of decomposition forced him to put it on the shelf outside the beacon.

The gale tore open the makeshift coffin so the body, with one arm swinging in the breeze, appeared to be leering in through the window.

Howell set off emergency rockets to draw attention to his predicament, but when ships drew near, all they saw was a keeper apparently waving one arm at them so, assuming all was ok, they put back to sea.

Somehow, despite the attentions of his late, hated colleague staring in at him, Howell kept the light alight – but the ordeal of many weeks affected him profoundly.

“Eventually, the storms abated and a relief crew arrived at the Smalls, to find a decomposed corpse barely hanging on to the rail and an emaciated keeper barely hanging on to his mind,” writes Roger.

The Northern Echo: Lighthouse by Roger O'Reilly

  • Legendary Lighthouses of Britain: An Illustrated Guide to the Sentinels that Guard Our Shore, by Roger O’Reilly (Watkins Publishing), is £25 hardback. To support local book shops, order through bookshop.org, and get a discount!