“The seasons spinning round again, the years keep rolling by...”

Of all the 10,400 or so lighthouses throughout the wide world, is there really one more beautiful than our own? Always a heartening sight it was, whether returning home on our bikes after a scramble along the crumbling clifftop path from Old Hartley and Seaton Sluice, walking Northwards up the shingle-and-fridge beach, or by motor car (the idyll and any sense of family-as-social-unit somewhat diminished by grumpy parents having to pay parking money to grumpier little uniformed man in hut — yes, him again).

With the exception of the recently-added bike ramp — sorry, wheelchair access — the island and its buildings look almost as they did 30 years ago and, in both appearance and situation, have always held an irresistable 'children's book' quality — you would not be surprised to encounter Rupert Bear and his pals exploring the rockpools and nearby clifftops!

The timeless pics on this page show some views and angles that are seldom seen, unless you have the belly to climb those 137 terrifying narrow steps to the top of the tower. I've been to the top a dozen times and from below it looks as effortless as poo from a goose, but ascend several steps and it's a hands and knees job. Make sure you don't look over, and if anyone is on their way down, make sure it is they who are either on the railing side or on top of you when passing.



Bird of Paradise

Detail of seagull from informative plaque when you reach the top. Is it just me and the workings of a diseased mind or is there something a bit "9/11" about this disproportionate giant bird of ill omen flying towards the tower?
 
 
After the ordeal in reaching the summit, there is not only an overwhelming sense of serenity and achievement but the most staggering views (and a few empty crisp packets) to behold. Some helpful little brass plaques are provided on the sills of the latticed windows to illustrate on a clear day which power stations you can see in the distance.

I don't remember climbing up the lantern tower as a kid, apart from one time with my dad and uncle, around 1969 or 1970, when we went outside onto the balcony bit. I'm not sure how that would've been allowed as the lighthouse was still in operation throughout the '70s and so it was probably not even open to the public. Perhaps just some weird dream I had at the time.

There were (and still are) large deep pools on the island where you could sit for yonks and watch the big, monster black crabs scuttling around in the watery shade, maybe gobbling a starfish for lunch, or blowing bubbles to warn you their crabby eyes were watching — those bad guys would have your arm off if you slipped and fell in. Remember trying to kick off limpets (can't be done), or poking your finger into those blood red tomatoey things, blood suckers we called them [they're Sea Anenomes — Ed.], but they'd get you back and squirt an accurate jet of salty water in your eye.

The Man who went up a Lighthouse and came down with a Motorcycle

Sounds like the stuff of a fantasy movie short: desolate man builds motorbike at the top of a lighthouse — yet it was true!

During the winter of 1973/4, a temporary lighthouse keeper and motorcycle enthusiast from Seaton Delaval, Peter Sillence, made a considered choice. To fill in the empty time between bouts of vigorous and prolonged lighthouse keeping, Peter hoisted to the top of the tower the components of his motorcycle restoration project. Well if they can get a seven ton light up there. On completing the motorcycle, the machine was sadly not ridden down the spiral steps, as you or I would probably do, but rather hoisted safely to the ground and stored in the garage of his home on Acombe Avenue.

Peter left the lighthouse service in 1974; the whereabouts of the motorcycle are unknown. Does anyone know?
 
The Monolith

What is that concrete block which stands sentinel on the rocks at the south of the island? It's too big and slippy to climb on top of. Is it to warn boats? An homage to Who's Next or Kubrick's 2001? It can't be a memorial to something or the council would have painted it black. So what is it? An entry in the Guestbook suggests it was for target practice. So you're catching fishies in your pail while some crazed army type takes pot shots at your arse. Well hose me doon.
 
 
One of Nature's terribly cruel jokes was that, whenever it was time to go home for your tea, the tide would have sneaked in engulfing the causeway for several hours; so then the only thing to do was wade through up to the waist and onto the mainland for an hour's trek back home along the Promenade in squishy wet trainers and soaking jeans that now weighed several tons, chafing your sandy boyhood.

What would have been handy was, just as in olden days, a small ferry service in operation just for the purpose of, well, ferrying those who had been cut off by the tide and who didn't want to get their breeks all a-drookit. There was also once a tiny inn on the island where the influx of the tide was no doubt a frequent excuse to necessitate in another round of the bygone Um Bongoes.

At some point the little shop and café was run by a grey-bearded man in a jaunty neckerchief and artiste's smock who clearly fancied himself as one of your Rick from Fingerbobs types. They sold warm cans of Lilt, and those little Walls ice cream 'bricks' wrapped in paper, for which you were given a "rectangular cone" (if such a thing is possible). But usually there was no pocket money left so a swig of water from the unsavoury taps in a nearby Gents' had to do. Eek!

Taken out of service by Trinity House in 1984, the lighthouse and its buildings have now been converted into the super Visitor Centre that the island deserves. They've certainly got their guano together that lot.



























Return to Brenda #4 — Pics of St Mary's Island from 30 years ago tend to be of the same view as that 1973 postcard at the top of the page — besides which it all looks pretty much the same anyway. The astonishing (and ©) fairly recent photos of the Lighthouse on show across this page are from a selection taken in 2007 by Whitley Bay-born Brenda Graham, who grew up on Bournemouth Gardens but moved down to Reading in Berkshire after a tip-off that the Bingo prizes down there were so much better than the usual 40 tabs and a seashell ashtray.