Lighthouses of the Upper Solway: a guest post by Captain Chris Puxley

For many years, Captain Chris Puxley was Harbourmaster of the Port of Silloth and  a ship’s pilot, bringing ships up the Solway’s unpredictable channels from Workington. He has always been interested in the Port’s history and has written a book about it, The Port of Silloth, and amassed a fine collection of photos, charts and documents. He was also, until December this year, a regular contributor to the Solway Buzz (as ‘Captain Slog’) reporting on shipping movements and events at the port.

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I first met Chris back in 2010, when I was writing an article about the port, and we met again when I wanted to find out what it was like to pilot a ship up the Firth to Silloth. Both those articles were published in Cumbria Life, but I have subsequently added to them and they form part of my Solway Shore Stories collection – and you can read much more there about the Port of Silloth and Chris’ role.

‘Lighthouses of the Solway’ was his final column (see page 13) in the Solway Buzz (he has decided to hang up Captain Slog’s peaked cap) I am grateful to him for allowing me to reproduce it here, with photos from his own collection. Silloth is now the only functioning port for cargo ships on the Upper Solway, so it’s good to learn about the ways in which they – and fishing vessels – are alerted to ever-present dangers.

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The lighthouses of the Upper Solway

East Cote Lighthouse

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The East Cote lighthouse was established in 1841, as a navigational aid for shipping proceeding to and from the quays at Annan and Port Carlisle – it initially shone a red light out over the Solway. For many years it was manned by Silloth man, Edward Dalglish, and later it was maintained by the Silloth Port Authority.

Although sited at a fixed position for most of its life, in the 1850s it was reportedly placed on a short trackway so that it could be moved to shine a light down the latest navigable channel, whilst in transit with the Silloth Pierhead lighthouse. The shape of the wooden structure has changed little over the years, receiving a major overhaul in 1997.

It currently shines a fixed green light down the Silloth approach channel.

Lees Scar Lighthouse

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Aerial view of Lees Scar lighthouse at low tide (photo: Ann Lingard)

Located on a shallow outcrop of hard clay (scaur or scar) to the south west of Silloth Docks, it was commissioned in 1841 as part of the suite of navigational aids for vessels trading to and from Annan and Port Carlisle.

 

It was equipped with a fog bell, and various old charts indicate that it shone a white or a red light. It was and still is maintained by the Port of Silloth. For a while it was manned by a keeper called Tommy Geddes, from whence it acquired its local name ‘Tommy Legs’.

In the Carlisle Journal of Friday 7th September 1906, there was an article reporting the drowning of the Silloth lighthouse-keeper Samuel Jardine on the previous Saturday. He had been in the job for some time and usually walked out to the Lees Scaur (sic) lighthouse at Low Water, when it was safe to negotiate a number of depressions across the dunes to reach the scaur and climb the tower. On this occasion, he had been seen proceeding to the lighthouse rather later than was expected. As it got dark, it was noticed at the dock that the light was not shining, so the Silloth tug was sent to investigate. The lighthouse was found to be locked and unattended. Sadly, at 5.30am the following morning the body of the keeper was found face down on the sands by a walker on the beach. The Coroner concluded that the deceased, being late for work and whose watch had stopped at 7.15pm, had been caught by the incoming tide on the Saturday evening on his way to the lighthouse. A verdict of “Accidental drowning” was returned.

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On 1st July 1911, the Dockmaster at Silloth came across the Lees Scar lighthouse-keeper in town, at a time when he should have been manning his lighthouse – to make matters worse he was drunk. Suspending him from duty, a deputy was arranged to take his place. When the deputy went to take up his duties at about 8.30pm, he found that the lighthouse was on fire. The blaze had been noticed by others, who had reported seeing a figure running away from the scene. The regular keeper was later arrested and sent for trial at Carlisle Assizes, where he was found guilty of having feloniously set the lighthouse on fire. An emergency light was rigged on the structure until it could be repaired.

The lighthouse continued to be manned until 1938, when the structure was declared unsafe.

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Lees Scar lighthouse as it is today

The light was re-established in 1959 as a result of the gradually collapsing pier. The elaborate light housing on the top platform is now long-gone and the legs’ bottoms have been reinforced with concrete. For a while in the 1970s-80s a small glass fibre cabinet on the top platform housed the light batteries, which were re-charged by a wind-powered generator, but this arrangement was replaced around the year 2000 by a solar-powered light, which now flashes green every 5 seconds.

Silloth Pierhead Lighthouse

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This attractive timber-built lighthouse, which was established in 1857 at the extreme end of the new Silloth Pier and maintained by Silloth Port Authority, had to be abandoned for safety reasons when the end of the pier began to subside during the early 1900’s.

With the loss of access to the pierhead, a replacement light was erected near the end of the stable section of the pier. As the pier gradually deteriorated, the light marking this structure was also moved, to indicate the pier’s extremity at night.

 

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Pierhead light in the 1930s and the 1960s

Barnkirk Point Lighthouse

Located at Barnkirk Point, at the entrance to the River Annan, this light was built and commissioned in 1841, as one of the navigational aids for the small docks at Annan and Port Carlisle. When the dock at Port Carlisle closed, the lighthouse was managed and maintained by staff at Silloth Docks. It was equipped with a fog bell and had two fixed white lights, one shining down the Firth, whilst the other shone upstream towards Port Carlisle. The lighthouse was decommissioned in the 1960s and was destroyed by fire shortly afterwards.

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Southerness Lighthouse

Located on Southerness Point, Dumfriesshire, it is the second oldest lighthouse in Scotland, commissioned in 1748 and completed a year later. The structure was improved in 1805, under the guidance of the famous lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson, but it was not lit until 1881. The structure was owned and maintained by the local lighthouse authority, to act as guidance for shipping using a navigable channel to the River Nith and the small dock at Carsthorn, which served the busy trading town of Dumfries. As trade ceased to that dock, the lighthouse beacon was extinguished and the structure decommissioned in 1931.

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Still visible from Silloth, the 17m tall, rectangular white tower is now cared for by the owners of the nearby caravan park.

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