The greatest threat to many a ship traveling south of Plymouth was the notorious Eddystone Reef, 14 miles offshore and the claimant of hundreds of lives over the centuries.Four lighthouses have been erected on the rocks, the third of which, John Smeaton’s Tower, now adorns Plymouth Hoe, having been dismantled and rebuilt here in 1882.
The first Eddystone light was designed and built by Henry Winstanley. Two devastating shipwrecks in 1695 necessitated action of some sort, which prompted Winstanley’s brainchild. This guarded the reef from 1695 to 1703 and was the first ever offshore lighthouse anywhere in the world. It was built from wood and stone and was a strange polygonal shape. Unfortunately, it was swept away in a great storm in 1703.
This was replaced with a design by John Rudyerd, still a predominantly wooden structure, but this time it was anchored to the rocks by 36 metal spikes. This lighthouse served from 1708 until 1755, when the lanterns set the whole structure on fire and it fell into the sea.
Next was John Smeaton’s Tower. This had a tree-trunk shape to lower its centre of gravity, and Smeaton himself developed quick-drying, waterproof cement and built most of the structure with Cornish granite. It also had massive chains embedded in the outer walls, to which the interior sections were anchored. The building was also totally fireproof. The lantern was first lit on November 16, 1759, and it served well until it was dismantled and taken ashore in 1882.
Nowadays, the reef is protected by James Douglass’ huge tower, over 40m high, which immediately replaced Smeaton’s tower in 1882. Over the years, electricity has been introduced (1950), a helipad was installed on top of the lantern housing in 1980, and the beacon became fully automated in 1982. In 2000, solar power was introduced.
It is possible to see the Eddystone light on a clear day, certainly from the top of Smeaton’s Tower, which I climbed for the breathtaking panoramic view.It’s quite a climb up to the top - 93 steps and a couple of tight squeezes.
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