The Wolf Rock lighthouse (2002)
The Wolf Rock lighthouse
by Ken Trethewey
Sailors who today pass around the western extremity of the British Isles may notice - and hopefully use - the aids to navigation that are present on the way, but most have little idea of the great difficulties their construction caused to the Victorians. The Longships, the Rundlestone, the Brisson and Wolf Rocks created a particularly dangerous group of hazards for the increasing number of vessels of all kinds that passed this corner of England at a time when the volume of merchant and passenger traffic was growing steadily year by year.
Longships is a well known lighthouse, located barely a mile from the Lands End outcrop. Many thousands of visitors attracted to the dramatic cliff tops at this western extremity view the lighthouse every year and much has been written about it. The story of Longships is sufficient to fill another full article and will not be attempted here. The Wolf, however, is rather less well known and often confused with its more famous neighbour. Being about six miles from the nearest point of land, the spectator on the shore can easily fail to spot the Wolf, especially on the many days when visibility is poor.
The Wolf Rock is a giant, single mass of threatening rock that protrudes modestly, but very menacingly, from the waves. This geometrical form leads to it being called a steeple rock, for obvious reasons. Not surprisingly it had been the cause of a great number of wrecks for centuries and it was the number one candidate to receive a mark at the earliest opportunity. The name used today is derived from a saxon word, Yulf which over the years metamorphosised into Gulf, Gulph, Gulfe and Wolf. In French it was referred to as Le Loup or Gulf Roche. The current name has been consistently applied only from about 1800 onwards.
When the time came for consideration of marking these Cornish hazards, the Wolf and the Rundlestone were treated together at first. A beacon was built on each rock in 1795. They were bare poles of wrought iron, about 10 cm (4 in) in diameter, sunk into the rock and fixed by molten lead that was run into the hole - a common method of the time. The beacon on the Wolf was about 6 m (20 ft) in height, and was supported by six wrought-iron stays. The beacon on the Rundlestone was not so high, as stays could not be used, owing to the small size of the rock. The sea soon carried away both beacons. In addition to the beacon on the Rundlestone, its position was indicated by two day marks of rubble masonry, 67 m (220 ft) apart, erected on the land, at a distance of 1.6 km (1 mile). When aligned, they marked out a line directly over the centre of the rock.
Although the possibility of marking the Wolf Rock had been realised, the practicalities were obviously going to be difficult. So great was the importance of the project that the great Scottish lighthouse engineer, Robert Stevenson, entered into discussions with the Admiralty around 1823, with the result that he submitted a design for a lighthouse. He estimated the cost of the project to be £150,000, which quite unacceptable at the time, so his plans were not taken up and the proper marking of the Wolf was postponed.
James Walker, at that time engineer-in-chief for Trinity House, designed an iron beacon and ordered its erection there. John Thurburn, a protégé of Walker’s, built it during the years 1836-40. In five years, only 302 hours were worked and, after it was completed in the summer of 1840, the beacon had been swept away by the November. So they tried again, this time with a cast iron beacon, erected in 1844, and after the loss of that one too, another in 1850. How frustrating it must have been for those who laboured so long, only to see their work treated so contemptuously by the winter storms! These attempts were under the direction of Nicholas Douglass, father of James and William, who was at that time Superintending Engineer under Walker. (William Douglass eventually removed this last beacon during the construction of the new lighthouse that was to begin in 1862.)
Meanwhile, a second Walker-designed beacon was placed on the Rundlestone during the years 1841-3. It was completed on the 27th June, 1843, but during a gale in October of the following year, the wrought-iron mast of 15 cm (6 ins) diameter was broken off about 60 cm (2 ft) above the socket. Before any repairs could be carried out, a vessel struck what was left of the beacon, and carried off the stump having pierced her hull with it. Fortunately, the vessel succeeded in making the Cornish port of Hayle for repairs.
During the summer of 1844 the beacon was rebuilt by Nicholas Douglass, only to be swept away again in 1854. Walker ordered another to be built in 1856, but that one was lost yet again in 1857. After this, James Douglass designed and moored a bell buoy to mark the Rundlestone, which solved the problem.
The Wolf Rock was to prove an altogether different magnitude of problem. It had always been the preferred option to build a lighthouse there, but, having been already identified as a potentially costly solution, it took until the early 1860s for another firm proposal to emerge. Walker had become the foremost lighthouse designer in England and had developed a pattern that was proving successful in other locations. You could say that the design of the lighthouse was an off-the-shelf item. In a report, which he wrote after successfully completing the Wolf Rock lighthouse, James Douglass described it thus:
"The form and dimensions of the tower differ but little from those of the Bishop, the Smalls, and the Hanois. Its exact height is 116 feet 4 3/4 inches, its diameter at the base 41 feet 8 inches, and near the top, at the springing of the curve of the cavetto under the lantern gallery, the diameter is 17 feet. For a height of 39 feet 4 1/2 inches from the base the work is solid, with the exception of a space forming a tank for fresh water. At the level of the entrance door the walls are 7 feet 9 1/2 inches thick, whence they gradually decrease throughout the whole height of the shaft to 2 feet 3 inches at the thinnest part near the top."
(The Bishop Rock lighthouse mentioned above was, of course, an earlier version of the one that exists today.)
So it was decided, money was allocated and the project commenced. First, the rock was surveyed. Douglass describes thus the details of the survey he had carried out:
"The Wolf Rock is situated in latitude 49o 56' 41" N., and longitude 5o 48' 30" W. From it the Lizard lighthouses bear E.S.E. 23 miles; St. Agnes lighthouse, Scilly, W. by N. 1/2 N. 20 3/4 miles; Longships lighthouse N.E. 1/3 N. 7 1/3 miles. The rock is composed of a hard, dark, felspathic porphyry; its highest part is 17 feet above low water of spring tides which rise 19 feet. The surface is rugged, rendering a landing upon it at all times difficult. The depth of the water close to the rock is about 20 fathoms on all sides, except the S.E., where a shoal extends for a considerable distance, having only 4 1/2 fathoms to 5 fathoms on it at low water at a distance of a cable's length from the Wolf. At a distance of 1 mile from the rock the depth of water on this reef is about 14 fathoms, but in every other direction it is not less than 34 fathoms."
The work began in 1862, but Walker was to die later that year and James Douglass was appointed engineer-in-chief. Douglass’s younger brother, William, had been completing the Walker-designed lighthouse at Les Hanois in the Channel Islands, but came to the Wolf and assumed the post of resident engineer.
All the stonework was prepared in Penzance in a work yard especially acquired for the purpose, a site immediately adjacent to the harbour that is today jointly occupied by the National Lighthouse Centre and the Trinity House Penzance depot. A 60 hp steam tug used in the building of the Smalls lighthouse was brought to Penzance for the project, and five 40-ton barges were bought for transporting the stone. In addition, a 100-ton schooner was built and specially fitted for service as a barrack for the workmen when afloat. Special moorings were laid down for all these vessels near the work yard, and a timber jetty was constructed for loading and unloading them.
As is always the case in such projects, the first part of the work was most difficult. Establishing a foothold sufficient to build good foundations would always be a very dangerous and laborious business. Only twenty-two landings were made in the first year, and eighty-three hours of work carried out - amazingly little it seems today - yet not a single opportunity had been lost when it was possible to work even half an hour. Just getting on and off the rock was exceedingly difficult. Douglass and his men were frequently dragged through the surf from the rock to the waiting boat because it was impossible for the boat to come alongside the working area, but in his reports he made light of it.
When built, the tower would contain 44,506 cubic feet of granite, weighing some 3,296 3/4 tons and with a centre of gravity 36 feet 2 1/4 inches above the base. Nicholas Douglass, James’s father, had already improved upon the method of dovetailing in stone first used by Smeaton at the Eddystone. Smeaton’s method involved cutting dovetails with stones in the same horizontal plane. Douglass designed dovetails, not only with adjacent stones, but also with those in layers above and below. His method was used for the first time at Les Hanois and was to be used again at the Wolf. Each stone that was to be used on the outside face of the tower was dovetailed in this way. A raised dovetailed band, 3 inches in height, was cut on the top bed and a similar one on the end of each stone. A corresponding dovetailed recess was cut in the bottom bed and the end joint of the adjoining stones, with just sufficient clearance for the raised band to enter it freely in setting. Experiments were carried out with Portland cement on blocks of granite assembled in this way. They found that the resulting stonework was almost equivalent in strength to solid granite.
Cement alone, however, was not enough to produce a structure that would resist the great power of the sea. In addition, each stone of the first and second courses was secured to the rock by two yellow metal (brass) bolts, 2 inches in diameter, each bolt being sunk 12 inches into the rock, and wedged at each end. From the 3rd to the 20th courses inclusive, each face stone was secured to the course below by another two yellow metal bolts, 2 inches in diameter, and each internal stone by two bolts of galvanized steel, also 2 inches in diameter. Each bolt was sunk 9 inches into the course below. All the holes for the bolts were made in the work yard, and so accurately was this done that the alignments of the holes in the different courses were perfect every time. The skill involved in this masonry work, even though it was all done in the safety of dry land, cannot be overemphasised.
Despite the serious difficulties facing Douglass and his team, they did at least have the comparative luxury of a rather greater area of exposed rock than had been available for some other lighthouses. Thus, it was decided to build a landing area, a decision that was to prove invaluable, not only for the construction, but for all the landings that have taken place ever since. When finished, it contained 14,564 cubic feet of masonry, making together with the tower a total of 59,070 cubic feet, or about 4,375 tons.
In this way, the construction of the tower proceeded steadily over the course of the next six years, slowly at first because of the difficulties of working so close to sea level, but accelerating as time went on. Occasionally, there was an event that would make a huge difference to the work patterns. For example, it was not until 13 June 1867 that workmen were able to continue working through the high tides. Then, on 29th June 1868 a steam engine was used on a tidal rock for the first time. This speeded up operations considerably, for the average time in raising each block of stone from the landing platform to the top of the work was only two and a half minutes, while to perform the same duty by manual labour required 15 minutes.
When it came to the light itself, Douglass designed the entire system. It is natural for any designer to want to make his latest design the best of his work so far, and Douglass intended the optic and lantern to be the best in England. In particular, he intended to give the Wolf Rock a unique light characteristic with a red and white flash, but before he could finalise his design, some serious scientific investigations had to be made. He reported:
"The lantern is one of the cylindrical helically-framed type, designed by the Author, and adopted by the Trinity House, a description of which has already been given at the Institution. This lantern was manufactured by Messrs. S. Hodge and Sons, and was exhibited in the Paris Exhibition, 1867; while the curved plate-glass for glazing it and the dioptric apparatus were manufactured by Messrs. Chance Brothers, and Co. The instrument is probably the most perfect for the purpose that has yet been constructed. With the view of giving the Wolf Light a perfectly distinctive character, a revolving dioptric light of the first order, showing alternate flashes of red and white at half-minute intervals, was resolved upon."
Thus, the problem to be solved was how to arrange that the red and white beams were of similar range? If white light passes through a red filter, then the intensity of the light is diminished and so the white beam would travel further than the red one. A ship observing the light at a great distance might see the white, but not necessarily the red and might lead to an incorrect identification. A programme of study ensued involving both Douglass and Professor Tyndall, the Chief Scientific Advisor to Trinity House. They visited Perch Rock lighthouse near Liverpool, which showed a red and white beam, and then observed its light from both Point of Air and Great Orme's Head in Wales. They concluded that it would be necessary to make the light going to the red filter brighter than the white by a factor of 21 to 9.
The Wolf Rock lighthouse showed its unique character for the first time on xxxxx and continued to do so for the next 120?? years....
Until August 2002, support for the Wolf Rock lighthouse came from the Penzance depot – which is now closed. A helicopter operations centre remains at Lands End/St Just airport. The red and grey helicopter G-THLS, painted in the livery of Trinity House and with coat-of-arms painted on the door, is based at St Mawgan near Newquay.
On the day that I was being taken to the Wolf, the helicopter arrived promptly at 0930. All casual passengers such as me receive the required safety briefings well before the arrival of the aircraft so it was a matter of minutes until the equipment and luggage was stowed, passengers were suitably attired and seated, and we were off. At an airspeed of about 120 mph, it takes only a few minutes to cover the eight miles or so, and soon we were approaching the helipad for a firm and much practised landing alongside a small pile of gear awaiting removal back ashore. The exchanges of personnel and gear that takes place on these occasions runs smoothly – everyone has a job to do and does it.
The helipad is much bigger than you think it is. It would be quite natural to expect the experience to be terrifying. After all, it looks so small and is at least 36 metres (120 feet) above high water. There are no safety railings to hold and surely the wind might blow you over the edge? Perhaps I am just immune to all these fears, but I felt no qualms of concern. There is plenty of room for the helicopter, with kit on the deck and people moving about, and I was never afraid of falling from my precarious perch on to the rocks below. It is, indeed, a remarkable engineering achievement, to have built such an effective method for gaining access to the remote offshore lighthouses, which for so many decades caused so many people such large amounts of anguish. The relief of the keepers from the Wolf by helicopter was literally achieved in the space of thirty minutes, whereas by sea there might be no relief if the weather had not allowed it. Even with nature's goodwill, it would have taken a half-day from Penzance and possibly more. To the best of my knowledge no other country has adopted this means of access to its offshore lighthouses. The pad on this lighthouse was the first on any lighthouse in the world and was built in 1972. It is true that many countries use helicopters, but they have not constructed helipads on the roofs. The French, for example, and prefer to drop the engineers on a winch wire. Now THAT must be a frightening experience!
Besides the obvious level at the very top on which the helicopter lands (called here, level 12 – see Table), there is another level between it and the gallery (level 10) that is not so obvious until you are actually there. It is at this level that people await the arrival of the incoming aircraft. There is room on the helipad to leave some (but not usually all) gear that is going ashore, but it must be kept well to the side, out of the way of the landing. If there is a lot of gear, it is hauled up from the lower level once the chopper has landed.
With the helicopter safely on the pad, we quickly got out, removed our life jackets, and I, being a novice at all this, got out of the way by quickly descending to the intermediate platform level. There I helped with the lowering of the kit that we had brought with us. All these packages were quickly taken down to the gallery, level 9, and then down a short ladder into what I would have called the service room (level 8), where I was surprised to find two noisy diesel engines burning and turning. From here we quickly descended another level to an equipment room where, having closed the door, the noise level from the diesels was greatly reduced and we could at last, converse normally. The survival suits were quickly removed and Oh! how comfortable it felt to be back in normal clothes again.
There were three of us, all with jobs to do. Mine was to document the inside of this lighthouse as completely as possible in the short time that had been given to me – about 90 minutes. George and John had the task of replacing some defective batteries. They quickly got on with their job and I began by descending to the lowest level in the lighthouse which, I was surprised to find, was the bathroom. I could not help but smile to see the lonely toilet pedestal sitting at the bottom of the ladder. There are many large houses with bathrooms far smaller than this and it seemed such an anachronism to have such a big bathroom in such a confined space. The toilet, washing and shower facilities were indeed generous and modern. My biggest smile occurred when I saw the modesty curtain draped in front off the windows of the doorway that led to the rocks below. It was as if your privacy was in serious danger of being compromised by a peeping Tom from outside. How preposterous a thought!
It was then that I realised that the internal structure of the lighthouse had been changed more than I had first realised. I was actually at what we will call level 3, for there are two further levels below this bathroom level. However, in the automation programme that took place in 19xx, Trinity House engineers sealed them off and there was no hint of any access below. The doorway I describe in the bathroom is, of course, a small doorway through which stores landed below would have been winched up to the entrance level (1), in a manner similar to that done at the Eddystone. We are left to wonder about the reasons for this change. Perhaps people could land on the rock and break into the lighthouse from below. Maybe, this is an attempt to stop unauthorised people from getting to the equipment inside this automatic station?
The original purpose of this level (3) was as a general-purpose store. It would have stocked all manner of items for the day-to-day functioning of life out here: ropes, block and tackle, cleaning materials, tools and many other items. Level 2 was designated a coal store. I have found no discussion of this, but I can only presume that coal was used in the range located in the kitchen. Level 1 was, of course, the entrance level with just a doorway, a small passage with an access hatch in the floor that opened to the water tank below, and a ladder to level 2. The water tank is 2.13 m (7 ft) diameter and the same in depth. The thickness of the wall at the floor level of the entrance floor is 2.31 m (7 ft 9 in).
I had already noticed on the way down the tower that there were no stone stairs as there are at Eddystone. All of the levels were joined by neatly painted green and black cast-iron ladders, which were of such an angle that you were unsure whether you should be descending backwards or not. Douglass did not write much about the inside of his lighthouse, but of these ladders he did say:
"The step ladders for ascending from floor to floor, and the partitions between the rooms and staircase, are of cast iron, and the use of wood for the fittings has been limited as much as possible, as a precaution in case of fire."
Today, these are some of the few original fixtures left in this tower. You get an immediate impression that this is an industrial workplace. Everywhere there is evidence of a compliance with law. There are alarms of every description, fire extinguishers for all occasions and warning signs for literally everything. There is a piece of equipment for every conceivable requirement and it is hard to find any single corner or crevice that has remained untouched in this one hundred and thirty-five year-old lighthouse. Yet all this has probably been achieved in the last 20 years or so.
The level above the bathroom (3) is the battery room (4). In the original design, it was an oil room - the place for storing the fuel which, when burnt, would provide the light itself. The racks of batteries installed here are quite small compared to those at the Eddystone, but that is hardly surprising because Eddystone is now entirely powered by solar energy and the number of batteries required to provide the necessary power is large. Wolf Rock, at least, continues to have its diesel engines and the batteries provide only the minimum level of emergency support. There is therefore room to spare on this level for the necessary refrigerator and freezer, which store the foodstuffs that the engineers bring during the occasions when the tower is inhabited again.
The level up from here (5) is the living room. I found it to be well fitted out with all the items of kitchen equipment that you would expect. The fitted cupboards seemed to be standard items modified to take account of the curved walls to which they were fitted. There was a sink and drainer unit, a small cooker, microwave, dining table and chairs, and three comfortable armchairs in a strategic position in front of a television. The floors were tiled, as also were part of the walls behind the units. All in all, this was a very clean and tidy living environment. As in the Eddystone lighthouse there was a radiotelephone on the wall, but on the table were a couple of mobile phones that made the older technology look somewhat redundant. There were two windows, both with inner and outer glazed panels, which were obviously well suited to keep out the worst of the weather.
On level 6 was the bedroom, a space very similar to the one I'd seen at the Eddystone and the one that was probably least changed from the days of Douglass. There were three basic levels. The lowest was a level of cupboard spaces for storage of kit. The middle level consisted of three bunk spaces, one of which had been slept in the night before. The top level, presumably for visitors (after all, why should they get the best bunks?) also provided bunk spaces provided you were super-fit - agile enough to climb up to that level and squeeze inside. There were some small, unusually shaped spaces to accommodate the station records and occupying some space on the floor was a rusty panel heater and a vacuum cleaner. The mattresses, which were curved to fit the appropriate spaces, had been stood on their sides for airing. Each bunk had a modesty curtain neatly tied to the side. None of them was long enough to allow a man to stretch out to his full extent - all sleep would have to be enjoyed in the foetal position. The centre bunk was obviously the first-class accommodation for it was the only one with its own window. Diametrically opposite and on the landing outside the door was another window that was open. On the window ledge was a particularly well used saucepan which I concluded to be the ‘night bucket’, saving those caught short in the night from having to descend all the way down to the bottom level.
Above the bedroom on level 7 is the new instrumentation room; a space crammed full of equipment, as well as, when I was there, a large amount of stores in transit. The place was an electrical engineers paradise, filled with switches, transformers, monitoring equipment, fuse boxes, wiring looms, panels, warning lights, alarms, sensors, fire extinguishers, safety clothing, immersion suits, hard hats, ear defenders, foul weather gear, toolboxes and not to mention the 1001 signs warning you about this danger or telling you how to operate this item. The list was endless. Perhaps the largest item in the room was a large cream cabinet with labels for plant A and plant B, which I took to be the controls for the two engines on the level above (8). After all, the principle was quite straightforward - the diesel engine is operated to generate electricity, but that electricity must be converted in many ways to fulfil the needs of the lighthouse. Some of the power is required for the light, which is on constantly. Some of the power is required to provide domestic electricity for the various electrical items needed by those living in the tower. Spare capacity is stored in the accumulators on level 4, and electricity is also required to power the telemetry equipment that keeps the lighthouse in constant contact with the control centre at Harwich. So I suppose it is not surprising that so many systems are required, but I could not help thinking that it seemed a ridiculous amount of equipment for such comparatively simple tasks.
Both windows had been virtually obscured by the stowage of items between the inner and outer glazing. Indeed, it is at this point that you realise how unaware you are of the sea outside. There seemed to be so few opportunities of looking out of the window to observe the surroundings. Perhaps this was deliberate? Is it really the case that if you live in such a place you want to forget what is happening beyond the walls that provide your security? Yes, the outside panes of glass were covered by a thin layer of salt which did nothing to aid the visibility and, added to this, the gap between the inner and outer windows reduced the visibility still further by narrowing the angle of view through what were already quite small apertures. Here, in the equipment room, things had been taken a stage further and the windows were almost completely obscured. I think now of the use to which the room was once put: the service room where watches were kept through the night, and yes! I'm sure the keepers would have looked out of the windows at the sea conditions outside. Logs were kept up to date, and basic maintenance tasks done on the lighting equipment. The room would have been comparatively quiet and probably quite dark, with just enough light to read by. The man's colleagues would have been asleep on the floor below and, even in the days of home-generated electricity, the power would have been provided by the engines four or five floors below. (The engines were moved to level 8 during the automation programme.) Today, you are constantly aware of the droning diesel engines above, even though closing the door cuts out the great part of the noise. But when you open that door to proceed above, it is quite plain that you need to wear ear defenders. Yes, it is these upper levels that have been changed dramatically. Let's take a look...
I found very little space at all in the engine room on level 8. It seemed that every possible space had been used. There was just enough room to pass around and between the engines and even then some of the space was occupied with yet more kit. There were expensive installations for removal of exhaust gases and ventilation, as well as the usual plethora of safety devices and warning signs, including the safety barrier to help prevent you from falling down the ladder. Yet this had once been the floor level of a magnificent lantern room. The optic installed by Douglass was his finest achievement to date - a grand first order optic that filled most of the available space and sent out alternately flashing red and white beams - the first dual colour dioptric apparatus of its kind. Today a new floor level (10) at the point where the glazing begins has subdivided the entire space. This creates a new upper space for the small optic now in use. Below this new floor, the diesels grind away in what was once an enclosed area at the base of the optic. The clockwork motor would have been in the centre of the pedestal, and it is here that I have an uncertainty in my mind for how was this clock driven? The usual arrangement was to have a weight tube through the very centre of the tower, the falling weight requiring to be wound back up to the top of the tower periodically. However, I saw no evidence that there ever was such a tube so I am unsure how the clock mechanism was powered. There would have been a walk-around level in this space to enable the keeper to look out to sea, but again, where this was located I am not sure - possibly on an iron walkway on a level with the gallery outside (level 9). The way out onto the gallery is by means of a couple of steps that lead through a heavy iron door -more of that in a moment.
In such a noisy and hot environment, only those who really enjoy working with these sorts of engines would seek to stay any longer than they had to, and I must confess that I was soon on my way out. There were two possibilities - one upward to the lantern and the other outward to the gallery.
A vertical steel ladder separated me from the lantern itself on the new level 10. Here, of course, is the real business of the lighthouse and I was very glad to find myself in the comparatively uncluttered, light, exciting space where the beautiful optics circled constantly, throwing the beams of light across the sea, one white flash every fifteen seconds. It seems that some time ago a decision was made to change the strategy by which the light in these offshore lighthouses is created. The old great optics that were used in the past have been replaced by smaller designs which weigh far less, are much easier on their bearings and require little energy to rotate. Gone, too, are the large pedestals - only a small one is now necessary to house the two electric motors that drive the rotation. The light is created with a modern filament lamp that consumes far less electricity. A spare lamp is located on an automatic changing device: the compact design and the fact that the apparatus was being used meant that I could not inspect it closely.
The main alteration to the strategy is the incorporation of an auxiliary light unit above the optic and just below the roof. It appeared to consist of 16 sealed beam units, which I concluded would be used with battery power in the absence of ‘mains’ electricity from the diesel engines. As I said above, the floor is new, creating a smaller space in what was a much larger lantern room in the past. The use of a much smaller optic created the impression of wide-open spaces as I sat quietly with my back to the glass, watching the light rotating quietly above my head. Naturally such a device will always be beautiful in its operation, the multitude of reflections and colours creates wonderful effects, but I do wish that it had been possible to provide the same service to mariners using the original optical equipment. The majesty that was once present in these towers has now been lost. We must conclude that this loss is permanent for surely it can never be possible to return to the days when first-order optics dominated the lantern? The view out of the lantern windows has also been greatly diminished because of the latticework of steel helipad supports and the bronze astragals (fixtures for the glazing). Even here, kit was being stored and spare panes of glass were ready in case of emergency.
To get outside, it is necessary to go back down into the engine room and then through a door that leads onto the gallery, level 9. The green cast iron door is very substantial and it is clear that there is plenty of opportunity for storm damage even at this height above the sea. The space on the gallery is naturally restricted as you pass between the outside of the lantern and the helipad support structure. Added to that, exhausts and other vents cause numerous obstacles, but it is very exciting to put your head through a gap in the supports and look down to the rocks below where the waves continually rise and fall in a boiling mass. As I looked down, I could see a good portion of the reef and the landing area, for the tide was ebbing to reveal more and more of the dangerous and the jagged Wolf Rock. Even though the sea itself was comparatively calm, the swell around the rocks was constant and would have tried the patience of anyone trying to land by traditional methods from the sea.
From the gallery level, there is a vertical ladder that leads up to level 11, the one below the helipad. It is here that you wait, suited up, watching for the arrival of the helicopter. At this height you are standing with eye-level above the lantern roof, the modified structure of which is now covered in the white deposits from a million bird bed and breakfasts. You can look in through the lantern glass at the continuously revolving optic, but from this viewpoint, it all seems so surreal. You are outside, in the open air, looking at the roof of the lighthouse that you know is at a great height. You could be a window cleaner standing in his cradle on top of a skyscraper, or you could be a steeplejack, sent up high to fix the church weathercock. It is like no other wait for transport that you have ever made. You are quite safe, yet you are precariously perched like those birds that roost every night on your lighthouse. What would Sir James have thought?
New lantern room.
Original floor of the lantern room, now diesel engine room.
Service room, now used for instrumentation.
Batteries, refrigerator and freezer.
Original store room, now shower room and toilet.
Original coal store now sealed off. Latterly the engine room until automation?
Original entrance level, now sealed off on inside.
Table 1: Summary of the levels in the Wolf Rock lighthouse.
The author wishes to express his thanks to members of the Trinity House Lighthouse Service for their kind co-operation in the preparation of this article, and in particular, Breda Wall and the staff of the Penzance depot.
Douglass, J N: "The Wolf Rock Lighthouse", Minutes Of Proceedings Of The Institution Of Civil Engineers, 1871, Vol. 30, No. Jan, p. 1-28, Institution Of Civil Engineers, London.