On my recent trip to London, I only had time to make a brief visit to the Natural History Museum. To say it’s huge is an understatement and I would love to go back when I’ve more time to spare. It did get me thinking about our Irish equivalent, which is about as different to the shiny shiny one in London as you can imagine.
The Natural History Museum in Dublin was built in just under 18 months by the Royal Dublin Society. The foundation stone was laid in March 1856 and it opened to the public in August 1857. Unlike its London equivalent which is beautiful, huge, very striking and difficult to miss, this museum is almost unobtrusive. Tucked into a quiet leafy corner of Merrion Square, between Government buildings and the parliament, it’s easy to miss. It was originally built as an extension to Leinster House behind it (for the uninitiated, Leinster House is where the Irish Parliament sits) but that was changed in 1909. A new entrance was fitted to the opposite side of the building. Because it was so tricky to turn some of the exhibits around, some of the larger ones still face the original entrance.
On its opening in 1857, the museum was treated to a lecture by the explorer David Livingstone (of “Dr. Livingstone I presume” fame) who gave a talk about his African adventures. If Mr Livingstone was to be brought back from the dead now, he would perhaps find that little has changed since then. Part of the charm of this museum is that it seems to be in a Victorian-era time warp. The glass cases are full of vintage specimens dating back to that era. There are also fossils of creatures which don’t live in Ireland any more – lemmings, lynxes, hyenas and even a brown bear. It is also very hard to miss the two 11,000 year old giant deer which face the entrance.
Sadly, the upper floors of the museum are no longer accessible. In 2010 the stairs collapsed and although they have been repaired, these upper floors are no longer open to the public. That means, annoyingly, that people can no longer look at the skeleton of a Dodo or the even rarer Solitaire. They can be viewed online through the virtual tours museum’s own website which is better than nothing, I suppose. But it’s still frustrating that so many things are in the building but cannot be seen. Worse still, because of budget cuts, many exhibits which were to be put on display have instead ended up in storage. Before the collapse of the Irish economy in the late 2000s, there were plans to build a museum in Collins Barracks which would have put some really interesting items on display for the first time. Sadly, the lack of money put paid to that and many items ended up in a warehouse instead. Hopefully, at some stage in the future this will change and we can get to see the sabre-toothed cat skeleton they’ve had in a box since 1910. Not to mention documents hand-written by Charles Darwin, moon rock, a dinosaur and a sea monster.
While in London for the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, I spotted a sign for a Robots exhibition in the nearby Science Museum. I knew nothing about the exhibition but, to paraphrase the line from Jerry Maguire, they had me at “Robots”.
Admission into the Science Museum in London is free and indeed, there is loads to see for the price of zero pence. Some exhibitions have an entry fee and this one was one of those. Still, it was about robots, the poster was pretty cool and my head was well turned. It just happens that the day I’m writing this blog post is the day after the exhibition closed. Here’s hoping it will stop the powers-that-be unleashing some vengeful copyright robots in my direction 😀
As the exhibition poster says, Robots is the 500 year quest to make machines human. The first part of the exhibition had quite a few historical automatons, including a praying 16th century monk and a draftsman from the beginning of the 19th century. There were also artificial limbs, tiny automatons which resembled insects, and even one that was part of a drinking game. I later learned that another historical automaton I’d love to have seen – the Silver Swan – had been in the exhibition until early April. Once it went back “oop north”, it was replaced by the little draftsman/writer created around 1800. When it was unearthed in 1928, nobody knew for sure who had created it and where it had been. That is, until they got the automaton working again and it started to write some pre-programmed poetry. Right at the end of its last poem, it scribbled ‘Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet’ (written by Maillardet’s automaton)
The next part of the exhibition brought us on to more recent times. It was hard not to miss the replica of “Maria”, the iconic robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis”. The original costume (which had been worn by an actress) had long since disappeared. It was also nice to get up close and personal with a T-800 from Terminator Salvation and not die horribly. There were some interesting stories attached to other robots on display in this section. Perhaps the most endearing was George the Robot, created by a young RAF officer from discarded aeroplane parts. Another British robot was beside George, this one called Eric. The original Eric the robot was created in 1928 for the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers, after the Duke of York cancelled his agreement to open the show. The story goes that Eric rose to his feet, bowed and gave a short speech. The robot was brought to the USA the year afterwards for a tour and vanished at some stage. The Eric on display here was a recreation of the original, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Standing beside this pair was the Italian built Cygan. An 8 ft tall robot built in 1957 and which sold at auction for £17,500 in 2013.
Onwards then to even more robots. It soon became clear that there have been people working in robotics for a long time, for all sorts of reasons. Some for very serious purposes such as surgery and prosthetics. Others so they knock out a few tunes on a trumpet. One interesting robot on display was an “open source” model which people can contribute to. While many of the robots were turned off and not doing anything (probably not practical to have them all operating at the time time, lest a robot apocalypse happened), seeing some in action was fascinating. The one I was particular taken with was Pepper the French robot who shakes people’s hands. Honda’s Asimo was there too, though on this occasion it wasn’t playing football, conducting an orchestra or dancing. Just think – if it had, they could’ve sold lots in the gift shop 😉 Then there was the robot which was designed to look like a real Japanese woman, a blobby one that looks like an escapee from a David Lynch film, one that acts and more than a few which track your eyes…
Anyway, thumbs up from me for this one. To have a look at some of the photos I took, click on one of the thumbnails in the gallery below.
The V&A Museum (as it is better known) is an enormous sprawling museum in the Brompton district of London. There are so many galleries in the place, you could easily get lost and/or overwhelmed. Luckily the Pink Floyd exhibition is on the ground floor not too far from the entrance. After my ticket was scanned, I was handed a portable music player (probably NOT playing .mp3s 😀 ) and a pair of Sennheiser headphones. The purpose of these being that as you make your way through the exhibition, you’ll hear music, interviews etc.
For this visit, I was joined by an old friend who had been to the exhibition before. He turned out to be a most excellent guide for reasons I shall explain in a moment. Once we got to the corridor outside the exhibition, things turned wonderfully Floydian. Not only was there some music playing through my headphones but there was a fancy Dark Side of the Moon mural on the wall. There was also what turned out to be the first of several rather fetching black telephone boxes. The traditional red British telephone boxes are iconic but I’ve got to say those black ones look really great. This one had lyrics inside it but the later ones mostly had old magazines, newspaper snippets and photos from the era.
One of the amusing things early on in the exhibition was the “shouty people”. The ones who were still adjusting to wearing their headphones and spoke REALLY LOUDLY to their companions. There was plenty to shout about because once into the exhibition there was lots to see. The walls were decorated with oodles of old posters, photographs and magazine articles. What most people were clamouring to see, however, were the displays in the glass cases. In other words….guitars, basses, keyboards, costumes, projectors, the legendary Azimuth Co-Ordinator and letters. It was somewhat poignant to see some handwritten letters and notes by Syd Barrett. A reminder of the person he once was.
After the deluge of paraphernalia relating to the earliest days of Pink Floyd, it then hit a barren spell. There was nothing for the film soundtracks apart from the posters. And while I’m giving out, I might as well mention my two other main annoyances related to the exhibition. The layout was somewhat idiosyncratic. If I hadn’t had someone with me, I’d have seen the exhibition in the wrong order and ended up doubling back to see the Meddle and Atom Heart Mother displays. Some sort of direction arrows on the floor would’ve helped. The other annoyance – one which irked minds greater than mine – was the crowds. Getting near the glass cases the have a look at what was in them was quite a task at times.
One of the most fun parts of the exhibition was getting to play with a mixing desk which was playing Money. By adjusting the audio on the sliders, I was able to hear isolated tracks on Money and hear it in a different way to how it is on the completed record.
Surprisingly, there was very little on display relating to the Wish You Were Here album. Seeing as it came out after Dark Side of the Moon, I thought they would have had more than some photos and blown up artwork from the album. In comparison, there is a lot relating to the next two albums which came out after that. Animals is the album which brought us an inflatable pig and one of rock music’s more amusing stories. The tale of how Algie the inflatable pig suspended over Battersea power station broke free of its moorings and flew to Kent. It was only when I got home and took a look at my photos that I noticed there was a little inflatable Algie suspended over the replica of Battersea power station. Truly, there was so much to see at the exhibition, it was easy to miss little details like this.
Fans of The Wall would have been pleased to see plenty of models and inflatables. The puppet of the schoolmaster wasn’t as large as the one used in the concerts but he was still pretty intimidating. One amusing exhibit in this section was the book from Roger Waters’ old school which recorded the canings of its students. Roger was the recipient of more than one caning but it was intriguing to see what merited this punishment back in the day. From what we could make out (the head teacher could’ve done with 6 of the best because of his near-illegible handwriting), not wearing a cap to school was considered to be equally bad as attempted arson. No wonder Roger had plenty to write about.
As Pink Floyd fans will know, things went horribly wrong around the time of The Wall. That album was the last time Pink Floyd existed as a four-piece band. 1983’s The Final Cut was the last album recorded before Roger Waters left. Given the band’s politics (waaaay too long to go into here), it wasn’t that surprising that there was precious little to be seen from that album here. In comparison, there was a lot more related to the band’s two last albums. This was when Pink Floyd went back touring again so there was some interesting material related to that. According to one document on display, the pig which floated over the audience on the 1987 tour was not to be inflated or deflated where the audience could see it happening.
The Division Bell isn’t my favourite Pink Floyd album but I’ve always liked the album cover with its two “heads”. I loved getting to finally see the heads in real life. The exhibition closes with the wonderful 20 minute set the reunited Pink Floyd played at Live 8 back in 2005. Even now it’s wonderful and was a fitting swansong for the “classic” Pink Floyd line-up.
When driving during the week, I noticed a signpost for the tiny hamlet of Ahenny, Co. Tipperary. The sun was shining, I had time on my hands. And so, I took a detour to revisit the two high crosses which stand in the local cemetery. I last visited the site in March 2014 and it all looks rather bleak really. A July evening is much more forgiving, though the roads to the cemetery are still as hair-raising as ever 😀
The two high crosses stand in Kilclispeen cemetery and are all that remains of a monastery which once stood here. Nothing appears to be known about the monastery which once stood on this site, apart from it possibly being attributed to someone called St. Crispin.
The two high crosses here are believed to be amongst the oldest in Ireland. Depending on what sources you read, they date from the 8th or 9th century. The interesting thing about these early high crosses is that they’re replicas of the original wood and metal crosses that would have been on the site. So as well as the usual decorative carvings, they replicate the rope and metal that would have bound the original crosses. Also visible on the front of these crosses are versions of the enamel or metal studs which would have decorated them. It is thought that the stone high crosses are larger versions of the original wooden ones which would have been in the monasteries originally. Of course, nobody can say for sure.
Once inside the cemetery, it’s easy to spot the two high crosses. They stand reasonably near each other in the centre of the cemetery without any other crosses near them. They’re both carved out of sandstone and stand over 3 metres in height. Although both have weathered, there is still a lot of detail to be seen on the crosses.
The North Cross
The North Cross is the smaller of the two. An unusual feature of this cross is that it has a capstone on the top. These don’t appear on many high crosses in Ireland. There are varying theories as to what it is and why it’s there. One suggestion is that it’s a replica of a Bishop’s Mitre whilst another archaeologist thinks it may not be an original feature at all. Apparently, it is removable but I certainly wasn’t going to test that out. Standing beside this cross, I didn’t even reach the arms. The cross is decorated with various patterns. Spirals, interlocking squares and even the odd animal’s head are the order of the day. On the base is what appears to be biblical scenes and the twelve apostles but it’s difficult to make out. It is a pity that it is missing one of its circular parts but it is still a fine cross.
The South Cross
The South Cross doesn’t have the same conical cap as its compatriot but still, it is somewhat distinctive. Again, it is decorated with interlocking patterns, spirals, and Celtic style knotwork. The base of the cross is more badly worn than that of the North Cross.
The two Ahenny High Crosses are part of the Ossory group of high crosses. I plan to visit the other three that are part of this group. The two in Kilkieran and the high cross in Killamery.
One of the more intriguing pieces of trivia in the book “Did you know…? 100 quirky facts about County Offaly” is that there are two pyramids in the county. It’s not a county tourists flock to, so to have something a bit unusual like this piqued my interest. Having visited the Lough Boora Discovery Park many a time, I knew about its pyramid. It’s the one that nobody under the age of 20 can resist trying to climb once they catch sight of it. Anyway, I thought I’d go in search of the second one in the village of Kinnitty. They’re both interesting in their own way, I think.
The Kinnitty Pyramid (also known as the Bernard Mausoleum) is the older of the two. Located in the grounds of St. Finian’s Church of Ireland, it has been here since 1834. It’s hard to miss seeing as it’s 9m tall and sitting on top of a hill. It was commissioned by Lt. Col. Richard Wesley Bernard who lived in the nearby Kinnitty Castle. Not a man short of money, it is known that he did a tour of Egypt in the early 19th century. Whether seeing the great pyramids inspired him to build this mausoleum, nobody can say for sure. It’s described on the website of the Mausolea & Monuments Trust as “Freestanding pyramid standing some 30ft high, built on a square footprint of ashlar limestone construction having skewed coursing. Pointed-arch opening to entrance front having sheet metal double-leaf doors.” In total, 6 members of the Bernard family were interred here and the mausoleum was closed up in 1907.
The Lough Boora Pyramid doesn’t contain any dead people to the best of my knowledge. It was designed and built in 2002 by the sculptor Eileen MacDonagh. It’s made from unmortared stone which was unearthed as the surrounding bogland was cut away. At 50ft (15m) it’s taller than the Kinnitty pyramid and is considerably easier to climb…
I was recently asked by a relative to get his new iPad up and running. Grand, I thought. This’ll be pretty straightforward. Bung in his email address and password and he’ll be good to go. Erm…not so fast. Apple being Apple, they make life a little difficult for you when you don’t want to do things their way. In this case, they don’t like people setting up iTunes accounts and using their Apps store without parting with credit card details or buying one of their iTunes cards.
It turns out that if you try to get an Apple ID whilst using a computer, you will run into this problem. However, if you use the iPhone or iPad itself to sign up, you get around the problem. It is a pain in the backside of course because typing out names, addresses, postcodes etc. on a tablet is not one of its more enjoyable features. Anyhoo, that’s how it’s done.
It also (ahem) comes in useful if you need to set up an iTunes account in other countries.
The Rock of Dunamase, or what’s left of it, sits on top of a hill 6km from the town of Portlaoise in the Irish midlands. The limestone outcrop on which the fortress is built dominates the surrounding plains of the Great Heath. Standing over 45m high, the Rock of Dunamase has been a site of strategic importance for over 1,000 years. It must have been a very impressive spectacle in its day. Alas, these days it something that has been savaged by a Rottweiler 🙁
Nobody is quite sure how long the Rock of Dunamase has been used as a fortress. Although the Greek geographer Ptolemy makes reference to a place called “Dunum” on his 2nd century map of Ireland, there is no evidence to suggest this site is what he meant. It’s a nice idea though. Archaeological digs and records from the time suggest that the rock was originally a 9th century fort called Dún Masc. Easy to see how its English name Dunamase came from. In the “Annals of the Four Masters” which chronicle Irish history, it is recorded that Dún Masc was raided by Vikings in 944AD. It would’ve been more unusual if the site hadn’t been raided by the Nordic invaders, such was their fondness for raiding and pillaging. No doubt the hapless abbot of Terryglass agreed – he happened to be here when they came a-knocking and was killed as a result of this raid.
Things get a bit woolly after this. Nobody seems to know or agree on when the site became a fortress it is today. It came into the ownership of the Anglo Normans in the 12th century and was fortified. It appears to have been owned by the wonderfully named Meiler Fitzhenry at one stage and then by William Marshall. The latter is a significant Norman figure in Irish history. It became an important centre of strategic and military importance in the region. Looking at the Office of Public Works’ recreation of the site, one can get a sense of the layout of the place.
In the 14th century, the last Anglo-Norman owner of the castle was executed by King Edward III for treason. It then came into the ownership of the Irish O’More family who didn’t handle it with care. Instead, the site was badly damaged and abandoned. Making doubly sure it wouldn’t be much use for anything, it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the mid 17th century. Yet another addition to the long list of reason why he’s one of the most unpopular people in Ireland’s history.
In the late 18th century, an attempt was made to partially restore the fragmented remains. The great-grandfather of the legendary 19th-century politician Charles Stewart Parnell attempted to turn the Great Hall into a banqueting hall. Some doors and windows from other sites were added to the building and they remain to this day. It was a short-lived experiment though. Soon the castle returned to its current ruinous state, overlooking the surrounding countryside.
What’s there now?
The Rock of Dunamase is easily accessed, so no lengthy journeys along winding country boreens are needed here. There’s also plenty of parking along the road that runs past it, more than can be said for some of these places.
The first feature of note on the rock is the Barbican Gate which would have been the entrance to the complex. The murder hole above the entrance can still be seen and still works, should anyone have some boiling oil to hand 😉 Still to be seen along the wall attached to this gate are narrow defensive windows through which arrows could be shot at wannabe attackers.
Beyond the Barbican Gate lie the remnants of the gatehouse, a defensive curtain wall and a deep ditch. Elements of the rock itself were used as a defensive feature. Even in its current ruinous state, it’s easy to get a sense of how tricky it would have been to attack the place. Originally there would have been wooden buildings here too but they have long since vanished.
At the top of the hill are the remains of the 12th-century keep/great hall. Even though it is ruined and is surrounded by large chunks of mangled buildings, one can still get a sense of how impressive a structure it must have been. Thanks to the failed attempt to turn it into a banqueting hall, it has been altered somewhat.
The Great Hall
It is a pity that this place was so badly damaged all those years ago. In recent years conservation work was carried out by the Office of Public Works so it’s about as safe as these sorts of places can be. It is still well worth visiting, not just to look at the remains of the fortress itself but to admire the views from the top. The lush greenery of The Heath is very beautiful too and apparently can be seen from outer space!
The Raspberry Pi is a small, cheap and cheerful computer which was originally created to teach schoolchildren to learn how to write programming code. It is roughly the size of a pack of cards and has no hard disk or moving parts. Instead, it boots straight from a micro SD card on which software has been installed. Happily for those of us who are no longer at school and don’t want to do sensible things, it can be turned into a retro games console within a relatively short space of time. The success of the NES Classic Mini, which Nintendo never made enough copies of, shows that there is a lot of interest out there in retro gaming. Seeing as I spotted one of NES Classic Minis for sale the other day for €250, a “home made” version is a nice work-around. Not to mention it being a way to avoid rewarding the greedy gougers who bought those rare little consoles, simply to sell them on at grossly inflated prices. Grrr. Rant over.
Retropie is the software I will be using. For want of a better description, it’s a collection of emulators for various retro computers and consoles, all bundled into one user friendly system. The list of systems it emulates is quite extensive I’m not going to paste the whole lot into here or this page will go on forever. Let’s just say that if you can remember the panic over the Millennium Bug, the computer/console of your youth is likely to be included in Retropie. In theory, the older versions of the Pi (Models 1 & 2) will work with this but really, the newest model is the only game in town. It is much faster than its predecessors and comes with built-in wi-fi, bluetooth and four USB ports. For most people who’ve done any sort of messing around with computers at all, they will have most of the peripherals at home anyway. I set mine up on a computer running Windows 10 and it was a pretty straightforward process.
What you will need (hardware)
Raspberry Pi3, Model B. They can be bought in some shops (e.g. Maplin) but I rarely see them anywhere else. I bought mine online
Micro SD card. Minimum 4gb but but the bigger, the better. Yeah yeah, size matters and all that.
Monitor or TV with HDMI port
A Wi-Fi connection and your Wi-Fi password
What you will need (software) (All of these are free downloads)
*Ahem. This is where you move into that grey/illegal territory. All I’ll say is only download the games you originally owned back in the day. Or better still, make images of your original games which you still own.
Install the Win32 Disk Imager and the SD Card Formatter on your PC.
Unzip the Retropie file
Insert your Micro SD card into your computer.
Unplug any external USB storage devices from the computer (a precaution)
Formatting the SD card
When it comes to formatting the SD card, you can of course use the standard Windows formatting tool. However, it’s better practice to use the free SD formatting tool as supplied by the enigmatic sounding SD Association. It will give the memory card a more thorough formatting and will remove any partitions and modifications other devices may have made to it.
Installing Retropie on the Micro SD Card
Open up the Win32 Disk Imager program. Select the unzipped Retropie disk image (it should have a .img extension)
Click the “Write” button. You will be given a warning which is nothing to worry about unless you’ve got something else apart from the memory card plugged into the computer… After a few minutes, the Win32 Disk Imager will finish installing Retropie onto the memory card. It is now bootable and ready to be popped into the Raspberry Pi.
Connect the Raspberry Pi’s power supply, keyboard, joypad and HDMI cable. Turn on Raspberry Pi and the TV/Monitor.
I’ve turned it on. What now?
On boot-up, Retropie will ask to configure the buttons on your joystick/joypad. It’s fairly straightforward and if you mess it up, just plug out the power and restart it 😉 For this, I used an old joypad I’ve had for years and it worked fine. If you’ve got a spare Playstation, X-Box or Nintendo controller lying around, they will work too.
A configuration screen will appear next. Using the joypad, navigate to the very last item on the page – Wi-Fi. Select your Wi-Fi network, type in the password and reboot the Raspberry Pi.
Once the Raspberry Pi has been rebooted, bring up Windows Explorer. Type \\retropie into the address bar. All going well, a screen like the one above will appear.
Open the Roms folder and you will see a long list of folders named after old computer systems contained within it. Simply copy the rom files for the games you wish to play into the folder of the computer/consoles they belonged to.
Restart the Raspberry Pi.
What you will notice when you reboot into RetroPie is that you can now see the system(s) which now have roms. You an easily choose the game you wish to play from the menu.
To exit from a game, press the Select and Start buttons simultaneously.
Depending on the size of the memory card you used for this, you could potentially load on a lot of retro games. I have not got around to testing them all out yet but to date it has been mostly good. The only console it has struggled to emulate has been the N64. Goldeneye runs with the speed of an arthritic snail on it. Other games were fine.
Some observations/notes (as much for myself as anyone else 😉 )
Where’s the sound?
I don’t know if this is an issue for other people but I could get no sound from my Raspberry Pi. To resolve it, I put the Micro SD card into the computer, opened up config.txt in Notepad and removed the # from in front of the hdmi_drive#2 text
Why aren’t all the supported computers and consoles on the main menu?
In order to keep the size of the original Retropie download down to a mere 600mb, it doesn’t bundle all of the systems on the original install file. The additional ones can be added later
I’m going to use a different emulator for the Amiga
I love the Commodore Amiga. I wrote my B.A. Thesis on an A600 back in the day – no wonder my eyesight’s gone to pot! My favourite Amiga emulator is Amibian so it merits a memory card all of its own 🙂
In Ireland, Tayto crisps are something of an institution. Indeed, the company which makes Tayto crisps to this day was the first to bring the humble cheese and onion crisp to the market. These days the Tayto empire extends far beyond fancy hipster Crushed Sea Salt & Aged Vinegar crisps. They have a theme park and this is usually the only place to buy the Tayto crisp and chocolate bar. Yep, you read that correctly. A chocolate bar that’s a mixture of cheese and onion potato crisps and chocolate.
Back in 2013 the bar was sold for a while in shops around Ireland and of course they initially sold out because of their rareness. Think of it as a chocolate version of the Nintendo NES Classic. After the initial run sold out, they didn’t appear to sell so well. One theory is that the world wasn’t ready for a crisp and chocolate bar. Another might just be that the chocolate they used in the bar wasn’t up to scratch and let the side down.
Anyway, being the owner of a chocolate silicone mould, I thought I would have a go at recreating this with better chocolate. So here goes…
The ingredients for this couldn’t be simpler. A bag of Tayto crisps and a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate. I didn’t use all of the crisps from the bag for this. Unlike a video on YouTube which I’ve seen, I didn’t use a fire extinguisher to break up the crisps 😀
I then put the mixture into my silicone mould, stuck it in the fridge and left it there overnight. Here is the end result.
And there you have it… The idea of a chocolate crisp bar continues to horrify and fascinate people in equal measures. I think my bar tastes better with the Cadbury’s chocolate (other brands are available as the BBC likes to point out) but it’s still something I can’t make up my mind about.
Lighthouses by their very nature can be tricky things to get to. So when one which was originally out at sea – perched on a dangerous windswept reef for good measure – moves to the mainland, why not? The lighthouse in question is called Smeaton’s Tower these days and has been standing in a a park in Plymouth for well over a century at this stage. Originally it was known as the (third) Eddystone Lighthouse and was built on rocks which bear the same name. The name Eddystone Rocks is a little misleading because they’re not just a few random rocks 19km off the English coast but a large, dangerous reef. Needless to say, many a seagoing craft met a watery end on the reef and there is still a lighthouse out there. Even though this lighthouse is no longer serving the purpose for which it was built, it is still more than just an oversized garden ornament in a public park.
The first lighthouse to be built on the reef was a tower designed by a man named Henry Winstanley. It was completed in 1698 but lasted just 5 years. It was swept away during the great Storm of 1703, killing 6 people including Winstanley himself who had been making modifications to the tower at the time. The second one designed by John Rudyard was completed in 1709 and remained in situ until 1755 when it was destroyed by fire. Its unfortunate 94 year old lighthouse keeper died several days later after swallowing molten lead which was falling from the burning lantern room at the top of the tower. Somewhat bizarrely, the piece of lead which killed him survives to this day.
When it came to building a third lighthouse, engineer John Smeaton was entrusted with the task. He based the shape of it on that of an oak tree, a structure from nature which had proved to be rather good at withstanding the elements. He went back to Roman times for the type of mortar he used – hydraulic lime is what was used in the Pantheon in Rome and we know how long that has lasted. Crucially, hydraulic lime sets underwater which made it ideal for the job in hand. The lighthouse itself was built from dovetailed blocks of granite, precision cut and interlocking once they were assembled. The blocks were worked on in Plymouth, not very far from where the tower now stands. They were shipped out to sea and the lighthouse built on the reef. After over 3 years of work, the lighthouse finally came into operation in 1759.
The lighthouse operated successfully out at sea until the rocks on which it was built began to succumb to erosion. It was noted in 1877 that any time large waves hit, the lighthouse would shake. A replacement lighthouse was commissioned and built close by and it survives to this day. When that was completed in 1879, Smeaton’s lighthouse fell into darkness.
Thankfully the original plan to blow up the lighthouse didn’t come to fruition. It was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was reassembled on Plymouth Hoe. In 1884 the rebuilt tower was renamed as Smeaton’s Tower in honour its creator. It has remained open to the public since then. The remnants of the lighthouse’s foundations can still be seen at sea, close to the tower which replaced it. Interestingly, the design of the replacement lighthouse wasn’t a million miles away from Smeaton’s tower. While it was still in operation, a Scottish engineer called Robert Stevenson visited it. He tweaked Smeaton’s ideas when designing the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Scottish coast. When the time came to build the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, engineer James Douglass used Stevenson’s specifications. If the Stevenson name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. The Stevensons were something of a lighthouse building dynasty and there have been books and documentaries made about them.
The bottom part of the tower isn’t original, of course and has some spiral steps up to the first floor. After that though, it’s all ladders. Unlike the two other lighthouses I’ve been in which had spiral staircases along the walls, this one has floors with the same shape as Polo Mints. The different rooms in the tower are furnished with a mixture of genuine and replica furniture. There is a table which was in the actual lighthouse. Perhaps the most startling piece of furniture in the place was the bed. Living on an off-shore lighthouse was not the job for you if you were a tall person who didn’t like sleeping in cupboards.
One of the notices on the wall reminds visitors that this is an 18th century building that was designed for 3 people. Looking around the building, it’s hard not to wonder how tough life must have been for the 3 people living and working there at any time. Cramped is one word to describe the conditions. On the other hand, these guys were probably the nimblest ladder climbers around.
At the top of the lighthouse is the lantern room, complete with a replica of the candle holder which would’ve been there at the start. These days it offers a nice view over Plymouth and out to sea. On a good day it is possible to see out as far as the Eddystone rocks and where the story began. Plymouth itself was bombed extensively during World War II, destroying a lot of the city. It’s a miracle this wonderful little lighthouse didn’t bite the dust too.