Saturday, 27 February 2016

38 Whiteford lighthouse

38. Whiteford Lighthouse - 27 February 2016 (photo: walkers approach lighthouse)       

Mumbles lighthouse, designed by William Jernegan ‘the architect of Regency Swansea’, has been operating since 1793, and still fulfills an important role.  But peninsular Gower has another lighthouse at its north-west corner, which though disused is the only cast-iron wave-swept lighthouse in the British Isles.  Surprisingly it is the second one to be built at Whiteford Point.

During the 19th century the Loughor estuary was busy with ships serving the coal and metal industries around Llanelli and Penclawdd.  Initially a light ship was considered to aid navigation, until in 1849 permission was sought from Trinity House to erect a lighthouse on the sker or reef at Whiteford.  This was fraught with problems - the limited time that the site was accessible between tides, and the frequent adverse weather conditions.

Nonetheless the first Whiteford lighthouse was erected in 1854 on timber piles - it was 55ft high and visible from nine miles.  Its roof, upper balcony and lantern (excluding the glass panes) were all painted white.  However it was liable to damage from drifting wreckage and collisions from boats.  Finally on 30th December 1864 a single–masted sailing boat, the ‘Mary’ of Ipswich, failed to anchor properly, struck the lighthouse, and carried away two of the uprights: this marked the end for the lighthouse. 

It was replaced by the present structure, sited 317 yards further south, and constructed of cast-iron.  The first cast-iron lighthouse stood not far away – on Swansea’s west pier, designed by William Jernegan, architect of the stone-built Mumbles lighthouse.  Built in 1803 with plates cast at Neath Abbey ironworks, it had a vertical octagonal tower, and stood 20ft high on a stone plinth. 

Work at Whiteford commenced in August 1865, with materials being delivered by boat, though as the base was only exposed for between one and two hours at low tide, construction was extremely difficult.  The longest period when the site was dry was before and after the spring tides, the best time to establish the foundations and fix the first ring of cast-iron plates.  The lighthouse was built of eight cast-iron rings cast in Llanelli ironworks and bolted together externally.  The present Whiteford lighthouse is 44ft high, and at high tide stands in 20ft of water.   

Access was by an external ladder (now removed) on the eastern side, which led to the balcony.  A short ladder led to a small upper balcony which enabled the glass of the dome to be cleaned.  From the main balcony was a door into the lantern room, with an interior ladder to the store/living room.  Although there was provision for two keepers, only one would have been in residence, alternating two weeks at Whiteford with two weeks at the Llanelli harbour lighthouse.

After 55 years service Whiteford was de-commissioned in 1921, and replaced by a 12ft high light on Burry Holms, a photograph of which hangs inside the King’s Head in Llangennith.  This was dismantled in 1966, leaving what the late Nigel Jenkins described as “the cartwheel-sized base” of the navigational beacon remaining on the island.

After sixty years Whiteford lighthouse shone again from October 1982 for five years, when Llanelli Harbour Trust, aided financially by Burry Port Yacht Club, installed an automatic Agar light to assist local sailors. 
Subsequently Carmarthenshire County Council, the present owners, offered the lighthouse for sale for just £1, though prospective buyers were deterred by the £100,000 cost of restoration.  The Gower Society initiated two surveys in 1997, and the following year carried out some consolidation of the base, but the future for this Scheduled Ancient Monument remains uncertain.  Whiteford lighthouse can be reached at low tide with caution, for the tide comes in quickly, while oystercatchers and kittiwakes perch on the disused structure.

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