Wednesday 27 February 2013

Northern Spaces: Lighthouses

I was having a Twitter conversation on Sunday about what writers should actually blog about. I've seen a few people, both on Twitter and various blogs, asking writers not to blog about writing. It does get repetitive, I suppose, and I guess there are so many blogs about writing you have to wonder how you can do anything new with the topic. Trouble is, what would you blog about instead? Some advice suggests you should let readers get to know you, so blog about your life. I'm too private, I guess, and I'm not sure how interesting my life would be to others. Other people recommend you blog about things related to your fiction - so if you write sports fiction, you blog about sports. If you have a protagonist who's an anthropologist, you can blog about anthropology. Hm. Well my WiP is about mummies so should I blog about necromancy?

Instead, I decided I'd start using the topics of my PhD thesis as a starting point for discussions. One of the things I'm looking at is the representation of space in horror films, so I thought, "Hang on, there are some fantastic spaces where I live!" I figured I'd share some of them with you - so today, I'm looking at lighthouses.

Lighthouses are strange places at the best of times. They're often isolated from the mainland, accessible only at given times of day when the tide hasn't covered the causeway, and by implication they become very lonely places. They were inhabited by lighthouse keepers, but the function of the lighthouse was as a workplace, not a dwelling, so the intention overrides the domesticity of the space. It's further confused by the fact that 'lighthouse' implies a dwelling through the name 'house', but the addition of 'light' implies that the building is where the light lives, not the keeper. I suppose this makes sense for automated lighthouses which have no keepers, but by humanising the light and assigning it a home, it marginalises the keepers and turns the space into a functional one. Furthermore, the function of the lighthouse is to prevent disaster, making them spaces of both warning and danger. Their size and shape doesn't make them conducive to traditional patterns of living. Some people find lighthouses romantic - I find them creepy.

On Friday, I went out to St Mary's Lighthouse in Whitley Bay. It's one of those places you reach via causeway, meaning it's cut off from the mainland at certain times of day. As it's only February, the lighthouse itself was closed during the week, but I've been inside before years ago (1994 springs to it was a while back!).

St Mary's Island has had a light of some form since  medieval times, and the current lighthouse opened in August 1898. The island was originally settled by monks, and a chapel dedicated to St Helen was built near the end of the eleventh century. The chapel kept a light burning to warn sailors of the rocks; this light was called St Mary's Light, which gave its name to the bay. It hasn't always been such a pious place - there is a channel on the north of the island known as Smugglers' Creek, and the whole coastline was a favoured haunt of smugglers. At the end of the eighteenth century, Russian soldiers stricken by cholera were isolated on the island, and those who died were buried there. The chapel was gone by 1867. Despite the presence of the lighthouse, there were still shipwrecks in the area, and the remains of the California can still be seen at low tide, after wrecking on the rocks in 1913.

St Mary's went electric in 1977, its light being automated in 1982. By 1984, it was deemed obsolete and the lighthouse closed. It's looked after by the Friends of St Mary's, and in 2013, visitors to the island can see birds and wildlife in the nature reserve, and if you climb the 137 steps to the lantern room, you can see as far as the North Yorkshire coast, and the Cheviot Hills. Lighthouses are always proud of their views, as if you're not to look at the lighthouse itself, always look away from it...

Further down the coast in Whitburn, Sunderland, we also have Souter Lighthouse, now run by the National Trust. The lighthouse actually stands on Lizard Point, with Souter Point situated a mile further south, but the visibility was believed to be better at Lizard Point, and the site location was changed. There was already a Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall, so Souter kept the name of its intended location. The stretch of rocks between Whitburn and Marsden meant there were twenty shipwrecks in 1860 alone, and in response, the lighthouse was opened in 1871. Souter was the first to use alternating electrical current, and its 800,000 candle power light was generated using carbon arcs. The light could be seen for up to 26 miles. Its most famous lighthouse keeper was Robert Darling, the nephew to local heroine Grace Darling, who was keeper for 24 years. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988, and was opened by its current owners, the National Trust, in 1990. They've opened it as a tourist attraction, allowing visitors to explore the engine room, light tower and keeper's living quarters. If you climb the 76 steps to the top on a clear day, you can see as far as Coquet Island to the north, and Whitby to the south.

I originally visited Souter in 2011 as part of a paranormal investigation, while TV’s Most Haunted visited several years ago, believing to have made contact with Isobella Darling. I'm unconvinced by its haunted reputation and take the 'evidence' of ouija boards with a pinch of salt, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest for the whole area to have some sort of psychic thumbprint. After all, the caves at Marsden were also used for smuggling, and that many shipwrecks in one place is bound to create some kind of disturbance. Souter is notable for being situated on the mainland, as opposed to a separate island like St Mary's, meaning it doesn't have the same abandoned, isolated feel - it's more industrious and 'lived in'.

I feel lucky to have both examples of such spaces within travelling distance, though whether lighthouses will come to feature in any forthcoming stories remains to be seen.


Morgan Drake Eckstein said...

I am glad that you decided to blog about lighthouses...because I really want to blog about necromancy on my blog. *wink*

John Wiswell said...

Blogging after your PhD is a great idea, because every time you've mentioned it on Twitter it's seemed neat. Lo and behold, the lighthouses post is further neatness. Even the photos are a little tingly.

Larry Kollar said...

The idea of spaces in movies is a great blog topic, I think you've hit on a winning idea. I'm looking forward to hearing more about it.

As I mentioned on Twitter, I love lighthouses. Wife got annoyed a few years ago, on a trip to Michigan, when I insisted we stop at a nearby lighthouse (along Lake Michigan) so I could get pictures. They just seem photogenic, and different weather behind them brings out different aspects.

Chris Hewson said...

Cool post! It's inspired me to do a crime plot involving a lighthouse! I haven't worked out what yet though.

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