I can’t really explain why I had never been inside Seaton’s Tower. Maybe because it’s ‘always been there’ my curiosity, somehow, just hadn’t been peaked. Strange really, especially when you consider we often take the kids on hugely enjoyable historical building visits throughout the region. Yet for whatever reason, the lighthouse on our doorstep had remained unvisited and largely unknown.
Designed by John Smeaton, the first man to describe himself a Civil Engineer, the tower was the third lighthouse to be built on the notorious Eddystone reef some fourteen miles south west of Plymouth. It was the first stone built offshore lighthouse, taking four years to construct before first being lit with tallow candles in 1759.
It remained in situ for 123 years until superseded by the present incumbent. Replacement became necessary owing to concerns about the stability of the rock the tower had been built on and the need for a bigger lighthouse to accommodate improving technology.
The question was what to do with the old lighthouse? Demolition was rejected in favour of preserving the building for posterity. The far sighted Victorians of the City built a foundation ‘stump’ to accommodate the tower which was dismantled, relocated from the reef and re-constructed stone by stone on the Hoe where it has been an iconic attraction for Plymouth since 1884.
Walking across the Hoe to start my visit, the place was buzzing with people soaking up the welcome late winter sun. Right up to the door everything was oh so familiar and reminiscent of countless previous ‘days out’ spanning so many years. Upon entering the building however, a whole new experience began.
The first thing I noticed was the narrowness of the passage way to the admission kiosk. “Wait until you get upstairs” quipped the attendant. She was right! The Victorian stump with its spiral staircase soon gives way to the original, much earlier, sea door and tower. The higher up you go, the further back in time you travel. The less space there is, the greater your respect for the hardy souls who once manned the tower so far out to sea grows.
Information displays provide a fascinating historical insight into the various Eddystone lighthouses, John Smeaton’s pioneering achievements and the extraordinary undertaking of bringing the tower back to dry land. Artefacts recreate the lot of a lighthouse keeper, including some possibly genuine pieces from the tower’s original existence.
There are ninety-three steps to the top, most of these are a cross between a step and a ladder requiring a little thought and care to negotiate. This is especially so if you are carrying a large bag (camera bag in my case) or a protesting child through the entrance holes in the floor. Rest assured there are sufficient advisory signs and helpful staff on hand.
Half way up, I met present day lighthouse keeper Vicky whose cheery manner and historical insight is both delightful and reassuring. A key role for Vicky and her colleagues is to provide “encouragement” to anyone a little nervous about negotiating the steps or confined layout of the tower. Indeed, many of the other visitors I met also seemed to be treading a little gingerly.
Upon walking up the narrow gantry to the very top of the lantern floor, my knees had adopted a strange, slightly soft feel. However, the views were incredible and well worth it.
Likewise, walking around the external balcony offers a new perspective no matter how many times you have visited the area and even if, like me, you prefer (need) to keep a reassuring hand on the safety rail or comforting shoulder on the outer tower wall.
So, after all these years was Smeaton’s Tower worth the visit? My answer is a resounding “Yes”! Allow me to explain why.
Quite deliberately, I have not regurgitated all of the amazing facts, figures and information I discovered within the tower here. Go, be surprised and discover it for yourself. Moreover go and experience it for yourself. For if you have not been inside before, then this will indeed be a fascinating new experience and one which may ever so slightly, and gently, take you out of your comfort zone.
That’s no bad thing for it adds greatly to the experience. I entered a familiar building I had seen hundreds, if not thousands, of times before expecting little more than an elevated viewpoint. I exited a grade one listed, internationally important building with a whole new insight and appreciation of the people who conceived, operated and saved this pioneering lighthouse.
Smeaton’s Tower is a fascinating monument which the City of Plymouth is justifiably proud. Just don’t leave it the best part of half a century before finding out why for yourself!
Admission to Smeaton’s Tower costs: £4/adult; £2/child (5-16 years); £12/ for two adults and three children; £3/students & seniors (Sixty years plus).
If possible, plan your visit by travelling light and avoiding blustery weather (the balcony may be closed on particularly windy days).
Concessionary rates, venue hire and more information is available from Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.