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The lighthouse

St Mary's lighthouse St Mary's lighthouse © Shutterstock

This view of St Mary's lighthouse, with a summer dawn breaking behind it, gives a glamorous lustre to its subject.

But in the days (before 1998) when lighthouses like this one were manned, the lives of their keepers (and their families at St Mary's) could be harsh and full of difficulties. Even when as here linked to the mainland by a causeway, getting to shore was impossible at high tide and could still be a problem at low tide in bad weather. The exposed positions of many lighthouses meant they were buffetted by storms and high winds, and if accessible only by boat were often cut off for extra long periods during stormy weather.

Nevertheless, lighthouses hold a powerful fascination for us. They are iconic structures, strong in the face of adversity, doing the valuable job of helping to keep shipping safe. Of the many coastal and harbour lights in Northumberland, two stand out. Both are open to the public and offer a fascinating glimpse of the work they do and the lives their keepers once led. St Mary's, which lies between Seaton Sluice and Whitley Bay, has been inactive since 1984, but is carefully maintained by North Tyneside Council as an important heritage feature and attraction for tourists


   Longstone lighthouse                                                             ©   Largo Baywatch

But few lighthouses anywhere can compete with Longstone in the Farne Islands for the awe-inspiring magnificence of its history - or at least one unforgettable moment of it. In 1838, in the teeth of a North Sea storm, the SS Forfarshire, an early steamship carrying a cargo and about 60 passengers, ran aground on one of the smaller Farne islands and began to break up. Many of the passengers and crew were drowned (including the Captain), though a handful got away on the ship's boats. Another group, thirteen in all, managed to get to an exposed rock and cling on through the night.

At dawn, they could just be seen by the keeper of the Longstone light, William Darling, and his daughter, Grace, from the lighthouse about 600 yards away. Against his better judgement, William was persuaded by his 22 year old daughter to face the massive risk of rowing a heavy boat out into choppy seas in a desperate rescue attempt. Magnificently they managed it, rowing by a circuitous route of about a mile (to avoid reefs), but when they got to the rock they found just nine people left, including a woman whom Grace attempted to console after learning that she had lost her two children to the waves. They took her and three others off, and got them safely back to the lighthouse, at which point William, assisted by two crewmen, went back and rescued the rest.

The inspiring story of the Darlings, one Northumbrians are justly proud of, adds its own lustre of glamour to the enduring appeal of lighthouses and the people who once lived, worked and, when duty called, risked their lives in them.

external website St Mary's Lighthouse


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