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Whiteford Lighthouse – Where water fights with a cast-iron giant

Nikola Petrovski

With strong tides, many shallow banks and large tidal range, the coastal waters where the Gower Peninsular of Wales protrudes into the Bristol Channel can be tricky to navigate. The numerous wrecks of ships that have fallen foul of this area, be it due to bad weather or piracy, add extra points on the navigation chart.

So when the old lighthouse marking Whiteford Point began to deteriorate, responsibility fell to the Burry Navigation Commissioners and the Llanelli Harbor to ensure it’s replacement. It was designed by engineer John Bowen, the a son of a blacksmith, born in the town of Llanelli in 1825.

The top part of the lighthouse. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

The top part of the lighthouse. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

It was constructed in 1865 using cast iron, a technique that was pioneered during the construction of the Swansea Harbor lighthouse in 1803. Today this lighthouse is the only surviving example of its kind in Britain. But even during its initial construction, it was quite an achievement.

Whiteford Lighthouse at low tide. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

Whiteford Lighthouse at low tide. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

In order for this lighthouse to be able to stand upright even to this day, despite the vast tidal range and soft silt of the estuary, it stands on 88 piles driven deep into the seabed. These wooden posts are kept in place thanks to 500 iron bolts and screws.

The workers first dug a hole in the sand in a form of a square (or some other similar geometrical form) that was later filled with concrete. The whole work had to be done during low tide which meant this job could not be rushed.

Surrounded by water. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

Surrounded by water. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

Once the foundation was finished it was time for the rest of the lighthouse to be constructed. In order to do this, they used 105 cast-iron panels held in place using iron bolts that weigh 2 lbs.

The lighthouse towers 44 feet in height with a diameter of 24 feet at the base. Given the fact that this lighthouse was almost constantly being hit by waves, during the 1870s cracks started to appear in the lowermost plates. And so a blacksmith was called to help seal the cracks and fix the plates.

The heavily damaged iron plates. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

The heavily damaged iron plates. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

By 1884, almost 200 cracks were fixed. The base of the lighthouse was further reinforced by adding an additional quantity of concrete around the apron.

This lighthouse was built in a way so that two keepers could be comfortably housed inside. But according to the reports and the records kept at the lighthouse, there was only one keeper that was tasked with keeping this structure healthy. This lighthouse used not one but three Argand oil lamps for they were brighter than the rest.

The iron plates and the barely visible iron bolts. Author: Thomas Guest CC BY 2.0

The iron plates and the barely visible iron bolts. Author: Thomas Guest CC BY 2.0

One of the lights was pointed at the south channel, the second was facing the Burry Port, and the third one towards the Lynch Pool. A fourth lamp was added in 1876 to mark the north channel.

The Whiteford Lighthouse on top of its concrete platform. Author: Su Long CC BY-ND 2.0

The Whiteford Lighthouse on top of its concrete platform. Author: Su Long CC BY-ND 2.0

During the 1920s, the ownership was given to Trinity House. They decided that there was no need for this lighthouse and so it was taken out of use, opting for new a beacon at Burry Holms instead. Sadly this engineering marvel served a different purpose during WWII when was used for target practice by the Royal Air Force.

The missing lights. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

The missing lights. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

Whiteford Lighthouse remained dark for sixty years until it was brought back into service once more during the 1980s, at the behest of local yacht captains. With time the new automatic light at Whiteford Lighthouse failed and was never repaired. Today the lighthouse can still be reached by boat or even by foot at low tide.

Former firing range sign. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

Former firing range sign. Author: Gareth Lovering Photography CC BY-ND 2.0

Some 17 years ago it was sold to a partnership of organizations that promised to renovate the lighthouse. Standing as a Grade II listed building it remains as a landmark and a monument of past daring engineering achievements.