When I was younger, I wrote a short story based around a girl living in a lighthouse. I was fascinated by this concept. What would it be like? If you were a kid, what would you do for entertainment? What would it feel like to live inside the walls of a lighthouse with a storm brewing outside? I daydreamed about these possibilities for weeks but inevitably forgot about them as my next ‘phase’ came into view.
My little story remained forgotten until I came across BioShock Infinite, a video game based on an alternative 1912. The game includes alternate dimensions and a lot of extreme politics, and is commonly known for its complex story line. It begins with your character arriving at a lighthouse in the middle of a violent storm. He has no recollection of his past and so enters it looking for answers, but finds no one there. No one alive, anyway. Determined to find the reason he’s there, he explores the lighthouse, climbing up each set of stairs and searching the rooms until he ends up at the top.
This, admittedly, is where all possible ‘real life’ similarities end. He ends up unlocking the Lantern Room, sitting down in a mechanical chair and shooting himself up into Columbia, another world floating on top of the clouds.
This sparked the memory of my short story, and I vowed to one day visit a lighthouse myself. Would it match my nine-year-old-imagination? Would I find some evidence of a real-life Columbia hidden away in the clouds? I needed to explore it all myself.
A spontaneous two-day trip to Plymouth with my friend Haydn gave me the chance I had been looking for. Although this lighthouse used to sit amongst the waves 260 years ago, it now lives inland on Plymouth Hoe. Back in 1759, Smeaton’s Tower once lived on Eddystone Rock, approximately 13 miles away from where it stands today. It was in use for 118 years before the rocks beneath it had started to erode, causing the lighthouse to physically wobble each time the waves crashed against it.
Fortunately, after many town council meetings and numerous donations, it was decided that the structure would be moved ashore. In 1882, three-thirds of the lighthouse were gradually moved and rebuilt on the Hoe. Some of the materials used in the original construction were recycled to make furniture for the inland version. Since it was reopened in 1884, it has represented the engineer behind its design, John Smeaton, and today, you can visit the Tower and climb up all of its 93 steps.
And they are some steep steps.
Haydn and I barely made it to the lighthouse in time to have our own little tour. Speed walking from the Plymouth Gin Distillery to Smeaton’s Tower was more exercise than what I was looking for, and to find out that 93 steps were included in this look-around made me swear. With this in mind, we stood at the base of the Tower panting and walking up these steps quite slowly.
From the first flight of stairs alone, it feels like the rest of the world doesn’t exist anymore. Walking around the first curve of the lighthouse almost blocks out all sound from the outside world. We hear the voices of other visitors somewhere far above us, however our footsteps reverberate louder, bouncing from wall to wall. I climb the steps almost in a full circle before reaching the first of five rooms.
Also known as the Store Room, the Entrance Room is the modern version of that random cupboard or drawer in your house where anything and everything is hidden in. This is the room where everything was usually stored, from the water tank to the coal bunker. A circle of locked cupboard doors (yes, I did try to open them, I can’t help myself) surrounds the room, and in the centre stands a ladder heading upwards, linking this room to the Oil Room.
Trying to climb these ladders is a challenge, especially when you have a rucksack attached to your back. I wriggle my way through the entrance to find a near replica to the room below, almost in a museum-like display. Similar to the Entrance Room, this room was used mostly as an extra layer of storage for the lighthouse workers. More cupboards line the walls, small rectangular windows dotted about occasionally. Again, the same sort of storage can be seen in the kitchen and living room, the next layer of the lighthouse. A small table is placed on one side, and benches line the surrounding area. Sink, cooker and stove are included on this floor, providing much needed warmth back in the day.
It’s on this floor that we start to hear the singing. It’s hauntingly beautiful. Two voices echo down the stairs, a distant sea shanty bouncing from wall to wall. My memories of BioShock come flooding back, and I rush up the next ladder and pop my head into the Bedroom, ecstatic to be transported into the game.
My original expectation of what I was about to find was a recording of the song. Specifically a recording on one of those 1920 styled radios, somehow saved from the lighthouse or taken completely out of the BioShock world. However, I wasn’t expecting a group of people, mid-performance, frozen in space. They stare down at me, an intruder on their mise en scène, probably hiding the irritation of another person interrupting them.
If I wasn’t holding onto the ladder for balance, I would have physically face planted myself onto the floor in embarrassment. I start spluttering out apologies when one of them smiles down and explains that the group are rehearsing for a play that’s based on the history of Smeaton’s Tower. He allows us to pass through and to take in the Bedroom- however after my sudden entrance, I quickly head upwards to avoid any more blush inducing awkwardness.
After the self-conscious heat of embarrassment, the sudden chill of the Lantern Room was exactly what I needed. The room is plain brick and mortar, a stark difference compared to the other floors, but presented two options. I realised I was in a classic game scenario, split between two choices. Choose the metal door, light gleaming at the edges and promising a view of the outside world. Or choose the metal stairs, leading further upwards. I decide on the stairs, eager to see Plymouth from up high.
I climb up the last few steps before Haydn, and use the handrail to steady myself. At least, I hold on to what I think was the handrail. Loosing my balance as it swings, I realise what I’m actually holding on to is a chandelier. Before an oil lamp was installed, Smeaton’s Tower emitted light from 24 candles placed on the chandelier. Although it’s a replica, it’s installed as though it were the real thing, and it was quickly leaning me closer to the middle of the room. I let go before I fall all the way back down those 93 steps, and warn Haydn not to do the same, flustered all over again.
Luckily, the views from the top of Smeaton’s Tower are a great distraction. Through clouds and consistent drizzle, we have a 360 degree view of some of Plymouth’s most famous attractions. From 72 feet high in the sky, you have a clear view of the Promenade and Hoe Park, as well as the Belvedere Wedding Cake and Tinside Lido.
It’s interesting to think that back in 1759, the three men who would have lived and breathed within this lighthouse would have seen these attractions from 13 miles away. Enclosed by the sea on some of Britain’s most dangerous set of rocks, the most they could do was light the candles on the chandelier, wait for the next supply boat and play cards amongst themselves. Walking through the lighthouse was like walking through history itself, only returning to the present day as we reach the top to finally take in the modern world around us.
Now, I breathe in the fresh sea air drifting in from below and look back down into the lighthouse, hearing the theatre group’s singing once more. Maybe the little girl in my story would have sung as she ran up and down the stairs, feeling the vibrations of a storm erupting outside the lighthouse walls. She would have enjoyed the Lantern Room the most, watching the sea and weather blend into one view. Sunrises, sunsets, lightning storms and icy winds had all stretched across the horizon for centuries, yet it seemed like that was more likely to happen in a world other than our own. Those kind of views belonged to the world of Colombia, floating on the other side of the grey, monotone clouds not too far above us.
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