The Ballad of Wally the Woodpecker

Wally the Woodpecker gets his beak stuck while pecking on the ball vent at Bidston Lighthouse. Pencil sketch by Bob Hughes, 6 June 2021.

Wally the Woodpecker never watched
What it was he was working on.
He would peck here, he wood peck there,
He pecked like a woodpecker everywhere.

But boring holes in tree trunks was very boring work.
Too much head-banging made him go berserk.
Boldly he said “I must branch out!”
So from branch to branch he went
– no, not that sort of branch, oh no –
And then he twigged where he should go.

There was a windmill standing tall.
“That’s something different”, he did call,
“I’ll have a go, those sails look good”,
And so he drummed like a woodpecker should.
He did this many times and oft
But then declared, “This wood’s too soft!”

Now further down along the hill
Rose two white domes and if you will
They were the domes, believe you me,
the domes of an Observer Tree.
Now what the domes were made of,
Nobody really knew
And those who did, they must bave been
but very, very few.
But Wally went and had a go
(By now you’ll know I’m no real bard)
What Wally found and then declared
“My god, that stuff, it’s far too hard!”

He looked across and down the way
And there his eyes were led astray.
He saw another tower rise
Before his very ogling eyes.
And on this tower there was a ball,
Not too big and not too small,
Just the size for Wally to land
And perch and drum, and he did find
To his great pleasure and delight,
He shouted “This one, it’s just right!”

And so it was that every day
Wally came and pecked away.
He pecked and drummed with all his might.
What a noise and what a sight!

But what is this I see today?
Wally seems stuck, can’t get away.
His pecking beak, where has it gone?
I can’t see it, nor anyone.
But then I slowly realise
His beak is there, but in disguise,
In the dome of soft material
He’s broken through (it’s now a serial
I’m writing here about Wally’s beak;
the beak is tough, the metal weak).
The problem is, he’s got it stuck.
He broke in through but out of luck
When he tried to pull it out
All in vain though he did shout.
The problem for our Goldilocks:–
woodpeckers do not live in flocks
to rescue him when need it be.
He could be stuck for eternity.

To find a moral to my tale,
I must admit I fail, I fail.
But if you’re a woodpecker, remember well:
Stick to the woods – or there’ll be hell.

Bob Hughes, 3 Jun 2021 – after visiting Steve and Mandy at the Lighthouse.

COVID-19 Update

We regret to announce that Bidston Lighthouse will remain closed to visitors until further notice, for your safety and ours.

In March, we went into self-isolation for 12 weeks, in accordance with the UK Government’s Coronavirus guidelines then in force. As the initial period of lockdown draws to a close, we have reviewed the situation and determined that it is still not safe to re-open for the following reasons.

We cannot offer our usual guided tours because the internal configuration of the lighthouse makes it impossible to practice social distancing.

We cannot offer self-guided tours because:

  • of health and safety considerations unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, and
  • the small revenue from visitors could not cover more than a fraction of the cost of disinfecting between visits.

At this stage, it would appear very unlikely that we will be able to re-open this calendar year.

Coronavirus

We regret to announce that Bidston Lighthouse will be closed to visitors until Tuesday 9th June 2020 at the earliest.

During this time, the residents of the Lighthouse Cottages will be in self-isolation, in accordance with the current UK Government’s guidelines concerning the Coronavirus pandemic.

We will review the situation as the pandemic develops.

Please check our website before planning your visit.

ALK Archives Working Bee and Film Screening

A unique opportunity to discover the films and audio held in the archives of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, including reel-to-reel and video footage.

The three-day event will be run under the auspices of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK), with support from Bidston Lighthouse (where the ALK Archives are held) and Bidston Observatory Artistic Research Centre (where the event will take place).

The goal of the weekend is to check the film footage currently held in the ALK Archive, reviewing the contents and condition of various reels of cine film, super-8, VHS cassettes, DVDs and perhaps slides. We hope that this event will improve the catalogue and set some priorities for preservation and digitising. There are likely to be two screening rooms most of the time and our Archivist would like ALK members to be involved in the selection, screening, handling, note-taking etc. during the event.

The event will begin on the afternoon of Friday 28th February. A buffet supper will be provided that evening with the screenings beginning at around 7pm. The screenings will continue through Saturday and Sunday and there is the possibility of visits to Bidston Lighthouse on the Saturday and Leasowe Lighthouse on the Sunday afternoon.

The charge for attending the event is £7.50 per person per day or £15 per person per night for those wishing to stay over at the Observatory, which contains superior Youth Hostel-style accommodation with shared rooms. Food will be provided at the following prices: £3 for breakfast, £5 for lunch, and £6 for dinner. Tea, coffee, soft drinks, cakes and biscuits will be included in the daily charge.

Booking

Pre-booking is essential, both for day visitors and residents.

There are limited accommodation spaces and, as a result, they will be allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.

To sign up for the event or find out more call 0151 653 7816 (speak to Mandy or Stephen) or email archive@alk.org.uk


Provisional Programme

Friday

As some people will be travelling from far afield, Friday’s activities will be fairly informal.

2pm – 6pm Informal workshop. Set-up, equipment checking, practice screenings.

6pm – 9pm. Dinner. A buffet-style dinner will be available until 9pm, so that late arrivals need not go hungry.

7:30pm – 10:30pm. Screenings in room 1.

Saturday

Breakfast available (Observatory residents only).

10am – 1pm Cine-film Screenings in room 1

10am – 1pm Other Screenings in room 2

1pm – 2pm Lunch

2pm – 6pm Screenings in room 1

2pm – 3:30pm Optional tour of Bidston Lighthouse (including visit to the archives). There will be no charge for the tour, but donations towards the maintenance of the lighthouse will be gratefully accepted.

3:30pm – 6pm Screenings in room 2

6pm – 7pm Chill. A chance to relax and socialise.

7pm Dinner

8:30pm – 10:30pm Screenings in room 1

Sunday

Breakfast available (Observatory residents only).

10am – 1pm Cine-film Screenings in room 1

10am – 1pm Other Screenings in room 2

1pm – 2pm Lunch

2pm End of formal proceedings.

Those who don’t need to travel home straight away might consider:

  • Helping pack up and return film and equipment to the Archives at Bidston Lighthouse next door. We will be grateful.
  • Visiting Leasowe Lighthouse, which will be open from 12 noon until 4pm (last tour at 3:30pm, normal charges will apply). Leasowe Lighthouse is a short 10-15 minute drive away.
  • Going for a walk on Bidston Hill (very pleasant if the weather is fair). Copies of the Bidston Hill Heritage Trail booklet will be available at both the Lighthouse and Observatory (recommended donation of 50p to the Friends of Bidston Hill).
  • Visiting the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales in Liverpool. The aircraft carrier will arrive in Liverpool on Friday 28th February, and stay for a week. The Royal Navy says: “Exact timings for the ship’s arrival in Liverpool, and details of how to obtain tickets to visit the ship, will be announced in due course, dependent on weather conditions and operational commitments.”

Acknowledgments

The organisers would like to thank Tate Liverpool and Wirralcam for the loan of audiovisual equipment.

 

Beware the roof!

The tragic death of John Hartnup Jr

A ghost story by Stephen Pickles, October 2016.

John rose early that fateful Thursday in April, 1892, just as he did every day.

The last few weeks had been unusually difficult. Firstly, the one o-clock gun had failed to fire on several occasions. He’d checked and re-checked the equipment at the Observatory end of the cable. He’d finally traced the problem to a bad batch of fuses at Morpeth Dock, but not before several important persons had filed angry complaints with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. He’d lost count of the endless letters and telegrams all demanding an immediate response, and he’d started to dread the sound of footsteps coming from the Lighthouse, which were invariably followed by the assistant telegrapher’s cheerful announcement “Telegram for Mr Hartnup”.

Then there was the horde of youths from the YMCA who’d come to visit on Saturday. He’d survived the ordeal, barely.

Despite his repeated insistence that no more than ten people could visit the Observatory at the same time, they’d arrived in their scores. They’d giggled and whispered to each other throughout his lecture on the important work done at the Observatory, and fidgeted disconcertingly as he warned them of the many dangers to life and limb, especially the low balustrade around the roof. He’d looked on anxiously as they climbed the stairs to the dome that housed the transit telescope, and panicked when one pock-faced lad forced the door at the top of the stairs and they all swarmed onto the roof. He’d run around like a headless chicken shouting “Beware the roof! Beware the roof!”, all dignity lost. Fortunately no-one was hurt.

John shuddered at the memory. He’d been having giddy spells ever since. Maybe he would see the doctor, after all. But not today. There was too much to do, starting with the anemometer readings. As he climbed the stairs, he heard the comforting sounds of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen below. He opened the door onto the roof and set about taking the readings. The wind was fresh, gusting a little, but nothing out of the ordinary for the season. That woodpecker was back again, beating a tattoo on the ball-vent of the Lighthouse next door.

He’d been doing this as long as he could remember, ever since he was a young boy helping his father, John Hartnup Senior, at the old Observatory back in Liverpool. It was better here, on Bidston Hill. The air was clearer, the seeing better, and the distractions fewer. He watched the sun rising over Liverpool in the East, remembering. It seemed to shimmer, strangely.


Kathleen Hammond couldn’t say what made her pause on the stairs as she came down to join her sister, Lucy, now Mrs Hartnup, at breakfast. She didn’t normally watch the sunrise, but today it shone ominously red. Then something large dropped from above, followed by a sickening crunch in the courtyard below.


The funeral of John Hartnup Jr took place the following Monday, at 3:30 pm. Mr Carr, the owner of Wirral Railways, arranged for the train from James Street to make an additional stop at Bidston before the funeral, and he laid on an extra train to take the many mourners home again afterwards.

Six bearers carried the coffin from the Observatory to St. Oswalds. They went out through the Lych gate, along Penny-a-day Dyke, past the horse’s head, and down into Bidston Village, accompanied all the way by the sound of the wind in the trees. “Ware-ooff, ware-ooff, ware-ooff”.


So now you know, that whenever the wind rustles the trees on Bidston Hill, it’s the ghost of John Hartnup Junior, warning us all:

Beware the roof! Beware the roof! Ware the roof! Ware-oof! Waaaarr-oooff! Waaaarr-oooofff!

The one o’clock gun, fifty years after

Liverpool’s One O’Clock Gun was fired for the last time on 18th July 1969. At one second before one o’clock, Sylvia Asquith flicked the switch at Bidston Observatory that caused the cannon to fire down at Morpeth Dock.

Firing the one-o-clock gun, 18 July 2019.

Fifty years later to the minute, Sylvia was present when the Royal Artillery (103 Regiment) fired a field gun, this time from the waterfront near Woodside Ferry Terminal.

Sylvia Asquith and the latest one o’clock gun, 18 July 2019.

Continue reading

Turn Left for Liverpool

"Turn left for Liverpool", by Bob Hughes, October 2018. Original size: A3

“Turn Left for Liverpool”, © Bob Hughes, 2018.

Those who know their local maritime history may appreciate the significance of this picture. Before the present-day approach into Liverpool by the regularly dredged Queen’s Channel, ships had to navigate the dangerous Rock Channel along the Wirral coast.

The lighthouses at Bidston, Leasowe and Hoylake played a vital role in this manoeuvre. When the ships saw that the Bidston and Leasowe lights were in line and likewise the two lights at Hoylake, this marked the spot where the ships should change direction, hence “Turn Left for Liverpool”.

The picture is in a style which I called ‘Reverse Perspective’ when I devised it in 2016. But it all started a long time ago. From my primary school window in Poulton I could see the windmill upon Bidston Hill, only a mile or so to the west. My eyes focussed on the windmill; I wasn’t interested in the houses, docks and warehouses in between.

When in later life I wanted to paint a picture of this view, I realised it would be a boring job painting all those houses and docks with the windmill reduced to a tiny shape on the horizon.

Simple answer: ignore them. Or at least reduce them to near irrelevance.

The result: a complete reversal of normal perspective to “Reverse Perspective“.

I have also broken most of the rules of TIME, SPACE, and COLOUR.

Space: by moving buildings so that they are better positioned for the benefit of the composition as a whole. In the process – complete disregard for accuracy when depicting such buildings, nearly all drawn from memory.

Time: in my pictures buildings or scenes from different ages of history can appear together, simultaneously.

And Colour, of course: I want to paint bright, happy pictures, the more colour the better. People immediately recognise the places they depict. The contents of the pictures act as a stimulus to the real pictures, stories, knowledge of the places in your own head.

It’s meant to be fun. Enjoy it.

Bob Hughes, October 2018.

Wirral’s sea lights to shine again for one night only

Wirral’s Sea Lights – Bidston and Leasowe Lighthouses – are to shine again for one night only, on Sunday 11th November 2018. The occasion is the nationwide “WW1 Beacons of Light” event, part of the “Battle’s Over” pageant which marks the centenary of signing the Armistice at the end of the First World War.

This will be the first time that the Sea Lights have been lit together in more than 110 years. Leasowe Lighthouse last shone on 5th July 1908. Bidston’s light was put out for the last time at sunrise on 9th October 1913.

British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey wasn’t thinking of lighthouses when he remarked, on the eve of the First World War:

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

It’s been more than a lifetime since the Sea Lights last shone together, so we can’t help being just a little bit excited. But our celebrations will be tempered not only by the reminder of the horrors of war, but also by nostalgia for the lost profession of lighthouse-keeping – it’s twenty years since the last lighthouse in England (North Foreland) was de-manned.

Also in this article:

What to expect on the night

Neither Bidston nor Leasowe Lighthouse will be open to the public on 11th November. At Bidston, there will be a small private gathering.

The lights will be lit at 7pm and switched off around midnight.

The character of both lights will be “white, fixed” (which means they are white in colour and don’t flash). This is the same as the historical character of the lights when they were last operational.

The lights will be visible on the seaward side of the two lighthouses. Both lights are masked by the stonework of their lamp rooms, such that they will be visible for about 70 degrees either side of an imaginary line drawn from Bidston Lighthouse through Leasowe Lighthouse. To see both lights at the same time, you’ll need to be seaward of Leasowe Lighthouse.

Technical details and notice to mariners

The lamps that we’re using are ex-service lanterns that we acquired from Trinity House early last year. These are fairly modern (about 15 years old), low-powered LED affairs. Bidston will exhibit a 3-tier SABIK LED-350 (36W) lantern, and Leasowe will exhibit a smaller 3-tier SABIK LED-155 (18W) lantern. These lamps both have a very narrow vertical divergence (about 2 degrees), which means that the light is concentrated into a narrow “focal plane” that widens slowly with distance. If my sums are correct, the bright part of Bidston’s light won’t intersect with an observer at sea level closer than about 4 miles, which is out at sea. Of course the lights will appear much brighter to an elevated observer at close range, like a drone perhaps.

These lights are not as bright as the lamps that were used in the latter days of the Sea Lights. Another difference is the horizontal divergence. When Leasowe was last operational, it used an oil-burning catoptric light (i.e. a parabolic reflector) which gave a fairly narrow beam aimed at the horizon (so it wasn’t as bright off the central axis of the reflector). Bidston’s light was a first order dioptric lens with vertical condensing prisms, also oil-burning; the lens gave a focal plane, with a narrow vertical divergence, while the vertical condensing prisms concentrated the light from the focal plane into a beam centred on the Horse Channel.

Peel Ports issued the official Notice to Mariners on 30 October 2018. The text is reproduced here.

Notice to Mariners

No. 60 – 2018

PORT OF LIVERPOOL

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that as part of the nationwide WWI Beacons of Light event, the disused lighthouses at Bidston and Leasowe will be re-lit temporarily.

Duration: 1900 to 2359 on 11 November 2018
Bidston LtHo Leasowe LtHo
Latitude: 53° 24.066′ N 53° 24.789′ N
Longitude: 3° 4.461′ W 3° 7.551′ W
Elevation: 66m above MHWS 29m above MHWS
Character: White, fixed White, fixed
Range (nominal): 15nm (est.) 10nm (est.)
Arc of visibility: Both lights will be visible within an arc of 140°
centred on a bearing on 291.48°(T)

Mariners are advised that the temporary re-lighting of the two lighthouses is for commemorative purposes only, and the lights exhibited must not be considered as aids to navigation.

History of the Sea Lights

"Turn left for Liverpool", by Bob Hughes, October 2018.

“Turn left for Liverpool”, by Bob Hughes, October 2018.

The Sea Lights were originally established in 1763 to guide ships through the Horse Channel, a safe passage between the sandbanks of Hoyle Bank and Burbo Bank in Liverpool Bay, before venturing through the Rock Channel and onwards to the Port of Liverpool. When the original lower light collapsed a few years later, a new lighthouse was built to replace it, 2.3 miles further inland on Bidston Hill. To make this work, Liverpool’s Harbour Master, William Hutchinson, came up with a new method of lighthouse illumination – oil lamps equipped with parabolic reflectors. Bidston’s reflector – a massive 12 feet in diameter – was probably the largest of its kind ever deployed in an operational lighthouse. It wasn’t long before Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board and the rest of the world copied Hutchinson’s invention.

The Sea Lights, at 2.3 miles apart, were the most widely separated pair of leading lights in the world. Bidston Lighthouse, 2.4 miles from the high water mark by Leasowe Lighthouse, claims the distinction of being the world’s most inland lighthouse ever.

The Sea Lights were made obsolete by changes in Liverpool Bay. When Leasowe Lighthouse was discontinued, in 1908 the Horse Channel was barely navigable. Most ships were using the new Queen’s Channel, which is still in use today.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to:

Frequently asked questions

Q. If I take a boat out on 11th November, will the Sea Lights guide me safely through the Horse Channel?
A. No! Please don’t do that! The channels and sandbanks of Liverpool Bay have changed a lot since the Sea Lights were last operational. If you do take a boat into Liverpool Bay on the 11th November, you should be able to see the Sea Lights from several miles distance. But for navigational purposes, you should rely on your usual GPS equipment and up-to-date sea charts. There are more than 350 shipwrecks in Liverpool Bay, and we won’t be held responsible for another, despite Wirral’s age-old tradition of wrecking and smuggling!

Q. Aren’t Bidston and Leasowe lit already?
A. No, not really. At Bidston we have a strip of colour-changing LED lights which switch on around dusk and off after midnight. The light from these is unfocussed and can’t be mistaken for an operational Aid to Navigation. There’s a similar arrangement at Leasowe.

Q. Why can’t you do this every night?
A. There are strict regulations governing lighthouses and other aids to navigation, and we don’t want to be charged with setting false lights! Only Lighthouse Authorities are allowed to operate lighthouses. Peel Ports is the Local Lighthouse Authority for Liverpool, a responsibility they inherited from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Trinity House is the Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) is the Lighthouse Authority for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) are the Lighthouse Authority for Eire and Northern Island. Both the NLB and CIL defer to Trinity House on certain matters.

Q. What does “nominal range” mean?
A. Without getting too technical, the “nominal range” is a measure of the strength of the light. It’s not related to the “geographic range”, i.e. the distance from which a shipboard observer in clear weather could be expected to see the light if it was bright enough. The geographic range is determined solely by the elevation of the light above the sea. When last operational, the Sea Lights were bright enough to be seen at the full limit of their geographic range (21 nautical miles for Bidston, and 14 for Leasowe).

Q. When can I visit Bidston and Leasowe Lighthouses?
A. Bidston Lighthouse is closed until Spring next year, although private tours can still be arranged during the winter months; details of future public open days will be posted on the Bidston Lighthouse Events page. The last two open days at Leasowe Lighthouse this season are on the 4th and 18th November, both Sunday afternoons; Leasowe Lighthouse will re-open on the first Sunday in March 2019.


This article was updated on 31 October 2018 following the release of the official Notice to Mariners by Peel Ports. You can see all the Notices to Mariners for the Port of Liverpool on this page.

End of season openings

Our season of open days for 2018 is drawing to a close.

During the Wirral Heritage Open Days in September, Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory will be open to the public on these dates:

  • Thursday, 6th September, 1pm – 4pm,
  • Sunday 9th September, 1pm – 4pm,
  • Saturday 15th September 12 noon – 3pm.

This is the first time that the Observatory has been open to the public since the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory quit Bidston Hill in 2004!

Aerial photograph of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory. Photo by Geoff Shannon, 20 Aug 2018.

Aerial photograph of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory. Photo by Geoff Shannon, 20 Aug 2018.

Nearby, Bidston Windmill will open on Saturday 15th September from 10am – 12 noon. This is your last chance to see inside the Windmill this year. As the weather gets colder, bats will resume their winter residence.

After the Heritage Open Days, there will be two more chances to visit the Lighthouse, on:

  • Sunday 23rd September, 1pm – 5pm,
  • Sunday 14th October, 1pm – 5pm.

We don’t usually open on Sundays, so this is an experiment for us. We’ll run guided tours at 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm on both days. For more information, see our events page.