Inside Bishop Rock

Take a look inside the King of Lighthouses

Lighthouses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are insipid structures such as Dungeness, a Monolithic monstrosity from the 1960s which looks like it’s awaiting orders from ground control before setting off for the moon. Some are quirky, like our own Peninnis on St Mary’s, which looks like a blind Dalek searching for its plunger; and some are just too white – in fact the majority of lighthouses are white with small adjoining white houses and the odd strip of green paint. These are the Plymouth Argyles and Yeovil Towns of lighthouses.


There is a higher league of lighthouses, which tend to be in places us ordinary folk can’t get to very easily. The likes of Round Island, South Bishop and Godrevy which stand on their own islands, with sufficient space to hang out the washing, grow our own vegetables and take the dog for a walk. These are the Barnsleys and Middlesbroughs.


Then there are the Premier League lighthouses which stand on rocks with nothing around except other rocks. Some of these, such as Beachy Head and Lightships, are so close to the mainland that it must have been very tempting on a flat calm day for the keepers to swim across for a pint of an evening. These are your Aston Villas and Tottenham Hotspurs.


Then we go to the Champion’s League places – the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals; the likes of Eddystone, Bell Rock, Wolf Rock and Bishop Rock, which possess an allure of mystical proportions and deservedly so. Every time I look out to Bishop Rock, either from a boat a few yards away or from the St Mary’s coastline, I stare in bewildered awe as I try to fathom how it could be built on such a small rock. I also merrily imagine what it must be like inside.

One day I decided to get in touch with Trinity House to find out and was delighted when they said I could have a look for myself. The next time their engineers were over they would meet me at St Mary’s airport, pop me into an immersion suit and fly me over. It was so simple I got straight on to the Vatican to request an audience with the Pope. They haven’t got back to me yet.


The short trip from St. Mary’s, less than five minutes, was most enjoyable. No offence to BIH but the seats were more comfortable and the earphones were a Godsend and at 500ft on a clear day the islands looked absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t see the lighthouse as we approached because I faced the opposite direction, but the landing was smooth. Bruce, the co-pilot, opened the doors in flight and called out instructions to pilot Steve and before I could say, ‘Do you think we should wait to land before we open the doors, Bruce?’ I was stepping on to the helicopter pad.

It was not daunting at all. I was fortunate that it was a clear, almost windless day. Also, the entrance hatch was so close to the helicopter door that at no point did I feel unsafe. I made my way down a steel ladder on to the main gallery which circled the lantern. This is where I imagined keepers of yore smoking their pipes on a sunny day. There was a small door from the gallery leading inside the lantern, where a narrow corridor circled the revolving lens. I was now officially inside Bishop Rock!

The maintenance chaps, Rob and Phil, had goods to unload from the helicopter but I was free to roam around a few levels as far down as the kitchen so off I went but not before taking in the magnificent views and marvelling at the scale of the lens. Building the lighthouse was one thing but fitting it out with great beams of sturdy metal and sheets of glass was no mean feat either. To reach the next level I ventured backwards down a very steep steel spiral staircase clutching a rope attached to the wall.

The next level had an inscription plate in the corridor which detailed when the first stone was laid, when the tower was completed, when the light first shone etc. Interestingly, the plaque was in two pieces – doubtless it was too large to fit through the door and up the stairs. This level housed a semi-circular battery room – the battery provides power from the exterior solar panels to an emergency light in the event the main lights fail.

Downstairs contained a small office with desks and chairs and like the level above, it had clearly altered its purpose over the years because both rooms had flat doors as opposed to the original curved doors.. 

On the next level was the original bedroom with its original semi-circular door. The room contained five curved bunks and an array of storage above and below. There can be as many as five engineers on station at one time and this is the only bedroom so if one person snores while another talks in his sleep and another performs involuntary trombone fanfares, you simply have to put up with it.

The kitchen was immediately below the bedroom. It had everything you need to be comfortable – a cooker, kettle, fridge, microwave, blender, television, telephone and Formica table. It would be a bit of a squeeze with the full quota of workmen but as this was what Phil termed a ‘husbandry visit’ with just two staff, it looked rather cosy.

Rob then took me down the next two levels which housed the engine rooms (appropriately titled Engine Room 1 and Engine Room 2) and beneath those the Oil Room, which contained the diesel that powers the generators, as well as a couple of freezers for food supplies. I asked how the oil came aboard and was told that like everything else, it comes in bags delivered to the roof and is then carried downstairs - by no means an easy  task.

Beneath the oil room is the entrance room, which leads to the main door we see from the outside. This is where the keepers of the past were winched aboard prior to the helipad being built in 1976. The entrance room also contained a shower and toilet which although useful, is quite a distance from the bedroom. There are water tanks under the entrance room floor and beneath that it is solid granite.

When I made my way back to the top of the tower to return to St Mary’s, I looked inside the light lens itself where just two 400watt bulbs shine a light that is visible over 24 nautical miles away. I paused to consider the great minds and brave men who designed and built this magnificent structure which has saved so many lives. It was rather humbling.

Alas, my visit was all too brief, although I may take the workmen up on their invitation to spend an evening there and write a detailed article on the mechanical side of things. For now it was mission accomplished. Just to have a look inside Bishop Rock was an honour and a privilege, an experience to treasure and look back upon in years ahead. My sincere thanks to Nick Chappell and Vikki Gilson at Trinity House for making it possible.

First published in issue 45 of Scilly Now & Then

There are more photographs available on the Scilly Now & Then Facebook page  in the album 'Inside Bishop Rock Lighthouse'.

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