The older I get the worse my short term memory becomes but every now and then something triggers a memory from long long ago.
Recently I was sent an aerial
photograph of the town where I was born and this memory came to me.
It was just after the second world war and I must have been about 8 years old. My father and mother announced that we were going to visit my grandfather (Mom's father) at the lighthouse. My grandfather was a captain in the Merchant Marine in the first world war. Now retired, he had been asked to be lighthouse keeper at our local lighthouse on a shift basis. He worked 4 days on and 4 off staying at the lighthouse while on duty.
The lighthouse is at the end of a long pier which runs along the north side of the river Blyth in N.E.England. We lived on the south side of the river so it meant we had to get the Chain Ferry across and that pleased Les (my older brother) and me because we loved the "Chain Ferry". This was basically just a floating section of road which pulled itself back and forth across the river on steel cables onto ramps at each side. I suppose that in some time past steel cables had replaced the original chains but its name remained.
We always hoped that a ship would be coming through because the ferry would pull itself right up the ramp and then release the cables to the bottom of the river to allow the ship to pass. I am sure, looking back, that the other people using the ferry were not nearly as pleased about ships passing as we were. We often saw the Milk man taking his horse and cart on to the ferry and marveled at how calm the horse was considering there was only a piece of rope between it and the river while the ferry chugged across.
Alas this day was a Sunday and the ferry was not working but my dad, who knew everything, had found out that there was another ferry that worked Sundays and it was closer to us than the Chain Ferry which was about a mile and a half away.
Off we set on a nice day in February. Nice in the North East of England meant it wasn't raining, - yet. We walked through the park to the docks and under the staiths on the coal jetty. For those of you unfamiliar with shipping in the 40s staiths were a large wooden structure with a railway line on top. The coal trains would tip their cargo down open shoots into the holds of waiting ships. To say that the docks were not clean would be a large understatement.
If you can imagine how much coal dust is spread around when thousands of tons of coal are tipped down a shoot, that is what we were walking into. I never noticed it and neither did my brother but Mom made a few comments that made me take note. Her voice was rising as she mentioned to my dad that she was wearing her best coat and hat. I don't remember what he said.
The adventure was just beginning and I was thrilled that we were at the main docks where we were not normally allowed, - but where was the ferry? Mom asked the same question and it was then that dad took us to the edge of the jetty. We looked over and saw a fisherman snoozing in a rowboat tied to the iron ladder which was part of the jetty. Dad said this was the ferry and I'm sure my brother and I whooped for joy. Mom's voice was a little higher I noticed but then I realised that she was old (over 40 at least) and with high heels it could be a little difficult getting to the boat since it was low tide and the water was about 15 feet down. We climbed quickly down into the boat and watched as Mom slowly accomplished the task. To give her her due it couldn't have been easy because you had to back up to the edge of the jetty, bend down and grasp the two hand holds and then step off blindly to find the first rung of the ladder.
Finally we were all settled with Les and me in the stern and Mom in between us. Dad was in the bow of the boat. The large old fisherman sat in the center facing us and started rowing out into the river. I remember feeling bad that we were all sitting there doing nothing while this poor man heaved on the oars but he was a powerful chap and soon had us to the other side although I did notice Mom had become really quiet as the boat smashed through the small two foot swells. There was no jetty at the other side so we scraped up on to the rocks. I can remember the smell of the seaweed which was covering the rocks (did I mention it was low tide). All the rocks at this level were green and slippery so we pushed off and moved a little further and found a better spot. Out we got and us two boys bounded up the ill defined path to the top of the river bank and then had to go back down to help Mom.
We were right at the beginning of the pier which stretched out seemingly for ever in front of us. It was actually about a mile long with a bend half way along. The people who built it in 1884 knew what they were doing because it was solid concrete up to about 15 feet from the walkway. The walkway was about 10 feet wide, wood with iron railings and was well above the water level which never got up to the top of the concrete portion even at high tide although in bad weather the waves did wash over it. About halfway along we realised that we were literally walking out into the North Sea. The wind was blowing spray from the rock on the north side and Mom was hanging onto her hat and having trouble because her high heels kept slipping down a crack in the boards. The strange thing that I noticed was that there really was no wind in town that day but on the pier it seemed pretty strong. We found out later that my grandfather who rode his bike to work often had to leave the bike at the end of the pier and pull himself hand over hand along the railing to stop from being blown off in worse weather.
Finally we were at the lighthouse and I ran up to the door and knocked. By the time the old folks had caught up there was still no answer and Mom said he wouldn't be able to hear us because that was an outer door. Sure enough when we opened the narrow door we found ourselves inside the wall of the lighthouse with another door about 4 feet away. (I mentioned that the people who built this knew what they were doing).
Inside was a cosy circular room with a staircase and what looked like the lower half of a huge grandfather clock. This was the motor which turned the light and it did work just like a grandfather clock with weights on chains and a large pendulum. After tea and scones with my grandfather he took us out to see the fog horn. It was in a sort of lean-to against the side of the lighthouse although again it was made of concrete. The fog horn was powered by a petrol (gas) engine which turned a huge fly wheel with a couple of notches in it. Each time a notch got to the right place it triggered a large bellows which blew the horn. This was an important lighthouse so there was a backup fog horn the exact same standing next to the main one. Gramps then took us into the lighthouse up to the second floor where he showed us the backup for the backup fog horn. This was smaller and was turned by hand but he said he hoped the others never broke down because he couldn't keep that one going for long himself.
We then climbed a ladder up to the light itself and this is where I still marvel at the engineering and optical skills that were present in that room. The lenses themselves were glass and stood about 4 feet square looking very much like a huge bottle glass window. There were four of these mounted on a steel circular frame which must have weighed a ton. This whole thing fit into a circular channel where it literally floated in a mercury bath. Huge as it was it could be set moving with the very light touch of a finger. Inside the circle was the light source and I was expecting something spectacular because the light could be seen for miles and miles. There was electricity in the light house but it was a recent addition and only used to light the living quarters. The actual light used oil and was a mantle just like an ordinary gas mantle only instead of being about one inch diameter this one was maybe three or four inches. That tiny light would not have been visible for more than a hundred yards and then would have been just a spark but with the lenses to help it became a search light.
After touring the lighthouse gramps sang sea shanties to us for a while (he could sing sea shanties for hours at a time and never repeat one and they were all very funny. This came from his days at sea on sailing ships which took months to get to China from England.)
We then started back. The sun came out and I saw a sight few in Blyth have ever seen. There was a school of porpoises playing in the harbour. In war time they sometimes accompanied ships but no one I knew except gramps had ever seen them. From that day I never saw another porpoise in Blyth and I have never found anyone else who has seen them in N.E.England.
I think Mom enjoyed the day but I don't know if the clothes she wore were a write off and I do know that she and grandma had a long talk with gramps about quitting the job before he was blown off that pier going to work.
He did quit soon after that.