Europe’s Two Oldest Lighthouses

Tower of Hercules, Galacia, Spain

The first stone of what is now known as the Tower of Hercules, was laid just after the time of Christ.  During the 1st century A.D., the lighthouse guided Roman ships as they travelled north during the conquest of Britain. After the fall of the Roman Empire it fell into disuse, but for many centuries it still served as a waypost for sailors, as they navigated the treacherous local waters known as the Costa do Morte (the Coast of Death).

Tower of Hercules, an Ancient Lighthouse in Galacia, Spain

The tower was used sporadically as a military lookout in times of war, but remained in a ruinous state until 1789, when the military engineer Eustaquio Giannini began a period of much-needed restoration. Giannini remodelled the building in a neo-classical style, concealing the original Roman structure within a new outer layer of stone, and adding 21 metres to the original height of 34m.

Neo-classical Version of the Tower of Hercules

Near the lighthouse are several large works of art (mostly sculptural) that are worth a walkaround.

But Galacia most famous site is the cathedral of St. Jacques de Compostelle in Santiago.  It has been the object of pilgrimages since the Middle Ages.  I have walked the final 100 miles (140 km) of the route.

St. Jacques de Compostelle in Santiago, Spain

Hook Lighthouse, County Wexford, Ireland (abridged from wikipedia)

The Hook Lighthouse is a building situated at the tip of the Hook Peninsula in County Wexford, in Ireland.  It is the oldest continuously operated lighthouse in the world and the second oldest lighthouse in Europe, after the Tower of Hercules in Spain. The current structure has stood for 800 years.

The existing tower dates from the 12th century, though tradition states that Dubhán, a missionary to the Wexford area, established a form of beacon as early as the 5th century. The tower itself was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke. Pembroke had established a port in the town of New Ross, and needed an aid to navigation.

The first custodians to the light were a small group of monks whose small monastery was situated on the peninsula. The monks who lived at this monastery would have lit warning fires and beacons all through the years to warn sailors of the dangerous rocks on the peninsula. It was the monks who lived at this monastery in the 13th century that became the first light-keepers. They are also thought to have helped in the construction of the tower. The exact year of construction is not known, but Pembroke first came to the region in 1201 and the first map that shows the lighthouse serving its function is dated 1240, so construction must have taken place between these dates.

Hook Lighthouse is one of the most fascinating examples of medieval architecture in Ireland. The tower stands four stories high with walls up to 4m thick. The tower itself consists of three rib-vaulted chambers in the lower tier, while the upper, narrower section would have carried the warning beacon.

Hook Lighthouse, the Oldest Continuously Operated Lighthouse in Europe

The monks left the tower and were replaced by the first lighthouse keepers in the mid 17th century. In 1671, a new, but still coal burning lantern was installed on top of the tower to replace the old beacon light. The coal fire was finally abandoned in 1791 when a whale oil lantern 12 ft. in diameter with 12 lamps was installed. This continued until new gas lights were installed in 1871, lit by gas manufactured in the enclosure known as ‘the gas yard’. In the 1860s, three dwellings were built for the lighthouse keepers. Paraffin oil became the source of power in 1911, and a clockwork mechanism changed the light from fixed to flashing. This mechanism had to be wound up every 25 minutes by the keeper on duty. Finally, in 1972 electricity became the power source, and light-sensitive switches were installed to control the lantern.

In March 1996, The Hook Lighthouse was converted to automatic operation, and the last light-keepers who had climbed the stairs and tended the light, were permanently retired.

I’ve visited the Hook Peninsula, and it is well worth a visit.  The coastline around the lighthouse is spectacular.  Additionally, there are the ruins of 2 rock churches that adorn the road to the lighthouse.

Ruins of the Old Hook Rock Church

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