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Letters Blog Barrie Mahoney's Blog

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Lighthouses and Lime Kilns

There are many lighthouses in the Canary Islands and locals and many visitors will know that there is a particularly fine one at Maspalomas in Gran Canaria. The lighthouse, or Faro in Spanish, helps sailors to navigate their ships and is an integral part of sea-life. Usually, they are cylindrical towers with a light on top, and emit a fixed sequence of beams that is unique to a particular lighthouse. Built in 1980, the Maspalomas lighthouse is still operational and, for those who like full details, provides 3 white flashes every 13 seconds. Before lighthouses were invented, sailors were warned of hazards by the lighting of fires along the coastline.

Since visiting these islands for the first time many years ago, I am often amazed to discover the strategic and important place that these small islands and its people have in history. Indeed, these islands pack a far greater punch than their size would lead most to believe. The development of the lighthouse is just one of these intrigues. Let us now visit Plymouth in Devon, and stand on Plymouth Hoe, looking out to sea into the impressive expanse of Plymouth Sound...

About 14 miles from the coast stands the Eddystone Lighthouse, which is the fourth lighthouse to be built on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks. Earlier attempts had either caught fire or were washed away, with the exception of one. This was the lighthouse called Smeaton’s Tower, which now stands proudly on Plymouth Hoe and was once used to guard against those treacherous rocks.

In 1756, an engineer called John Smeaton was asked by the Royal Society to design the third Eddystone Lighthouse. His inspiration was to be an oak tree - a tall, natural object that could withstand gales without breaking. He used 1,493 blocks of stone, rather like the rings of a tree, dove-tail jointed together with marble dowels and oak pins. Now this is the clever part, Smeaton also pioneered the use of hydraulic lime, a form of concrete that would set under water. This lime came from Arinaga, in Gran Canaria.

Since ancient times, the small coastal town of Arinaga, operated a small cottage industry for the extraction and burning of lime. Quicklime from the Arinaga furnaces was sold throughout the islands and beyond its shores, which led to increased prosperity and economic expansion. It was this quicklime from Arigaga that made the building of Smeaton’s Tower possible.

In the early twentieth century, the first cement plant in Arguineguin opened and demanded a lot of hydraulic lime, as well as being needed for agriculture, buildings, ports and roads. Most of the lime produced in Gran Canaria came from Arinaga, where dozens of workers worked in this industry. The industry is now long gone, but some of the old furnaces have been carefully restored and preserved and can still be seen at the end of the beach in Arinaga, as a memento of its proud contribution to the building industry on the island and beyond. It is inspiring to think that a combination of Smeaton’s inspired design and highly advanced engineering skills still required the contribution of Canary Islanders over 2000 miles away!

Smeaton’s Tower protected shipping in Plymouth Sound for 120 years and when it was finally replaced in 1882, it was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe. It still stands as a permanent reminder of the very clever engineer who created it, with just a little help from the lime workers of Arinaga!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

It’s Hot Up My Barranco!

“Phew, it’s hot up my barranco today, darling,” gasped Miranda as she staggered down the street carrying two large and heavy bags of clattering bottles from the local supermarket. Before you get too carried away by imagining a doctor about to don a pair of surgical gloves for some emergency female probing, I should explain that Miranda is one of the village’s more colourful characters. She is a school assistant in one of the less classy private schools by day and a tattooist by night. I once asked if there was any conflict of interest between her two jobs. She screeched loudly in my ear, before resting her mug of gin on top of my car.

“No, not at all, darling. It’s a great way to help the kids with their reading.”

I must have looked puzzled, as I thought I knew a thing or two about teaching children to read, and she seemed to read my thoughts.

“You see, I have all the letters of the alphabet tattooed all over my body somewhere, so I use those to help children to read. If it’s Tina the Tiresome Transvestite we are reading, I just point out this letter “T” on my arm and then we find the picture of the Tina on my back. Easy, the kids love it.”

“So you have all the letters and associated pictures somewhere on your body?”

“Oh, yes, darling, but I should say that some are more difficult to find than others. We tend to keep off the “Y” and “Z” words otherwise I would get the sack, darling. If you know what I mean!” She guffawed loudly, as she nudged me in the ribs and winked knowingly.

I think you are probably getting the idea of what Miranda is like. A lovely lady, but back in the UK I would be surprised if she had a job. However, over here, I am much more open-minded.

As Miranda dropped her bags by my front gate and she propped herself on my parked car, she watched what I was doing with some amusement. I stopped washing the hedge (actually it is one of those plastic ones, but I do like to freshen it up a bit from time to time) and it is always a good opportunity to remove the crisp packets and condoms from its branches.

“You are home early today. Is everything alright?”

“Darling, it’s the heat. It is just so hot. I tell you, darling, it was 41ºC up my barranco at lunchtime. It was just too much darling. We sent the little dears home early, because they were just fading away.”

I tried to imagine Miranda’s boisterous pupils fading away and thought it highly unlikely. We have a number of calimas, although some people call them siroccos, on the islands each year, and the islanders are generally conditioned to withstand them, and it is the expats who suffer. They can be a little unpleasant for a few days, bringing with them very high temperatures from Africa and the Sahara. In my own village, when the wind disappears, it is a case of staying inside as much as possible with air-conditioning on and plenty of cool drinks. These heat waves can occur at any time during the year, but they are less common during the cooler months.

Miranda’s school is situated in a barranco, a Spanish word for ravine. Some would say that was a foolish place to build it, because of potential sudden rainstorms, but I guess the land was cheap. Anyway, I suspect it was built to withstand the heat and would have air conditioning installed as essential.

“I was pleased to get home early, darling. I needed to get ready for the bonfire this evening.”

“Bonfire? In this heat!” I exclaimed.

“Darling, tomorrow is the Festival of St John the Baptist. A most important religious festival! You mustn’t miss that. We are having a bonfire party tonight to celebrate. Not here you understand, but outside Telde. It’s traditional you know, darling. You really must come. You don’t have to be a Catholic, just bring a bottle!”

So there we have it. We are in the middle of a calima where daytime temperatures are around 40ºC, in the shade, and the good people of Telde are planning a bonfire party to celebrate St John the Baptist. The activities on this island never cease to surprise me.

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

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