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