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Alice in Sunderland
Member Name: collingwood21
Date: 25/02/02, updated on 25/02/02 (180 review reads)
Advantages: Plenty of though given to disabled visitors, enjoyable for all ages, good value for money, free entry to members
Disadvantages: SOme parts of the cottage are nor wheelchair accessible, I didnt get to try the tearoom
I visited Souter last November with a small group of people from my museums course - it was out of season, so we had the place to ourselves and the undivided attention of the (very very nice) property manager (thanks Nick, much appreciated!). Souter Lighthouse is owned by the National Trust and is one of only two lighthouses that they currently run (the other being South Foreland in Kent). I couldn't help but think what a good job that man had - imagine getting to work in a lighthouse! The lighthouse is situated on part of the Leas, a stretch of beautiful coastline (also owned by the NT) at Whitburn, just north of Sunderland - I have to admit, that after seeing much of the unlovely urban surroundings of Tyne and Wear, I was pleasantly surprised about how gorgeous this setting was (even on a windswept November day). I would highly recommend making a day trip of your visit so you can include a walk along the beaches around here.
The lighthouse itself is painted with red and white stripes and to be honest looks like something out of Captain Pugwash! It has been open since 1871, when it was the most advanced lighthouse in the world, being the first to use electric light. I have heard many visitors remark on how friendly this NT property is and how enthusiastic the volunteers are - I will have to take their word for this, seeing as none were there when I visited. I was still able to get a good impression that this is a family friendly place though, with every effort made to appeal to children as well as adults.
For your entrance
fee, you get to visit the engine room, compass room, a reconstruction of a Victorian lighthouse keeper's cottage and get a view from the top of the tower (as well as the obligatory tea room and shop of course!)
The engine room, as the name suggests, is where the machinery that powered the foghorn and light is preserved. All major bits of kit are labelled with short, non-techie labels to help the mechanically challenged among us appreciate what went on here. There are further detailed manuals for those who want to know more, as well as puzzles and activities to get kids thinking about the lighthouse and what it did.
Moving on, you come to the compass room, which is the largest part of the lighthouse. The room has been converted into a display area that shows you how lighthouses function, about smuggling, piracy, shipwrecks and what life would have been like for the keepers. There are hands-on activities about semaphore and signalling, games for children about nautical life and a great model boat where kids can get dress up and play (as we did too!). For anyone who cannot climb the 76 steps to the top of the lighthouse, there is a CCTV camera on top whose monitor and control are also in the compass room, so you don't miss out on anything. I personally have no head for heights, so I was quite happy to play with this! This is one feature of the lighthouse has been much applauded by disabled rights activists as it is accessible to everyone - people in wheelchairs, with veritgo, who are not strong enough ot climb the stairs or who are just plain lazy do not miss out on the wonderful views along the coast. :-)
In the lighthouse keeper's cottage, you feel more like you are in an NT property, as here you have period room reconstructions. They are all behind glass and while they look well done, I suspect that you would really need the interpretation of the volunteer stewards to fully appreciate and understand them. We were tol
d that one of the keepers had a huge number of children (reaching into double figures) - how on earth they all squeezed into this small cottage is beyond me!
There was of course one major disadvantage of visiting out of season - no tearooms. Every NT tearoom I have ever visited has been wonderful, and I cannot tell you how welcome a hot chocolate would have been after that bracing walk along the coast. Still, we were all very appreciative for the doubtless busy manager to take the time and trouble to show us round and answer our questions, and even put up with the muddy footprints we left on his nice clean floor. Top marks for excellent staff and a friendly welcome.
If you are interested in visiting Souter Lighthouse yourself, it is 3 miles north of Sunderland on the A183 - it can be reached by bus (shocking, I know) from Sunderland and South Shields. It opened for Feb half term, but will be open properly from March 23rd to November 3rd daily except Fridays (11am to 5pm, last entry 4.30pm). Special events (talks, guided tours around the Leas, Christmas lunches, children's activity days) are held throughout the year - the information line is on 01670 773966, and the lighthouse can be contacted on 0191 529 3161. Alternatively, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk or email email@example.com.
Entry to Souter is £3 for adults, £1.50 for child (5 - 17), free for NT members. Wheelchair access for the ground floor and Braille guides available.