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St Mary's Island and Lighthouse is situated here on the North East coast just off Whitley Bay. It has became a landmark here and is said to be the most photographed and painted beauty spot on the North East coast.
It is a place I pass regularly, although I have visited the island many times over the years as I live nearby. I recently visited the island again as it was a sunny day and the weather felt a little milder.
A Little History :-
The island itself is thought to have been the home of hermits in the early days of Christianity, but the Viking invasion in 800 would have seen the end of any settlement until after 1066.
Thomas Bates, who was a surveyor for Northumberland, actually owned the island in the 1580s and it was known as Bates Hill or Bates Island. The island became St Mary's Island sometime in the 19th century and has a history of smuggling, with the deep and winding channel in the rocks on the north side of the island known as 'Smugglers' Creek'.
Before the lighthouse was built there were many shipwrecks on the island and work began on building the lighthouse in 1896 and completed two years later at a cost of £8000. The lighthouse was built as a replacement for the lighthouse on Tynemouth Priory headland which was demolished after problems with visibility due to its location.
The lighthouse continued to serve the North East coast until 1984, apart from during the second World War when it was not lit regularly. After becoming automated in 1982, the lighthouse was taken out of service two years later because modern navigational aids made the lighthouse obsolete.
Visiting St Mary's Island and Lighthouse :-
Although I had visited the island many times as a child, the earliest visit I can recall was in 1981. It was a red hot summer day and I had spent the day in Whitley Bay, both on the vast sandy beach and in the popular Spanish City Fairground.
From the end of the second World War, Whitley Bay had became very popular with holidaymakers. The beaches would be crowded, a sight you do not see anymore these days. On that day in 1981, it was still very popular with many people on the beach, but sadly over the years and since the closure of the Spanish City fairground, Whitley Bay has became more popular as a place for drinking and stag and hen parties, which is quite sad really.
Thankfully, the island and lighthouse remain popular with visitors and tourists and although Whitley Bay as a resort has changed massively over the years, St Mary's remains the same as it ever was.
After it was decommissioned in 1984, North Tyneside Council, in response to an outburst of popular feeling, launched an appeal to buy it for the benefit of the people of the North East and visitors.
It was strongly felt that such a beauty spot should not fall into private hands which could have meant it becoming out of bounds to the public who had loved the lighthouse and island for generations.
The appeal was successful and a trust was set up to run the complex which achieved charitable status a few years ago.
St Mary's island can only be accessed when the tide allows. You can park in the car park provided on the mainland and walk across the causeway to the island.
Apart from the lighthouse, there is a small Nature Reserve surrounding the island which is home to rock pools, a beach, freshwater ponds and clifftop grassland, providing habitats for a variety of marine life as well as resident and migrating seabirds and waders.
I have on two occasions, climbed the 137 steps inside the lighthouse to reach the lantern room at the top. If you are able to do this, I would recommend it, as the view from the top is spectacular. On a clear day you can see down to the North Yorkshire coast and the Cheviot Hills.
If you are unable, or do not wish to climb the steps, then you won't miss out entirely on those views, as a video camera is set up to relay the views from the balcony to a screen in the base of the lighthouse.
On a lovely day, there is nothing nicer than having a wander around the island and spending time on the beach or sitting amongst the rock pools.
You may also enjoy the visitor centre with its exhibitions about the lighthouse and the environment, some of which are permanent, whilst others are changed regularly.
I had not realised until noticing on my recent visit, that the remains of a ship can be seen from the island at low tide. I had not seen this before and found out at the visitor centre that in January 1913 a Russian four-masted iron barque, named the "California" was driven onto the rocks on the island during a sudden storm before she could set her sails.
Eight crewmen drowned, but rescuers managed to save the captain and seven crewmen.
It was also interesting to hear and read about the smuggling history of the island as well as the history of the lighthouse and life inside it, including the shifts the lighthouse keepers worked and the workings and upkeep of the lamp.
The lighthouse was one of the last to be modernised and was electrified in 1977. Its original lamp can now be found in the national lighthouse museum in Penzance.
Also on the island is a giftshop, selling cards and souvenirs exclusive to the island.
Events and fundays are arranged throughout the year with rockpool rambles being a popular activity with children.
Opening times :-
Wherever possible the lighthouse and visitor centre are open seven days a week between April and October and during week-ends and school holidays in the winter. However, it is not possible to open on some days due to tidal conditions.
Admission charges :-
Family ticket.................£4.80 (2 adults and 2 children)
Getting there :-
St Mary's island and lighthouse is situated two miles north of Whitley Bay town centre, just off the A193 on the way to Blyth. Whitley Bay is signposted from the A19 and can also be easlily reached from Newcastle along the A1058.
Public transport links are also good, with regular bus services and also the Metro system can take you to Whitley Bay.
Postcode for sat nav is NE26 4RS
Contact number for information - 0191 2008650
I must admit I do like lighthouses and it is sad to see that due to modern navigation systems there isn't the need for them that there once was. There was something strangely comforting about seeing the flash of the lighthouse lantern from my bedroom window as a child. I also used to enjoy taking photographs and sketching the lighthouse for my art class when I was at school.
St Mary's island and lighthouse is a place I will continue to enjoy visiting and I am pleased we are indeed preserving our coastal history. I am proud to live near such a beautiful place.