Where would you expect to find a lighthouse? Emerging from the snapped toothed remains of a sea battered headland, I daresay, a man made column of defiance against the worst the elements can muster, stark and isolated, and manned by a gaunt, whittled from teak, hugely mustachioed man of a certain age and character, for whom the word, ‘laconic’ is more a way of life than a simple adjective. Quite right. You can find lighthouses like that dotted around the Welsh coast, especially from Pembrokeshire to Anglesey, tracing the Atlantic Ocean routes through the Irish Sea. But the Talacre Lighthouse isn’t one of them. It rises from the sands of the beach, in fact. Catch the evening light right, as the tide turns and the sea returns, and the lighthouse seems to float upon the waters - quite the effect.
No ordinary lighthouse this, rising from the sand and the sea.
The Talacre Lighthouse, properly known as the Point of Ayr Lighthouse or, Y Parlur Du, was raised to guide shipping, not into Liverpool, but rather into the treacherous Dee estuary. The 18th century merchants of Chester had not quite given up hopes of a trading revival, despite centuries of silting in the river, and the Dee facing Wirral was still busy with shipping. Chester had risen to prominence as a trading port during Medieval times, and the reach of its port extended from Barmouth to the River Duddon at Broughton-in-Furness. Its regular business included much from the wine ports of France and it did well from the Irish trade out of Dublin - something of an irony, to anyone who knows the Viking history of that fine City. Liverpool, by way of contrast, was very much a backwater at the time, a small settlement on a, ‘muddy pool’ (the literal translation of, ‘liuerpul’), a landing ground for the Mersey ferries owned and operated by the monks of Birkenhead Priory. But the sea at the Dee estuary could be treacherous, and navigational lights were needed. There was a light on Hilbre Island (and still is) by 1236, and maintained by the Earl of Chester at a cost of 10s a year. There has been continued speculation that a Roman pharos was built by the Romans at Whitford, overlooking the approaches to the Dee, but as tempting as this may be, since the Romans did much business on the North Wales coast, it remains unlikely. That is not to say that there was no system of lighting in place, however, rather that there is no direct evidence of bespoke navigational lights in place. Consider, instead, that along the North Wales coast, from Anglesey to Chester was a network of thriving settlements and Edwardian towns dating from the 13th century (Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Flint castles included), and in truth one imagines that the coast must have been well lit for shipping approaching the Dee estuary. But on entering the River, with its difficult sandbanks, lighting was certainly needed.
A Bill to canalise the Dee in 1733, an effort to address the continued steady silting of the river was proposed in an effort to reverse the city’s decline as a port. But as Chester’s decline had begun, Liverpool’s fortunes had improved enormously , and the improvements to the Dee were strongly opposed by a powerful lobby of Liverpool business leaders and merchants, fearful of a recrudescence of Chester’s fortunes. However, in October of 1775 an enormous storm struck the Irish Sea.
‘At Holyhead, the destruction was greater than ever remembered by the oldest man living. No less than 5 ships were wrecked within a few miles of the harbour. A large Swedish brig went to pieces and all the crew perished. The Friendship, from Dublin to Bordeaux, was wrecked, the captain and 3 men saved, the rest of the crew with 16 passengers drowned. A brig Prosperous, from Lancaster to Hamburg, lost; a sloop foundered at her anchors in the bay; several small craft sunk and a large Dutch ship, supposed to be from Rotterdam, sunk and every soul perished. In short, the scene when the storm was over was the most melancholy ever beheld.’
The Dee estuary has witnessed its fair share of maritime tragedies, and the weather can change in a heartbeat.
There was damage in Liverpool and along the Lancashire coast, but it was the loss of the brigs, Nonpareil and Trevor, along with the crew, passengers and cargos of silks, both sailing out of Parkgate on the Wirral side of the Dee, that spurred the need to build a system of lights to guide shipping into and out of the Dee estuary.
There were ambitious plans to build two lighthouses on the Point of Ayr, along with a system of buoys, but this was again opposed by the Liverpool lobby on the grounds of defending the interests of the city, and in fact by the Dee River Company, that blanched at the reported cost of such works. In order to reduce those costs, Mr Turner, an architect out of Hawarden, was hired to design a timber lighthouse to, ‘top the surrounding hills by 9.1m’. Although we have no evidence to suggest where exactly this lighthouse was to be placed, it remains of interest since there is a long history of watchtowers being built on the heights overlooking the Point of Ayr, including Gwespyr.
However, it seems money was found from somewhere, since in fact the Talacre Lighthouse was built soon after, in 1776 it is believed, the design based on the existing Liverpool Docks Board Light at Hoylake. It is sometimes claimed that the first lighthouse was in actual fact built on a rock much further out than the present lighthouse, but there is no real evidence of this, and might in fact be a memory of the later pile built lighthouse of 1844.
Much of the lighthouse that we see today is of the original 1776 build, although it is thought that in around 1818, the structure was heavily damaged in storms, including some considerable structural collapse. The sources differ from the archaeology. What is known for a certainty, is that the Talacre Lighthouse was transferred from the trustees into the keeping of Trinity House in 1819. It was standard practice for Trinity House to undertake upgrades of the lighthouses that came into their care from private ownership, but of course with regards to the Talacre Lighthouse, that work included substantial repairs. What is seen today on the beach at Talacre is the results of that work, a building of both the 18th and early 19th centuries. The lantern of 1819 was the work of Trinity House, the former light a source of some concern, with mariners complaining that the light was insufficiently bright at night. The keeper was asked to look at ways to keep the cost of illuminating the beacon as low as possible, with a variety of candles, oils and wicks considered. The American War of Independence played havoc with trade, causing considerable financial hardships, and it was clear that dues were not being paid, especially by those ships that while utilising the Talacre Lighthouse for navigation, were sailing on to Liverpool. The lantern light shone in two directions only, west along the north Wales coast and north across the estuary.
From 1813, through to around 1823, the writer Richard Ayton and the topographical artist William Daniell undertook a Voyage Around Great Britain. It is thought they arrived at the Point of Ayr in the summer of 1813, and Daniell drew the lighthouse. The surviving work perhaps then shows the Talacre Lighthouse before it was severely damaged in the storms of 1818, and much repaired after being taken into the care of Trinty House. It would seem from Daniell's work that the changes made were largely to the lantern, rather than the general appearance of the building.
Despite considerable upgrades to the Talacre Lighthouse, Trinity House seems to have believed that the light at the Point of Ayr was not effective enough, and instead commissioned a piled structure further out at sea. No images of this light remain, but there is plenty of written information of the structure, much of it terribly florid, which is entirely in keeping with the excitement new technologies engendered in Victorian Britain, where all things steam and iron seem to have caused much palpitatious prose, ‘constructed of gun metal in a very superior manner’. It would seem the light it shone was impressive, exhibiting a, ‘brilliant white light, fifty-five feet above the ordinary level of the sea, up the Dee towards Chester, and to the West as far as Port Lynas in Anglesey; and a red light towards Hoyle Bank’. It is difficult to imagine what such a lighthouse would have looked like, based on written sources alone, but perhaps a good existing representation would be the Fowey Rocks Light in Florida. However, the piled light had only a forty year lifespan, since it had been removed by 1883, when it was replaced by a lightship which was anchored in the approaches to the Dee estuary - now also long since gone.
The Talacre Lighthouse’s history since saw it fall into slow decline, and for a while it was looking quite the worse for weathered wear. But its fortunes revived after it was sold privately and renovated as a private residence. It was damaged again by storms in 2007, but swiftly repaired.
It won’t be a surprise to hear that it has collected a reputation for hauntings in its time - lighthouses lend themselves to mystery, largely I think due to the sense of extraordinary isolation that surrounds them, the oft bleakness of their position (though this is not really something Talacre can claim, in truth). There have been reports of a ghost, thought to be the last lighthouse keeper, dressed in the garb of an 18th century man, walking the balcony by the lantern, looking out to sea. He even has a name - Raymond. It’s hard to imagine being terrored by a Raymond. Mediums, and those that believe to know such things, tell of a great sadness surrounding the lighthouse. In recognition of these sightings, a 7 ft tall, stainless steel sculpture of Raymond was installed upon the balcony a few years back, but has since been removed.
Though it has been redundant as a lighthouse for many years, the Talacre Lighthouse has become an iconic and much loved landmark in North East Wales, in an area of ancient history and import.