Saturday, 22 July 2017

To Magnify A Candle's Brightness...

It's another lovely sunny Saturday evening on the Fylde coast and daylight will probably prevail until after ten tonight. Once darkness arrives, the electric lights will start to go on.... but it was not always thus.

At one time, candlelight would have been the standard method of keeping the darkness at bay and candles would have been as important a staple of everyday living as meat and bread, hence the prominence of the maker of candles in the popular rhyme about "the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker" (wherein the candlestick was the candle itself, not the holder).

Nowadays candles are used primarily for 'atmosphere' (romantic, scented, relaxing) and are only pressed into force en masse when there is a power-cut. Pam and Adele have waxed eloquent about the modern-day use of candles in earlier blogs this week, so I'm going to focus on their use in one specific device - the lighthouse - because it links quite neatly with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago as part of the Walking On Wyre project. The poem, which you'll find below, is primarily about Fleetwood's lighthouses.

Fleetwood, for those who are not familiar with the geography of north-west England, is a port on the Lancashire coast north of Blackpool. It is situated on the estuary of the river Wyre where it flows into the Irish Sea. For generations it was one of the principal fishing ports in the country and it was unusual in having not one but three lighthouses of differing heights which, when aligned, guided boats safely into Fleetwood port.

Upper 'Pharos' Lighthouse, Fleetwood (and tramwires)

Lighthouses obviously require light! In the earliest versions (and the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, circa 200 BC is the earliest documented), the light would be a wood fire burning in an open space (probably within a brazier). With the invention of glass came the means to enclose the space and protect the flame from wind. In medieval times candles were used in lighthouses instead of open fires, but it required a quantity of them - usually arrayed in a candelabrum - to generate sufficient light. The original Eddystone lighthouse (1698) was powered by sixty one-pound candles...and they had to be changed every three hours!

There are accounts of lighthouse keepers resorting to eating their candles when they were cut off by bad weather and food supplies had run out. Fortunately for them the candles were often rich in beeswax and whale tallow!

Of course, candlepower alone couldn't guarantee to be seen from any great distance (a mile or so at most even with a telescope) and so the development of prismatic lenses (originally devised by French physicist AJ Fresnel in the early 19th century) allowed candlepowered lighthouses to be visible from great distances by concentrating the light-source into a powerful beam. (Incidentally, car headlamps also use Fresnel lenses in much the same way.)

Candlepower (abbreviated as cp) was used for hundreds of years as a means of expressing units of luminous intensity and was replaced and renamed after World War II by the international (SI) unit known as the candela. Therefore, although candles have long been superseded by electric lights, their power/brightness is still measured in units that relate back to candlelight.

The Wyre Light, designed by a blind engineer
And so to this week's poem. I hope you like it, even if you live in Fleetwood - maybe especially so...

Fleetwood Fires
Wyre light:
designed by a blind man
to give sailors sea-sight
and safe passage by night
along the rolling salt-road
to their Fleetwood home,
you stood two miles offshore
in Morecambe Bay
and shone diopic bright
a century or more
until yourself consumed by fire
in nineteen forty-eight...

Lower light:
securely land based,
whitestone faced
and only half the height of anterior Pharos,
you sat classically squat and square
on elevated Wyrebank
but were far from inferior;
pivotal, rather,
in this trinity of incandescence
back in the day
when trawler captains used your nine-mile beams
to fix their fishy way...

Finally (upper) Pharos light:
flaring deep sandstone red
on sunny days,
you rose majestic
as totem of this once aspiring town;
a solid, steadfast, shapely tapered tower
topped by that magical prismatic mirror
which had the power
to magnify a candle's brightness
and throw it far into the bight,
pinning the blackness of the night...

As epilogue,
Fleetwood's Victoria Pier burned down
in two thousand and eight.
Britain's penultimate was both the shortest
and the shortest lived!
Now only a masonry stump remains,
plans to rebuild so far proved in vain.
And so,
lights sputter, gutter and are gone,
leaving a history
of ghostlike wraiths of smoke
in their wake...

Thanks for reading. Have a safe week, S ;-)


Christopher Heaney said...

As well as enjoying the poem, the bonus for me was that it was so interesting and informative.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. Another fascinating blog and a lovely poem.

Anonymous said...

Sound. Enjoyed this.

Anonymous said...

An interesting blog and a great poem. I'll make a point of visiting Fleetwood next time I'm in the north-west. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I've only just read in today's Blackpool Gazette: "Fleetwood's ruined lighthouse, the Wyre Light, has partially collapsed... a corroded leg is believed to have given way over the last 24 hours. Fleetwood Civic Society had been planning a funding bid to carry out urgent repairs - but failed after the lighthouse's owner could not be found."

Anonymous said...

Steve - you the jinx? (LOL)

Anonymous said...

A fascinating blog. I can't get the image of lighthouse-men eating candles out of my mind! Love the poem, especially the rhythm of the third verse.