Climb to the top of it, get married in it or just admire it from a distance!
Smeaton’s Tower is Plymouth’s most iconic landmark. Not only does it dominate Plymouth Hoe with its striking barber shop livery but you’ll also come across it almost everywhere you go in the city. The much-loved lighthouse jumps out at you from postcards, paintings, posters and local company logos.
It’s a Grade I listed building which is open to visitors – but can only be truly appreciated by those agile and fit enough to clamber up the 93 steps.
If you suffer from vertigo, get out of breath easily or are overly large then the effort involved in reaching the top is not recommended! It’s fairly tough going, especially as you near the lantern room which involves shinning up a couple of steep ladders through narrow openings.
But the rewards for those who reach the top are well worth the effort. On a clear day the panoramic views are simply stunning. The outdoor platform encasing the tower gives you a 360 degree view of Plymouth Sound, the rolling hills of the South Hams to the east, the Cornish countryside to the west and right across the city to Dartmoor. It’ll take your breath away – but if you don’t like heights then enjoy the view from inside the lantern room.
Look out across The Sound and if the visibility’s good you may just be able to spot the base of the tower which still sits alongside the current Eddystone Lighthouse on the treacherous reef which has claimed many seafarers’ lives over the centuries.
The first lighthouse to be built on the notorious Eddystone rocks survived just five years before being swept away in a raging storm in 1703. The second was destroyed by fire in 1755. It’s thought that one or more of the 24 candles used to illuminate the lantern house set the roof on fire and, despite the best efforts of three lighthouse keepers, the oak timbered tower met its demise after burning for five days.
A lighthouse inspired by an oak tree
One of the keepers who hurled buckets of sea water skywards in a vain attempt to quell the flames was 94-year-old Henry Hall – the oldest member of a family renowned for maintaining lighthouses all around the English and Welsh coastline. While fighting the fire Henry swallowed a lump of molten lead which fell from the lantern roof and seared the poor man’s throat and stomach. He died of lead poisoning 12 days later and the piece of lead is now one of the more curious artefacts held by the National Museum of Scotland.
It fell to John Smeaton – regarded by many as the “father of civil engineering” – to design a new lighthouse capable of surviving the curse of the deadly reef. He used an oak tree as his inspiration for the new Smeaton’s Tower and set about creating a masterpiece that would become a model for all lighthouses subsequently built on rocks. The new tower, he reasoned, would need to be tall and sturdy with the ability to bend and sway – but not break – when battered by the full force of the ocean and the most violent of gales.
The tower was constructed at Millbay in Plymouth where a jetty was built to allow 1,000 tons of granite and stone to be shipped in. Over the course of the next three years 1,493 blocks of stone were painstakingly joined together in dove-tail fashion and shipped out to the Eddystone reef. For a fascinating insight into exactly how this extraordinary feat of engineering was achieved, you need look no further than the pavement outside Sippers pub alongside Millbay Docks. As part of the rather wonderful Plymouth Waterfront Walkway, you can see an example of Smeaton’s revolutionary inter-locking stonework – routinely trampled upon by preoccupied pedestrians who rarely afford a downward glance at this riveting piece of Plymouth’s history. Nearby you can see a lead nugget, inscribed in memory of hapless Henry Hall.
Warning: avoid wearing stilettos and tiaras!
Smeaton’s Tower was a resounding success, especially when compared with its predecessors, alerting shipping to the perils of the reef until 1877. Even then, the tower itself remained as strong as an ancient oak but the erosion of the rocks beneath led to the decision to dismantle the lighthouse and rebuild it on Plymouth Hoe as a tribute to the great man Smeaton.
These days the tower is a popular tourist attraction and the focal point for major celebrations on The Hoe. It’s open most days of the year – for opening times and admission fees visit Plymouth City Council’s web site
You reach the top via an extremely narrow stone circular staircase which leads to a series of open wooden ladders. En route you begin to get a real feel for what life must have been like as an 18th century lighthouse keeper as you pass the wooden box-like beds, which look more like mini wardrobes, and the lighthouse kitchen. History panels along the way tell the full Eddystone tale (and give you a good excuse to pause and catch your breath before embarking on the next ladder!).
The lantern room is a real joy to behold with its original candelabra (the 24 candles are still lit on special occasions). If you get an attack of giddiness, don’t be tempted to reach for the two giant metal rings as they’re suspended by ropes so you’ll find yourself lurching perilously over the barrier into the stairwell. Brace yourself for a strong wind outside on the balcony, and don’t expect to last long in the lantern room on a sunny day as it heats up like a sauna.
Smeaton’s Tower is one of the Plymouth’s most unusual wedding venues – great for photo opportunities and perfect if you’re racking your brains for ways to keep the guest list to the absolute minimum. Only the happy couple and two witnesses can be accommodated in the lantern room with four guests in the larger room below.
You’ve got to chuckle at the council’s health and safety advice to those wanting to start married life with their heads in the clouds:
'Avoid stiletto heels. Tight or very wide skirts, layers of petticoats and long skirts, dangling sleeves, trains and tiaras can make climbing the ladders difficult whilst top hats and thick woollen suits can be very uncomfortable.'
For more handy hints on how to get hitched at the top of one of the nation’s most famous lighthouses, talk to the City Council
Take a look at our 'Where there's Moor to Sea" video to see what Plymouth looks like from the top of Smeaton's Tower.