The view of Godrevy Lighthouse on its little off-shore island is one of Cornwall’s most iconic.
From wherever you see it, along the coast from St Ives to Gwithian and beyond, the image leaves an impression. It’s one of Cornwall’s most photographed landmarks, drawing artists, poets and writers to it from the time it was built.
The Cornish word ‘godrevy’ means settlement or small farm. The name probably refers to the remains of the prehistoric village in the nearby Godrevy Towans and the remains of a Bronze Age barrow (burial mound) on Godrevy Headland.
Godrevy lighthouse, built in 1858, marks The Stones reef and a stretch of coastline that has been a menace to shipping since man invented boats!
On the day Charles I was beheaded a vessel containing his wardrobe and other furnishings was driven by a sudden squall onto the Godrevy rocks. Fifty-eight persons were drowned, only a man, a boy and a dog reached the little island.
Nooks and Corners of Cornwall, C. A. Dawson Scott
The above quote refers to a wreck that occurred just off Godrevy Point on 30th January 1649. According to sources the ship was on its way France with the King’s wardrobe and personal possessions on board. It sank without a trace. Whether this story is true is unclear.
What is true however is that there were at least 22 wrecks recorded between 1751 and 1896 within a just couple of miles of Godrevy Head. And numerous other vessels that were lost before and after these dates.
In April 1815 the brig Neptune came to grief on The Stones. The West Briton reported that plunderers swarmed to Godrevy from the neighbouring villages and began carrying the wreck away ‘piecemeal’. According to the paper they even stole the captain’s watch and robbed the poor seaman, that they had just saved from the waves, of their clothes!
One of the crew who got onshore almost naked saw a number of the miscreants employed in carrying off some rope. He remonstrated with them on the atrocity of their conduct, when he was told that unless he immediately departed and refrained from molesting them in securing their lawful spoil, they would strangle him on the spot. – West Briton 21st April 1815
But the final straw came on 30th November 1854. The iron screw steamer Nile was wrecked with the loss of all passengers and crew.
The day after the disaster was discovered a master mariner from St Ives, Richard Short, wrote to the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette.
[H]ad there been a light on Godrevy Island, which the inhabitants of this town have often applied for, it would not doubt have been the means of warning the ill-fated ship of the dangerous rocks she was approaching. Many applications have been made from time to time concerning the erection of a light to warn mariners against this dangerous reef, but it has never been attended to, and to that account may be attributed the destruction of hundreds of lives and a mass of property … Scarcely a month passes by in the winter season without some vessel striking on these rocks, and hundreds of poor fellows have perished there in dark dreary nights without one being left to tell the tale.
Trinity House decided it was time to provide an aid to navigation and to mark the reef as a hazard. They erecting a lighthouse to the design of their consultant engineer James Walker. The first light was seen on 1st March 1859.
Godrevy’s monsters of the deep
Cornwall has its fair share of sea monsters, and Godrevy is no different. It was once believed that a huge octopus like creature lived close to Godrevy Point. The seabed at this part of the coastline shelves steeply. Old sailors were heard to tell of something lurked in those dark waters. They claimed that the sudden depth was in fact the giant octopus’ lair.
The monsters of the deep theme continued when Rev. Kilvert visited in 1870. He writes in his diary that he was told about a giant conger eel which was said to be attacking seals.
Once at Godrevy the Hawkins saw a fair fought battle between a seal and a large conger eel. The seal had got his teeth in the conger and the conger had coiled his folds around the seals neck and was trying to choke him. The seal kept on throwing up his head and trying to toss the conger out of the water that he might have more power than the eel. It was a fierce and dreadful fight but at last the seal did kill the conger. – 21st July 1870
Haven for Wildlife
Godrevy Point is well know locally as one of the best places in Cornwall to see grey seals up close. A small cove just opposite the lighthouse, known as Mutton Cove, has a large colony and visitors are able to look right down on to the goings-on from the cliffs above. Seals can be seen resting on the sand (and heard arguing too) and they are easy to spot bobbing about in the waves between the mainland and the lighthouse’s island. The seas in and around the lighthouse are alive with other sea life too such as dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks.
This area is also a great place for birdwatching, the National Trust describe it as a birding paradise. The naturalist John Ray wrote in 1622, long before the lighthouse was built, as “Godreve Island, which is nothing but a rock, upon which, in time of year, build great store of birds.” In recent years some of the species recorded here include skylarks, gannets, storm petrels, fulmars and even the odd peregrine.
A Literary Landmark
“For the great plateful of water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst . . .”
This famous line is taken from Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, which is universally agreed to have been inspired by Godrevy Lighthouse. Woolf spent childhood summer holidays at St Ives in a house which overlooked Gwithian Beach and the wide sweep of St Ives Bay. Her time in Cornwall is said to have made its way into much of her writing. The county is also said to make its way into Jacob’s Room and The Waves.
In the novel To the Lighthouse the lighthouse itself is said to represent the inaccessible as well as the illuminating. It is an infinitely interpretable symbol. All Woolf’s character, the young James Ramsey, desires is to reach it. But the lighthouse, like so many of our surest destinations in life, is unobtainable.
The lighthouse keepers were required to have all visitors to the island enter their names and residences into a log book. In 2011 Bonhams in London sold a visitors book from Godrevy for £10,250. It contained the young Virginia Woolf’s (then Virginia Stephen) signature.
These days the easiest way for you to get close to the lighthouse, unless you dare with your own boat, is on a tour from St Ives.
The Lighthouse & its keepers
The striking white octagonal tower is 26 metres high. It is made from rubble stone bedded in mortar and is situated in the centre of the rocky island. The keepers’ cottages were close by.
At one time Godrevy had a senior or principal keeper and two other keepers. Each had an allowance for victualling, a suit of clothes annually, and coal, oil and furniture. Two keepers were stationed on the island at all times. Serving two months on and one month off. Boats from St. Ives would bring them their supplies. The lighthouse became automatic in 1934 and after nearly a century the keepers were no longer needed.
Godrevy Lighthouse was converted to solar powered operation in 1995. Then in 2012 the light was moved from the tower to a new steel structure on an adjacent rock. The old lighthouse’s work was done.