Hook to Hercules

Last week, after dropping my parents back to Santander airport at the end of their visit over to stay with us in the campervan, we drove four hours west where we visited the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña which is the oldest lighthouse in the world located on the north west coast of Spain. This lighthouse has been on the top of our bucket list since we met ten years ago as it’s one of the greatest lighthouses in the world and it must be known by now that we are quite into lighthouses.

First glimpse of the Tower of Hercules driving through A Coruña
Hook Lighthouse stands 36 metres tall

We come from the Hook Peninsula in Irelands south east where Hook Lighthouse stands on the tip of the headland for the last 800 years. Hook lighthouse is the oldest intact lighthouse in the world that is still functioning today. It became fully automated in 1996 and in 1999/2000, the lighthouse keepers houses next to it were turned into a visitor center and the lighthouse tower was opened to the public. I began working there part time from 2001 between college and travelling and then full time in 2008 which is the year Liam started. He had been travelling at the same time as me, on a different adventure and when we both met at the Hook we hit it off straight away. We had so much to talk about and we hooked up. The following year we bought our first campervan and travelled all over Ireland, Wales and England and so began our adventures together.

The Celtic legendary figure Breogán

No adventure is complete for us without visiting the local lighthouses, we love them, who doesn’t and everywhere we go, we seek one out. We arrived at the Tower of Hercules in disbelief that we were really there, it was a bit smaller in real life and right slap bang at the edge of the city of A Coruña in Galicia. We’ve read and researched so much about this place and as sad as it may sound, we were a little starstruck by it. We parked up the campervan and eagerly skipped into the reception wearing our Hook lighthouse hoodies to buy our tickets. Four receptionists met us and we enthusiastically introduced ourselves, we proudly told them where we were from and felt a little annoyed that they really didn’t give a shit. They didn’t care where we were from, handed us our tickets and told us the balcony was closed due to wind that day. In our experience from working at the Hook, staff there always make time for people who arrive with lighthouse connections and if I was to greet staff from A Coruña lighthouse I would be so excited to welcome them and show them around the Hook. We arrived to the entrance to the lighthouse which was through a little shelter built around the foundations of the roman lighthouse and we walked through to the tower.

The Roman foundation located outside and around the lighthouse

There has been a tower here since the Romans built the original tower between the 1st and 2nd Century. Julius Caesar landed at what is now A Coruña in 61BC and the lighthouse was later built by the architect Caio Sevio Lupo, born in Aeminium and his well preserved Roman inscription can be seen in the shelter next to the tower. The original tower, was a lot shorter and wider than the current structure. The structure you see today was built in 1788 when the remains of the Roman parts were preserved and coated with its present facade. Later on they added the top finish and the lantern room.

242 steps to the top of the Tower of Hercules

The light at Hercules went out sometime in the 6th Century and for hundreds of years it was used as a fortress or a lookout point until it became abandoned from the 13th to the 16th Centuries when it was used as a quarry and was a source of stone for new buildings in the city. The city council tried to protect the tower but many parts of the lighthouse disappeared during that period. In the late 18th century, A Coruña became one of the most important ports in northern Spain and the city finally invested in restoring the tower.

A view of the city of A Coruña from a window at the Tower of Hercules

On January 4, 1788, King Carlos III officially authorized the restoration of the Tower of Hercules and the engineers Eustaquio Giannini and José Cornide designed the project so the works could begin. The project was as respectful as possible to not alter the existing remains and it must have been a massively innovative project at that time. The Tower of Hercules is still a working lighthouse, which sends light out every night. Every lighthouse has its own unique characteristic flash and the light at A Coruña flashes white, 4 times every 20seconds. It’s a national monument in Spain and in 2009 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and opened its doors to the public.

Looking up in one of the roman chambers
The city crest of A Coruña

A depiction of what A Coruña lighthouse would have looked in the 16th Century

As you can see from the outside of the tower, there is a sloping line going all the way around and up the tower. This line follows the pattern from the original tower which is where there would have been a ramp instead of steps enclosed between its interior and exterior walls which was used to bring fuel up to the light at the top. These lines now don’t serve any purpose but it is an interesting visual representation of what the tower would have looked and how it was accessed. To access the top of the tower now that there’s no longer the roman ramp, there was stone steps built inside the tower through the original roman stone chambers. These are typically roman barrell vaulted square chambers of which there are four on each floor and there are three floors. We really enjoyed exploring the tower but we were so disapointed that we couldn’t access the balcony at the top. We chatted to staff inside the tower and explained that Liam was a lighthouse caretaker in Ireland to see if they would allow him have a quick look but no such luck, worth a cheeky try though.

Overlooking Galicia from the Tower of Hercules

View from the top of the Hercules lighthouse

There are quite a few myths and legends associated with the tower. Right in front of the tower is a huge statue of a Celtic looking warrior and we discovered that his name is Breogán, a Celtic leader who built a tower at A Coruña, not this one though, that was Hercules obviously, lol. His tale came from the “invasions book” written by Irish monks in the 12th Century and let’s face it, these lads have been known to twist the odd tale or two. It’s the legend of Breogán who founded the city of Brigantia (now A Coruña) and when Breogan died he was succeeded by his son Íth. One day Íth climbed to the top of the tower, saw a mysterious green looking island on the horizon, Ireland of course, and he set off to conquer it. He must have had amazing eyesight! So, Íth set off for Ireland, where he met the country’s three kings of the Tuatha De Danann who had him killed. His followers brought his body back to Spain and his brother Mil returned with a large army to defeat the Tuatha de Dannan and establish themselves as the rulers of Ireland. I certainly don’t remember reading about that in the history books.

Chilling at the top of the Tower of Hercules, taking it all in

The Hercules legend is even better, afterall, it is the Tower of Hercules. The author of this legend was King Alfonso X (1252-1284) who linked the figure of Hercules to Spain and more specifically to the city of A Coruña. Once upon a time, there was a fearsome giant named Gerión (he was grandson of Medusa and nephew of Pegasus), who was King of all the lands and he was mean and kept the whole population under threat. Hercules went in to sort him out and after three days of fierce fighting Hercules defeated Gerión. He buried his head and ordered that a tower be built on top of it. In the city’s coat of arms, you can see the skull and crossbones representing the head of the fearsome giant that Hercules buried under the tower.

We’ve seen windier days

It was pretty windy

So that was A Coruña, I haven’t mentioned the Hook yet but it’s a place we are very proud of. It’s where we’re from, it’s where Liam & I met, where we got married and started our family. There’s no other place like it, it’s just an amazing and beautiful place. Hook lighthouse flashes white every three seconds and shines through the windows of our house every night. Its history is fascinating. There has been a light on the tip of the peninsula since the 5th Century when a Welsh monk named Dubhán settled on the Hook peninsula and built a chapel there. He saw many ships being wrecked on the peninsula and he started lighting fires along the headland to guide boats and warn sailors of the low lying peninsula and so began the first light on the Hook 1,500 years ago. “Dubhán” is an Irish word meaning fishing hook and that’s how the peninsula became known as the Hook.

Fast forward 700 years to the greatest knight. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (1147-1219) who was a crusador, a knight, a jousting champion and the most powerful of all the Anglo-Norman lords who came to Ireland in the late 12th century. He survived life in the turbulent courts of Kings Henry II, Richard III and John to become Regent of the Realm, Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster and the richest man in the British Isles by his death in 1219. The Archbishop of Canterbury, declared him ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’.

Standing in one of the windows at Hook lighthouse
That time it snowed
Birds eye view of Hook peninsula, Waterford Estuary to the west and the Celtic sea to the east. You can see the meeting of the tides, known as ‘the tower race’

King Richard the Lionheart granted that 43 year old Marshall marry 17 year old Isobel de Clare, daughter of Richard de Clare of Striguil, 2nd Earl of Pembroke aka Strongbow and his wife Aoife MacMurragh. Strongbow was a direct descendant of Rollo, the Viking warrior who established Normandy in the early 10th century. Isabels mother Aoife was the daughter of Diarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed King of Leinster. Strongbow died in 1176 aged about 45 when Isobel was only four years old and she became a ward of the Kings court and heiress of a massive estate that covered much of Leinster and Wales. Isobel was then brought up in England and Wales in the aristocratic Norman tradition and she apparently spoke Irish as well as French and Latin. There is a record of her being locked up in Chepstow Castle where she was protected by three watchmen, 25 men-at-arms and 10 archers. She must have been a very powerful woman.

Looking up into the fresnel lens at Hook Lighthouse

Isabel & William were like a medieval power couple and Isabel was very active in governing their lands. The Marshals founded Cistercian abbeys all around the same time as the lighthouse was being built including one at Tintern on the Hook peninsula as a thank you gift to God for granting safe passage across the Irish Sea during a very bad storm. They also built castles at Ferns, Carlow and Enniscorthy all in Irelands south east, while extending their castles at Pembroke and Chepstow which we visited a few years ago in our first campervan.

That’s us 6 years ago

By 1200, having built up Kilkenny and its castle it became the capital of Norman Leinster and they built the town of New Ross as its principal port. To reach these towns by boat, you must sail by the Hook peninsula and up into Waterford estuary which is known as ‘the graveyard of a thousand ships’ and so the decision was made to build a lighthouse on the point. It is assumed that William Marshall had Hook lighthouse designed by the Knights Templars and built by Cistercian monks, the same order as Dubhán. It’s a huge cylindrical stone structure with walls up to 4 metres thick in places. It has three floors, each with stone vaulted ceilings and a mural staircase of 115 steps built inside the walls. The monks maintained and tended the light at the Hook for hundreds of years. Coal was imported from Wales and stored in the ground floor which is called the ‘coal store’ and it is still covered in black soot. The monks used the coal to keep fires lighting in a brazier on top of the tower 100 feet up so it could be seen at sea.

In the lantern room with Daddy

Over the towers history, the light changed from coal fires to whale oil lanterns to coal gas to paraffin lamps and its keepers changed from monks to lighthouse keepers but what hasn’t changed is its structure. Apart from the dome lantern room at the top, the tower is entirely intact in all its medieval glory and so it is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world and one of the top tourist attractions in Europe. My amazing mother, Ann, has been at the helm for over thirteen years as manager of the Hook and the attraction has gone from strength to strength under her management. On their trip over to visit us two weeks ago, Mam had to fly off a day early to pick up an award at the Savoy hotel in London where Hook Lighthouse was nominated for the award by the British Guild of Travel Writers and won, which puts Hook Lighthouse on the world stage and I am so proud of my mother, Liam and all my friends, the staff who work there for getting the recognition that they deserve. There’s no place like it and it really is the best lighthouse in the world.

There’s me Ma now

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Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

One thought on “Hook to Hercules

  1. Another very interesting read Niamh & lovely photos. Ohh to be 30 years younger.. And I agree with you, you can’t beat the friendly Irish. Looking forward to the next bit of your adventure 🙂

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