Maritime tales - safe approaches

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When I, Stephen Guy, was a child we visited Bidston Hill with its windmill and glorious views. I was always intrigued by a series of neat holes bored into the solid rock. It was many years before I learnt the purpose of these strange holes. In the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s collections there is a painting which explains the mystery.

It shows the Bidston lighthouse in 1825 – and there next to it is a row of flagpoles, standing in the holes. Shipowners had their own flags which were hoisted when one of their ships was identified. This meant shipowners and others had notice that one of their ships was approaching port. Use of the flags was discontinued in 1826 following the introduction of the more sophisticated Hoylake to Liverpool telegraph.

Great ingenuity is used to guide ships safely to Liverpool – lighthouses, lightships, buoys and signals have all played their part during the long history of the dynamic port. Before the days of radio and modern communications, various methods were devised to announce the imminent arrival of a ship to dockmasters and owners.

Today the Mersey approaches are comprehensively marked according to the system agreed by the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities. This ensures that the meaning of every buoy and light is clear even to the master of a foreign vessel on his first visit.

photo of a modern ship model with two green buoys on the deck

Model of the Vigilant. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

Other items in the collections include a wooden buoy made by a cooper (barrel maker) and a model of the buoy tender Vigilant (1978) which is shown here. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company is responsible for the maintenance of buoys within the port limits. This ranges from the routine changing of gas bottles which power the buoy lights to bringing buoys ashore for repair and repainting. Fine detail on the Vigilant model shows a crane for lifting buoys in and out of the water. A buoy in the shape of a boat is used to mark a single hazard or point of interest.

A model depicts the buoy that was stationed at Spencers Spit off Hoylake. This had a bell with four clappers on each side so that the bell rang regardless in which direction the buoy rocked. The museum has a large model of the Mersey Bar lightship Alarm (1912) and the original lens from Hale lighthouse on the banks of the Mersey between Speke and Widnes.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.