Visiting the Mousehole Harbour Lights is a festive tradition for many across Cornwall. The tough decision to cancel the 2020 Mousehole Harbour Lights was made back in May, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Although we aren’t able to visit the light display this year, we can reminisce about previous years, learn about the history of the lights, and ultimately, look forward to its’ return in 2021!
The Mousehole Harbour Lights were started in 1963 by an artist in Mousehole called Joan Gilchrest. It started with just a set of string lanterns running through the small fishing village. The string of coloured lanterns were put along both quays to brighten up the village at Christmas. It is a community event that brings together the people of the village, to be enjoyed by all.
The display quickly grew in popularity, with two local carpenters creating and donating items to feature in the displays. The sea serpent was one of the first designs created by the carpenters. An adapted version of this piece still features in the displays in present day.
From setting up, to dismantling, to restoring after Christmas, the preparation for the Mousehole Harbour Lights is a year-long process. The setting up of the lights starts very early, in September. Dismantling goes all the way through to mid- February!
On 19th December 1981, the lifeboat Solomon Browne, which was based at the Penlee Lifeboat Station near Mousehole. The Penlee Lifeboat disaster occurred on 19th December 1981, just off the coast of Cornwall. The eight men that formed the lifeboat crew, who were all from Mousehole, lost their lives after an attempt to rescue the crew and passengers of the Union Star. The Union Star came into trouble during a fierce storm, with rough seas and powerful winds pushing the vessel towards the Cornish coastline. Sadly, the crew and passengers of both vessels lost their lives. The Mousehole Harbour Lights are temporarily switched off on the evening of 19th December every year, in memory of the eight lifeboat crewmen that lost their lives on the evening of the Penlee Lifeboat disaster in 1981.
The sea can be a cruel mistress, and over the years, many of the set pieces need to be mended, or sometimes completely replaced, as they can be damaged or lost during storms. In 1989, there was a major storm the night before the annual switch on. There were a number of pieces damaged by the storm and some were washed into the harbour. With the hard work of the community, most of the damaged pieces were fixed in time for the switch on.
Many of the pieces’ bulbs have now been replaced with LED lights. There are over 40 set pieces that now feature in the Mousehole Harbour Lights display. The largest piece is the “Merry Christmas / Happy New Year” set, which is approximately 50 metres high and 6 metres long. The sign transitions from Merry Christmas to Happy New Year and can be seen at the top of the village. It features nearly 1000 bulbs!
The Celtic Cross, located on St Clement’s Island, is the most ambitious project undertaken to date. It was originally powered by a 110-volt subsea cable. It was then refurbished and converted to be powered by a wind generator. Sadly, the cross was lost at sea during a storm in February 2014. The cross has been replaced and is now solar powered.
An estimated 10,000 bulbs are used in the displays. The annual running costs are said to be around £20,000 each year, which is mostly met by donations from fundraising events and public donations. On average, around 30,000 people visit the Mousehole Harbour Lights every year.
For only the second time in the history of the Mousehole Harbour Lights, the decision was made to cancel the displays for 2020, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This decision was made for the safety of the residents of Mousehole and for the many visitors, whom would not be able so safely distance themselves from one another in the quaint village. In the organisation’s press release, they state that they “look forward to the 2021 Lights, in which they hope to be able to include a few new displays. They hope to give thanks to the NHS and all essential workers who have carried the country through the pandemic”.