An introduction to Pencarrow Lighthouse
Talk about a lovely, lonely landmark. The 1859 lighthouse on Wellington Harbour’s windblasted Pencarrow Head radiates romantic isolation as vividly as the beam it once cast, which on clear nights used to reach as far as Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay. Decommissioned in 1935, when it was replaced by a diesel-powered lighthouse further east at Baring Head, it stands on a clifftop, a historic sentinel with no job left to do now but look captivatingly cinematic. If landmarks could speak, you suspect this one would have some terrific stories to tell.
Getting out there to see it is half the fun. From downtown Wellington, you can drive, catch a bus or take the Days Bay ferry and make your way to Eastbourne, where the road ends. Your options thereafter are to walk – about four hours return – or hire a bike (we recommend the e-bike option for beginners) from Wildfinder in Eastbourne. The coastal track is wide, flat and gravelled. To get up the hill to the lighthouse you can take a narrow walking track, or continue around the coast to the gate and take a four wheel drive track.
Photo: Grant Sheehan
When you reach the top of the headland you’ll find a 12-metre high, cast-iron octagonal tower, and sweeping views west across the harbour and south over Cook Strait to the mainland. Let your imagination recreate that seascape at night-time, then insert into the picture a gale-buffeted windjammer attempting to find the harbour mouth with no light to guide her home. This was the situation prior to 1852, the year that Governor George Grey belatedly responded to a sequence of fatal shipwrecks and local pressure for action by agreeing to pay for a permanent lighthouse. Initially, however, the best that could be offered was a temporary keeper’s cottage with a light placed in the front window. The keeper was George Bennett, and he shared the ‘miserable shed’ with his children and wife Mary.
After many vexing delays, the lighthouse finally arrived in Wellington in June 1858 on the Ambrosine, 480 kitset pieces manufactured by the Woodside Iron Works in England. Reshipped to Pencarrow and hauled up the hillside, the 61 tonnes of parts were reassembled under the expert eye of engineer Edward Wright, and lit for the very first time at nightfall on New Year’s Day 1859. Unfortunately, it came too late for George Bennett, who’d drowned four years earlier below the cliffs. Instead, it was his widow, Mary, who took on the job as Aotearoa New Zealand’s first – and only – female lighthouse keeper.
The wreck of the SS Devon below Pencarrow Lighthouse, 1913. Photo: Wellington City Libraries (https://bit.ly/3TvYcyE)
Mary kept the ships safe, raised five children and managed the ego of her male assistant William Lyall until 1865, when she returned to England. Ancillary buildings were later added to the site, including a school for subsequent keepers’ children, and in 1906 a second lighthouse was erected below the cliffs for use when fog or cloud obscured the main light. Following its decommissioning, the lighthouse remained a distinctive landmark, but by the 1970s significant work was needed to deal with the impact of weather and time.
You can’t visit the inside, but you’ll certainly appreciate the atmospheric setting and handsome exterior. Having soaked it up and taken your pictures, continue on to the Parangarahu Lakes. The Lakes area is co-managed by Taranaki Whānui and Greater Wellington Regional Council and includes Lakes Kohangapiripiri and Kohangatera and their surrounds, which are home to a colony of black shags among other dune and wetland birds. These lakes were very significant eel fisheries through to the 19th Century, and remain some of the Wellington region’s most biologically diverse wetlands. If you’re feeling especially energetic head on to Baring Head for views of Cook Strait, WWII bunkers, giant boulders, and perhaps a dip in the Wainuiomata River.