A blast from the past

John and Janet Evans paid £495,000 to live in a former foghorn station on the cliffs between Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay. A sound move? Mainly yes, as John Woodcock heard.

I'm a pharmacist, and we were living on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, Janet's home town, where we had had a chemist's shop for nearly eight years. It was in a challenging area, shall we say, and quite stressful.

After selling the business, I became a locum. One lunchtime last year, while working in Whitby, I looked in an estate agent's window. The photograph was enough. The property was right on the clifftop and with a fabulous seascape. That pretty much clinched it there and then for me. I couldn't wait to tell Janet and go and view the place.

It was at High Hawsker and was called Hornblower Lodge, but the name doesn't really do it justice. It became much more interesting when we looked into its history. From the private approach road we looked down from Ling Hill on Whitby's former foghorn station, which began operating on January 4, 1902. It was decommissioned by Trinity House in 1988, eventually sold and converted into a residential smallholding set in an acre.

Ever since I was a lad, and my dad's job with the Ministry of Agriculture took us to the North Wales coast, I've loved the sea, and wanted to live beside it again. This was the chance to fulfil a dream.

The asking price for Hornblower was 495,000, which was more than our intended offer, but there were inquiries from all the over the country and others were prepared to pay the full amount,

and so we had to. We bought it two weeks after it went on the market and moved in with our 11-year-old daughter, Megan, last October.

We've since learned that the previous owner had purchased it from Trinity House for 60,000 in 1992, so he made a quite a profit, but you can't really put a value on what it means to us to live here.

You could say it's a costly gamble, too. Because the property's value has soared, it's now in a more expensive council tax band. Also, we can't get our home insured against cliff erosion, and we have to hope that the surveys done by the British Geological Society on behalf of Trinity House a few years ago are accurate. As far as anyone can tell, Hornblower is secure for the foreseeable future. That's reassuring because there's only the Cleveland Way footpath and a few strides between our living room and a 200ft drop into the sea.

It's a single-storey stone building with a three-inch concrete "skin". The interior is a hotch-potch because our predecessor had all kinds of ideas which didn't always come off. Our fish now have the use of what was his swimming pool. But the glorious basics remain. The two redundant foghorns still share the flat roof with an array of chimney pots, and our next door neighbour is Whitby's automated lighthouse, the high lights as they're known, and which has been protecting shipping since 1858.

Trinity House in London have been very supportive and sent us lots of background information, including the original contract written in copperplate. In 1856, they bought two, one-acre plots here for the grand sum of 356. Originally, there was a lighthouse on both, but then the larger one on our site was knocked down and replaced by a foghorn station. Officially it was called the Whitby Fog Signal and Dwelling, and unofficially the "Hawsker Bull". They gave us copies of the original plans, and drawings for its update in 1955, detailing all the technical equipment needed for the horns to do their job. It was an elaborate process.

In a nutshell, the power supply involved two horizontal 25 horsepower oil engines, working at 210 revolutions per minute. They compressed the quantity of air needed to activate the horns, each 20ft long and eight feet high, and make their volume effective. The operation also required large water tanks, switch, oil and battery rooms, and in the engine room an array of valves, cocks, pressure dials and what have you.

One of the horns faces north, and the other south-east by east. Both gave the same note, to a pattern invented by Lord Raleigh. Apparently the sound travelled at such a low velocity that just as people in Whitby, two miles away, were hearing the first blast of the horn, on the site itself it was beginning its third. A bit further afield, villagers in Newholm heard the first blast when the siren had completed its fourth. It must have been a heck of a din right next to the horns. During some renovation work we uncovered a relatively recent sign warning the operating staff to use ear protectors.

helped enemy vessels, and spies operating on the coast, to get their bearings and they had to be switched off.

Years before, there'd been a campaign against the foghorn's installation because of fears it would harm public health. A chap wrote to the Whitby Times saying that mariners would hear it better, and there would be less disturbance to those on land, if it was placed beneath the cliff edge. The editor replied: "The Trinity brethren have dumped the thing down at Hawsker and have no intention of shifting it. Let the annoyance be what it may."

Times changed and affection grew. When the foghorns sounded for the last time, nearly 90 years later, people were paying tribute to them. They'd become a feature of local life and a measure of how dense the fog, or "fret", was. You would have heard them this morning all right. It's been a pea-souper out there.

The main part of our house was occupied by the boss of the station, and his deputy lived in adjoining accommodation in what is now a holiday cottage for two, and which we've modernised. Apart from the horns themselves, which you can see through from inside a little observation dome reached by a spiral staircase, there's not much left to indicate our home's former role – a Trinity House plaque on the outer wall, some odds and ends, and that's about it. The history is fascinating, but Janet is more concerned about Hornblower's immediate future. Absolutely. There's a lot of work to do to make it the home I want. Let's just say we don't share the tastes of the previous owner.

But as a setting, it couldn't be finer. Even unique, wouldn't you say? We're in a national park, and have a magnificent sea view that's forever changing. Some mornings we wake up to a spectacular sunrise, and at night we have a lighthouse for company. In the midst of a task I can look up and in a moment forget what I was doing because the scene is so captivating.

So much is going on. There are seabirds nesting just below us, and because of the horns on the roof, our home is something of an attraction for the walkers passing by. It's a fantastic place to be, and as a bonus I can take a beautiful coastal path to do the shopping. Whitby one way, Robin Hood's Bay the other. What choice. My one regret is that some of the plants I brought from our previous home haven't survived. Some were wind-scorched, and others were shocked to death by the climate.

We have gales, rain, mist, serenity – it can be harsh and beautiful all within a few hours. Truly, here we can say that each day is different from the last.

For details about accommodation at Hornblower Lodge, call 01947 606247.