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A tour of the fortifications of Tenerife (Part VII) 

El Semaforo de Igueste


If you sit in the Plaza de Espana in Santa Cruz facing north, and look along the coast to the rugged outline of the Anaga hills against the sky, although the view might be a bit hazy you’ll make out a small shelf of land sticking out of the cliff face going down to the sea, and on that shelf you might also see with the naked eye, but better with binoculars, something white. That some-thing white is El Semaforo de Igueste, or the Semaphore of Igueste.

El Semaforo, otherwise known as ‘The Traffic Light’, was built by the British firm of Bruce Hamilton & Co., representative of Lloyds of London, and entered service on 20th November 1886. The Spanish government took over responsibility for the station in December 1895 until its closure in 1971; then abandonment followed in 1979.

The purpose of El Semaforo was to signal to the port authority of Santa Cruz the activity of ships in the vicinity. By a system of flags displayed from a 16m tall mast, the authorities could be informed as to a ship’s nationality and whether it was a frigate, a brigantine, a schooner, a man of war, or a mail-boat. The direction of travel was relayed and whether the ship was in need of help, if it was on fire, and so on. At night there was a system of lights. In addition to reporting shipping move-ments, the signallers made weather observations, noted the condition of the sea and kept an eye on smugglers from Africa. The flag signalling system was superseded by Morse code, powered by eighteen electric batteries, which then made way for the telephone in the 1950’s.

The hexagonal observation room with its panoramic all-round views was manned in shifts by three signallers who lived on the station with their families, each with their own comfortable, quite stylish, accommodation consisting of a kitchen, a bathroom and four other rooms. Daily life for the families must have been quite a chore, it’s a long walk down to the village of Igueste for shops and the school, and of course a much harder walk coming back up. Water must also have been a problem. There are two room-sized underground cisterns, but how often would sufficient rain fall to keep them filled?

I visited El Semaforo in February this year, catching the 945 guagua from Santa Cruz for a nail-biting, buttock-clenching ride, as many cliff-side bus journeys are in the north east and north-west of Tenerife for us novices. On arrival in Igueste, the twisting pavement through the village leads to the track to the cemetery and from this track the path to the Semaforo branches off uphill. It’s quite a gruelling walk for about an hour on an average gradient of about 15o, with many stops for a breather and to admire the magnificent views, followed by a short dip down again, before El Semaforo is reached.

Architecturally the building is a surprising structure given its location. The formal symmetry and the typical civic, urban style are completely out of context with the landscape. And then, when we consider the effort expended, we realise that it must have been a positively Herculean task in its construction. Everything, even water to mix cement and plaster, would have to be transported up that steep narrow path by donkey or horse.

On my visit, after I had taken in the scenery and explored all around, I made a measured survey of the building and took some notes of its condition which, I’m sorry to say, is dilapidated and even dangerous in places. El Semaforo became a protected structure in 1985, but this status does not cover maintenance. The building is completely open, there are no doors or windows, anything wooden went long ago. Proof of rapid decay is in a video posted on ‘you tube’ in January 2012 that showed the roof intact. Between then and February this year the roof collapsed over one of the kitchens. Earlier still, photos posted on the internet in May 2011 show hardly any debris on the floor. Now, two years later, much of the floor is strewn with small pieces concrete from the roof.

The cause is immediately obvious. Many iron reinforcement bars in the concrete roof deck have corroded and expanded, forcing the concrete beneath to crack and break away. The bars have failed completely in places and serve no structural function. In these areas it is only the integral strength of the concrete that is holding up the roof. In the observation room of El Semaforo there are vertical cracks in the masonry columns between the windows. The cause of this might again be corroded reinforcement bars or iron stanchions but it’s not certain.

Occasionally the plight of the Semaphore is raised in the island newspapers and the residents themselves of Igueste are concerned about its future. Certainly the deteriorating condition of El Semaforo needs to be monitored. A simple way to do it would be to sweep the floor clean of all debris and inspect the building periodically. Then any concrete that has fallen will be immediately apparent. But a structural engineer’s report of El Semaforo is vital because it is a potential danger to the public.

It would be a tragedy to lose this lovely building in its stunning but remote and inaccessible location, but practical and economic realities have to be considered before sentiment. If it were to be repaired, what would be the cost, who would pay for its continual maintenance, and then what could El Semaforo be used for? Ideas have been put forward for a hostel for hikers, or a hotel, or restaurant, which would be fine if helicopter transport could be laid on, so realistically let’s have it as a haven for hikers.