uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

Alone on an abandoned island

I spent Sunday on Stroma, a small island just north of Gills Bay in Caithness. The island was doing quite nicely, population-wise, in the early 1900s, but as the years passed residents began to leave due to its lack of opportunity, increasing economic problems and it’s isolation from the rest of Caithness. The final native residents left in 1962, leaving only the lighthouse keepers until the lighthouse was automated in 1997. The island is now owned by the Simpson family who graze sheep and cattle there. They also, very kindly, will take groups of people across to the island for a day to have an explore. We have a trip booked for the end of August, but an opportunity came up for Sunday, so Bob and I decided one of us would go on this trip and the other could go later. I drew the “long straw” and got Sunday, so off I went this morning to catch the boat.

Just one of the derelict houses

Just one of the derelict houses

We left Gills Bay and a short time later, arrived at the harbour. I was quite impressed by the piers they had there. Not something you’d expect to see on a island with no inhabitants! My first priority was to reach the lighthouse on the north point of the island, which I’d previously only seen from the ferry to Orkney. I set off on the path leading straight up. Almost immediately the derelict houses appeared, all in varying states – some with their roof and windows semi intact and others with no roof, windows and barely any walls at all. As I walked along I heard a gentle hum from behind which grew louder and louder. I turned and saw a man approaching on a quad bike. I stepped aside to let him pass and he joked ‘Cannae move fae the traffic!’ and continued merrily on up to one of the only houses that still looks intact. This house sits just next to the old manse which has a bit of a run down telephone box in front of it – a reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that the island was populated. A little further on is a memorial for those from Stroma who lost their lives in First and Second World War. I then followed a couple of sheep who led me (ran away from me) almost all the way to the lighthouse.

Swilkie Point lighthouse and the foghorn buildings

Swilkie Point lighthouse and the foghorn buildings

The lighthouse is a typical Stevenson creation – a bit of a beauty. There is now a helipad next to the compound for the Northern Lighthouse Board to get easy and quick access to the lighthouse. They built a pier a short distance away on the east coast of the island for bringing in supplies when it was manned and it’s possible to see a building near this pier that has a very Northern Lighthouse Board-look about it (white building with yellow/beige-colour decorative stonework). Between the lighthouse compound and the coastline there are two stone structures. I was aware that there was previously a foghorn there, a fact which was confirmed by the presence of a warning sign saying ‘Noise’ near the lighthouse. These two structures are both different shapes and I’m not entirely sure whether they were both foghorn related or if one of them served another purpose. I was able to walk into both of them, although there’s not a great deal to see. At this section of coastline there are large, flat platforms of rock beyond which you can see a great deal of movement in the sea where different tides meet and clash. It’s a great little spot.

The Gloup

The Gloup

From the lighthouse I took a quick look at a geo on the east coast before heading back inland. On the way I passed a ruined house with no roof. Inside the grass was growing and I spotted a baby gull in the corner shortly before it’s mother threatened to dive-bomb me! I found the main path again and decided to head to the west coast to take a look at the Subterranean Passage and The Gloup. Due to the sheer cliffs and the state of the coastline I didn’t see a great deal of the geo at the entrance to the Passage as I wanted to make sure I didn’t end up at the bottom! The Gloup is fantastic. It’s a huge hole in the ground that is linked to the coast by a tunnel that runs under the ground out to the Passage entrance. A stunning thing to see, especially the vertical, flat cliff above the tunnel entrance.

The wrecked Golden Promise

The wrecked Golden Promise

From The Gloup I went to head back to the path, but then realised that I wasn’t far at all from “Loch Lomond”, which was created by the island’s residents in order for them to sail model boats. There were a few little birds running about near the water. It wasn’t long after this, while attempting to head back to the manse, that I spotted a couple of great skuas. Having been to a few obscure islands in the last couple of years, I was aware that these aren’t the type of bird that you’d want to take home! Instead of reaching the manse, I hugged the coast to avoid being attacked by one of the beasts. On another section of flat rock, I spotted a wrecked ship, the Golden Promise, which I have since found out was wrecked in September 2011 after its skipper fell asleep. Everyone had been rescued, but the boat is rusting away there now.

The boat arriving to collect us

The boat arriving to collect us

I finally reached the path again and quickly wandered along to the highest point of the island, making sure that there were no skuas about. I then walked along a stretch of the south coast of the island before watching seals in the sea from a nice little beach near the harbour. As I wandered around the south of the island I could see the movement of the tide as the stretch of sand between the south west point of the island and the interesting beacon just off of the coast appeared and then disappeared again.

I had a great day on Stroma, although I realised how much I’m now used to going to this type of place with Bob and not alone. The place has a lonely feel about it when you’re on you own. Although there were about 13 others on the trip, for the majority of the time we were there, I couldn’t see any of them. This may have been because they wanted to get pictures of puffins and I had other priorities. One thing that I felt particularly moved by while there were the measures people had taken to weather-proof their houses while they were occupied, such as walls around their gardens and doors on the sides of porches to protect them from the wind. It must have been a very sad day for each of the families when they left, knowing that these measures would no longer matter and the houses would be at the mercy of the weather from that day.

What I found most interesting about the visit, though, was the transition from the sadness I felt about this place in seeing all of the abandoned houses to the realisation that, while there are no humans left, there is a great deal of life still there. There are birds or sheep everywhere you look and, while they may not always be there, during this visit there was no shortage of animal life. It’s a great place and I hope to be able to visit again in the future to see the bits I missed this time 🙂

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Back to Devon and Somerset

Towards the end of June we flew south to Bristol for a friend’s wedding. With some time to spare before heading for Oxfordshire, we decided to do a little tidying up in Devon and Somerset. When we had previously been in the area doing some lighthouse bagging back in June 2013 we thought we’d got them all. However, we have since reviewed the Ordnance Survey mapping in various scales and found that three in this area were marked as beacons on the 1:50k scale, but as lighthouses on the 1:250k scale. So we contacted Ordnance Survey directly to ask for clarification on the categorisation of these three potential lighthouses. They responded to say that they were lighthouses and that there was an error on the mapping, which would be resolved in the next update.

Crow Point lighthouse

Crow Point lighthouse

So, after arriving in Bristol we headed west for North Devon and the Barnstaple area. Just before reaching Braunton we turned off and paid £1.50 to use the toll road along to Crow Point. The area is sometimes used as a military training area, but there was nothing going on when we arrived. We parked up and then began the stroll along to a sand bank, knowing only that the lighthouse should be someone on the bank. It was only when we got to the top of the sand bank that we were able to see what we were looking for. It wasn’t the most inspiring of lighthouses. Kind of like the English version of the Scottish “flat-packer”, as we call them. The only thing I can really say in favour of it (aside from its use for navigation) is that there is a great view back towards the mainland if you walk around the west of the sand bank. The sea was lapping just below us on the other side of a row of rocks. We were also there as the sun was going down, which always makes for a nice atmosphere.

Battery Point lighthouse

Battery Point lighthouse

The following day we set off early from our hotel in Portishead to bag a couple more lighthouses before we drove to the wedding. Fortunately these two were not far from each other, both in Portishead itself. Our first stop was Battery Point, just a short distance from the centre of the town. This lighthouse is unlike any I’ve seen before. It’s not one of the “wow” structures and does have similarities to Crow Point, but it has its own uniqueness (as you can see from the picture). There is a small bridge leading across to it, which you can wander across and you can also stroll around on the rocks near the base. We did both, of course. The location is fantastic, a really relaxing sort of place. Nearby there is a memorial stone erected by the Merchant Navy Association North Somerset Branch in 2005 in honour of those from the West Country who sail past the point, some of whom have not returned. Some flowers and messages are placed at the bottom of the stone.

Black Nore lighthouse

Black Nore lighthouse

We then drove a short distance across to the west side of Portishead to the West Hills area. We spotted some National Trust signs that looked like they marked paths leading in the right direction for reaching Black Nore lighthouse. I was delighted to see that one of the houses along the road we parked on had a beacon in their front garden (although I’m not really that into beacons) and a beautiful turret-like tower with big windows looking out towards the sea. The walk along to the lighthouse was really interesting. There haven’t been many times that I’ve walked through what seemed like a forest in order to reach a lighthouse. The path runs alongside the coast and you get some nice views between the sections of trees. We reached the lighthouse and, again, it’s not necessarily got the wow-factor like some others, but it is stunning in its location. A really lovely tower and even more delightful that we got to find out a bit more about it. As we were thinking of heading back to the car, we started chatting to a man who was sitting on a nearby bench with his dogs. He informed us that M.V. Balmoral was on its way across from Bristol and we should be able to see it in another 10-15 minutes. He informed us that the Balmoral was built in 1949 and was brought back this year for day excursions after being kept in Bristol Docks in recent years. We decided to hang around to see it. While we were waiting, the man told us a bit more information about the lighthouse. When the light was decommissioned the lens and mercury on which is floated were taken away. The local community successfully campaigned for the lens to be restored and set up the Black Nore Lighthouse Trust in order to maintain the structure, which is the only remaining Victorian iron lighthouse on mainland Britain. The light, which was originally gas-powered and then oil and then electric, is now turned on for special occasions – and they obviously need to send out notification that they are going to do so, in order not to confuse those at sea. He said that a website had been set up about the Trust, but it looks like the domain name may have expired. Hopefully they’ll get it back up and running soon. As we ended our conversation, Balmoral appeared from the east and we watched as it sailed on past – at quite a speed considering its age!

That was it on the lighthouse-bagging front for that weekend. Hopefully there will be more to come over the summer with the potential for some new Welsh island lighthouse bags, all being well! 🙂

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