uklighthousetour

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

Welsh offshore rock lights

on 18/05/2016

Last weekend we spent a day in South West Wales in the hope of bagging two very exciting lighthouses! A good friend of ours, Adrian, had organised a boat trip with Venture Jet out from St David’s and the forecast for the weekend was looking good. So, being the committed lighthouse-baggers that we are, we made the day-long trip each way from home to South Wales.

smalls and me

Smalls lighthouse and me – on the same piece of rock!

Due to the tide at the time, our first destination was to be a stunning piece of architecture that sits around 21 miles west of St David’s, Smalls lighthouse. On the journey out, the captain informed us that it may not be possible to land on the rock, so I wasn’t getting my hopes up. We were encouraged to sit on the tubes at each side of the boat and hold onto two handles (basically, clinging on for dear life!), which proved to make for a pretty bumpy ride. Very sensibly, everyone gradually realised that sitting in the centre of the boat was a much more pleasant experience.

As you would expect, we spotted the lighthouse from some way off and as we approached it was looking like a landing on the rock would be possible. In fact, it turned out to be a particularly dignified landing, just hopping off of the front of the boat onto some steps. The trouble came at the top where we encountered a wide area of flat rock covered in particularly slippery seal poo! Obviously that couldn’t dampen our spirits though for having got so close to such a majestic structure.

smalls old struts

The remains of two of the oak struts from the previous lighthouse at Smalls

The rock, in fact, turned out to be even more interesting as we discovered the remains of the bases on numerous oak struts, hidden within the rock. Having not done my research prior to our visit, I was informed while we were there by someone a little more forward thinking than me, that the tower that currently sits on the rock is actually the second lighthouse to have appeared on the rock. The previous being a timber lamp room and keeper’s house perched on top of these struts as well as some cast iron legs. This lighthouse was built in 1776, but didn’t last long until vital repairs were needed following storm damage. Between January and September 1778 the light was not in operation. After repairs had been made, it then guided mariners for over 80 years until it was replaced by the existing tower in 1861. There is more information about, and drawings of, the old lighthouse on the Trinity House blog and another blog from Heritage of Wales features a diagram showing the positions of all the old struts as well as an artist’s replica of the old lighthouse.

smalls from below

The door to the lighthouse with some damage below

The old lighthouse was the setting for the story of the two lighthouse keepers, one of whom died during their stay on the rock and the other, in the process of trying to deal with his colleague’s passing, was driven mad. It is said that this incident, which is believed to have occurred around 1800, was the reason behind the introduction of the rule that three keepers had always to be present at any one time.

Now, to the existing tower – and what a tower it is – all 141ft of it! It was originally based on the design of Eddystone lighthouse and originally featured red and white stripes, which were sandblasted off in 1997. It is still possible to climb up to the the lighthouse door, which Bob did and tried knocking, but apparently no one was in! I think we were all in awe at how such a building was constructed on such a challenging piece of rock.

smalls storage

One of the old storage rooms built into the rock at Smalls

The rock hid a number of other surprises too, like some old store rooms, which had been cut into the rock. I have also seen a picture that shows a separate building that was once located on the flat section of rock, which is no longer there. In short, the place is fascinating and I was pleased that all of the hill- and island-baggers that were on the trip seemed to enjoy the visit too.

Saying farewell to Smalls, we headed back towards the mainland. You may think that seeing Smalls was enough excitement for one day, but no, there was more! With the tide now at prime position, the landing on South Bishop was just as dignified as it had been on Smalls. We were greeted with a considerable number of steps, impressively crafted from the rock and pretty much all still in good working condition. The steps were worth the climb though when we reached the lighthouse at the top.

south bishop from sea

South Bishop lighthouse

The lighthouse looks impressive from every possible angle from the sea and when on land has a fairly large compound. The lighthouse was first lit in 1839 and, in 1971 a helipad was constructed to allow easier access. However, the helipad was prone to flooding in bad weather and high tides. Both the old helipad and the newer one can still be seen on the island. Bob went off to explore the area surrounding the old helipad and happened upon a piece of concrete with a name engraved into it, ‘Cyril M’, followed by what looks like a date ’24 10′ and then an indecipherable year. Intriguing! (Update: I have since been reliably informed that this would have been engraved by Cyril Matthews, a Trinity House carpenter based out of Swansea). It was a great place to explore and I could have happily spent all day there (particularly as the sun came out for us).

south bishop helipad

South Bishop lighthouse from the old, damaged helipad

On the way back to St David’s, our guides took us to see a small rock island called Daufraich, through which the tide bubbled up to the surface. He said he would quite like to dive there one day, but has concerns about being drowned by an influx of disturbed seals! We were also taken around the south end of Ramsey Island where there are cliffs up to 100 metres high. We also went through a sea cave where seals were chilling out before arriving back at St David’s.

Overall a fantastic bagging day, both for me with the lighthouses and for Bob who then went on to bag 5 Marilyns! A great day and well worth the journey! 🙂


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