Being from the Isle of Wight, I spent many years paying very little attention to the fantastic lighthouses it has to offer. That was, of course, before my bagging days and I try to make up for it now when I do spend time on the island.
On Thursday morning in Newport it looked like the sun was trying to break through the clouds and there might be a blue sky opportunity at St Catherine’s Oratory, which I had not been to for a while. As we approached the car park in Blackgang it became clear that not only were blue skies unlikely, but we may struggle to find the Oratory in the heavy fog that had nestled happily over the highest points of the island. At the gate we met a lady and her son who were just returning to the car park after an unsuccessful attempt at reaching the Oratory. We told them that’s where we were heading and they could follow us, which they did. Unfortunately I’d left Bob’s GPS device at the hotel so we couldn’t use that method, but on the plus side we had my dad who is an Oratory regular and knew that we needed to find the hedgerow and then the gate. From there we had no trouble and arrived at the Pepperpot, as it is known locally, shortly after.
Seeing the Oratory in the mist perfectly illustrates why it just wasn’t a particularly good location for an aid to navigation. As soon as that mist comes down there’s no chance of seeing a light. Standing inside the Oratory and looking up you could see the moisture moving about in the air. It’s a great place to stand, even though there is very little to see. The Oratory is incredibly old, dating back to 1328 when Walter de Godeton was ordered by the church to build a beacon after he’d been caught stealing wine from a ship wrecked in the area. There is, of course, doubt over the use of the tower all those centuries ago and in the centuries that followed and whether or not they recognised the problems caused by the fog at times. If they had then the message clearly was not passed on as work on a new lighthouse, the Salt Pot, a short distance away began in 1785. Realising that it was perhaps not the best location, the tower was never finished. Leaving the others at the Oratory for a bit, I took a stroll with my dad to see the unfinished lighthouse.
We made it back down to the car park with no trouble, which is not to say that the mist had cleared as it certainly hadn’t. While down that way we decided to pay a brief visit to St Catherine’s lighthouse. We’d not been there since our wedding in 2013 so it was nice to take the kids down and let them see it. In complete contrast to the fog we’d encountered up on the hill, it was beautiful and clear there. Obviously the perfect location for a lighthouse! Well, maybe not quite as even this tower was shortened in 1875, less than 40 years after it was built, due to problems with fog.
St Catherine’s lighthouse is stunning and a wonderfully unique shape. There’s a lot of detail to it. Sadly, I have heard that they will be removing the lens from the tower next year, which will be such a great loss. Seeing it slowly revolving all day every day as it does is so special. Hopefully the visitor centre will be able to keep hold of at least some of it so it is still around to be gazed at for years to come.
So, that was our St Catherine’s experience. Very varied, but definitely an enjoyable morning returning to a couple of old haunts 🙂
My regular readers will know that I am in the final stages of pulling together the content for my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guidewhich is due for release in July. As part of this process, the text has recently been shared with my good friend John who has also visited a significant number of lighthouses in the UK and has experienced both the pleasure and perils of doing so. I met John through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers and he shares my appreciation of smaller lighthouses (particularly the flat pack Ikea boxes in Scotland), which is pretty rare. I had asked him to review the notes I had made about accessing each light to ensure that valuable information and alternative options were not missed, which he has very kindly done. We had discussed the Isle of Grain light and, as neither of us had been there, I felt uneasy about it. So, there was only one solution and that was to pay it a visit. I asked John if he would like to join me to see it.
Along came Wednesday and, after a very early start, I met John in Southampton and we set off for Gravesend. What is rather amusing is that, having not been to Gravesend for years, John went there in December last year to take a closer look at the two lights on the Town Pier and Royal Terrace Pier to help me out with the book. He’d perhaps not expected to be back there again quite so soon! It was a good opportunity for me to see the lights in person though as we went for a stroll along the river. The little white tower on the Town Pier sticks up out of the roof of a fairly fancy looking restaurant, but you can get a fairly good view of it by walking along the pier towards the pontoon for the ferry across to Tilbury. During his investigative visit, John spoke to a member of staff at the restaurant who said that there is a hatch that leads under the pier, which would have allowed access to steps etc. under the pier in the past. It is no longer possible to use the hatch and part of the steps have been removed so there is no longer access to the light. It’s still nice to see though and a dainty little thing.
Further along the river bank at St Andrew’s Quay is Light Vessel 21, which was built for Trinity House in 1963. LV21 was in use mostly on the Varne and East Goodwin Sands. In 1981 it was involved in a particularly bad collision at Varne, but lived to tell the tale. In 2008 it was decommissioned and moored in Swansea. The following year it was sold and is now used by the LV21 Making More Group, a group of local art and crafty types.
A little further along from the light vessel is Gravesend Royal Terrace Pier with its lighthouse. Again this one sticks out of the roof of the building on the pier, but there is no way of getting closer to this one as the pier is closed to the public. Detective John found out some of the history on this light following his visit last year. He managed to make contact with a man from Port of London Authority who believed the light was used to mark the end of the pier before the pontoon was added at which point it became surplus to requirement – I imagine this was also the case with the light on the Town Pier. Port of London Authority took over control of the pier in 2004 by which time the light had not been well-maintained and was very difficult to see. They decided to maintain the light even though it was not needed, which is very lovely of them. Access to the light is quite interesting involving hatches downriver and a bridge! It was really interesting to find out more about these two lights as, if I’d seen them like any other, I would probably not have thought of these details, so thank you John!
Isle of Grain beckoned, so we set off, spying the modern Shornemead tower as we drove along the main road to the east of Gravesend. Isle of Grain is never somewhere I had thought about going before and, had it not been for the light there, I probably never would have done. That is one of the joys of this lighthouse bagging business. The area surrounding the light is fairly industrial and we spotted a security van a short distance from the light. From afar the tower just looks like a metal framework affair, but it’s really quite unique with its little hut on stilts. It’s not actually as little as I expected. Both the hut and stilts are constructed of stone which I’d not expected, and the hut has a full-sized door opening, which helped to settle my concern about whether or not it was big enough to qualify for inclusion in my book. From the top of the bank next to the light you could look across to the Isle of Sheppey and the mouth of the Thames as well as Grain Tower Battery, which looks fantastic. The Battery, which was built in the 1850s to defend the area from an attack from France, is accessible at low tide, which it certainly wasn’t when we were there. It’s certainly not your average lighthouse location, but well worth a visit.
On the way back we took a slight detour, although I’m not sure slight is the right word when you take into account the traffic in the south! I had a little lighthouse tidying to do along the south coast with the first being Hastings. Visiting these places has been a very helpful way of testing how useful my access notes and grid references for finding the lighthouses are. The Hastings West Hill tower is really straightforward to find. It’s another one that is unique in style and it has some really interesting little details – I will let the picture speak for itself. This lighthouse actually replaced one that was previously on Hill Street, marking the upper of two lighthouses. The Lower Light can still be seen opposite the boating lake, although it is no longer in use as a lighthouse. From West Hill you have some wonderful views down to the beach which is lined with boats. I’d not seen that anywhere before.
On the way back towards Southampton we thought it would be rude not to stop off and see the tower at the end of the west pier in Brighton. We weren’t able to get very close to it as the pier is only open at certain times to permit-holding anglers. We did try calling the number on the sign to see if it would be possible to get beyond the locked gate, but to not avail. There’s not a huge amount to say about this one really, but again it was nice to visit a part of Brighton I’d not been to before. Leaving the pier, we set off in the car again for the slow journey along the seafront towards Shoreham. Funnily enough we spent a long time on the coastal road and happened to turn off just before the lighthouse in Shoreham, but we gave it a quick wave as we turned the corner – well I did anyway!
It became a bit of a race against time/sunset at that point as we had one more stop before our bagging day was done: Littlehampton. To be honest I think we were glad that we were cutting it fine in the end though as the light was on, which always makes for great pictures and is an added bonus in my eyes. It had been a great day, weather-wise, and it was a calm evening. You can’t really beat lingering around on a beach and lighthouse at sunset in these conditions, I don’t think. This is yet another unique structure which was actually built in 1948 after the Second World War and replaced one of the previously demolished towers, so it looks more modern than it actually is – having said that, in lighthouse terms the 1940s is fairly recent! We noticed that access to the light inside would be through a rather small hatch underneath the top section of the tower. Might be a bit of a squeeze getting in there!
Littlehampton was a lovely way to finish a fun lighthouse-filled day. Having John on the journey made it even more enjoyable and I foresee more lighthouse adventures ahead with him too! 🙂