uklighthousetour

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

Return to Rathlin

Rathlin Island off of the north coast of Northern Ireland is a place that I have mixed memories of from our honeymoon back in 2013. There is no doubt I found it to be a beautiful island, but cycling across it in wind and rain with little time to fit everything in was possibly not giving it the time and credit it deserved. Hence the need for a return visit. Well, that and I hadn’t managed to get to see the West Lighthouse the first time due to it being out of season.

At the end of last year we made contact with Derek from North Coast Seatours, based in Kylesku, about another trip (hopefully to come next month). During our discussions he happened to mention that he would be bringing his boat up from Northern Ireland to Kylesku and asked if we would be interested in joining him and developing an itinerary for getting some lighthouses and islands we were keen to visit on the way. We jumped at the chance of course.

So, that is how we came to be in Northern Ireland this week. With an intentional day to spare we set off for Rathlin Island yesterday morning. As Easter has passed the West Lighthouse is now open with the RSPB centre making it a popular attraction. This has the added benefit of being the main destination for the Puffin Bus, which we happily hopped on. It’s a great journey out to the lighthouse with some fairly steep sections and tight bends. It’s only 4 miles, but the nature of the roads makes it feel significantly longer.

West lighthouse

When we arrived at the lighthouse we bypassed pretty much everything in order to make it to the lighthouse before anyone else. Now, the West Lighthouse is really quite unique. I don’t know of any other lighthouse (and certainly not in the UK) where you enter the tower at the top and have to walk all the way down to the bottom to be able to see the lighthouse. This explains why it is known as the “upside down” lighthouse. It also the reason why it’s quite difficult to get a picture of. The platform at the bottom of the tower is just big enough to be able to get a picture of the full height if you rest the camera on the ground and angle it upwards. The tower features a number of rooms, one of which is still laid out as it would have been as a keeper’s bedroom. Further rooms give more information about the lighthouse as well as the birds and wildlife that can be seen in the area. As well as being upside down the light is also quite unique in that it flashes only red. In a number of larger lighthouses there is a red sector, but rarely just a red light.

The coastal scenery around the West Lighthouse is fantastic, particularly looking to the north. It is almost unreal and I could have stayed there all day, but there was more to be done!

An hour after our arrival we hopped back onto the Puffin Bus. I asked the driver if he would be heading anywhere towards Rue Point where the most southerly lighthouse sits. He dropped us off at the end of the road and we set off on foot along the track. It was a shorter walk than I remembered from our list visit. While the structure at Rue Point is not a traditional lighthouse it’s in a great location. It has a wonderful little walkway leading to it. It was considerably calmer this time so we took a wander about on the rocks around the lighthouse. A really lovely place and frequented by seals so it was not surprising that we spotted a few lounging around in the little bay.

Rue Point lighthouse

From Rue Point we set off to walk to the East Lighthouse at Altacarry Head, or should I say the East Lighthouses as there are two towers, the low and high lights. I was keen to get back here as we had seen the larger tower, of course, but had failed to notice the smaller one as it is nestled in front of the high light on the seaward side.

The weather was fantastic yesterday and I was finding with the uphills and downhills that Rathlin’s roads feature that it was a bit too warm at times. It certainly seemed like a long walk between the two, but enjoyable nonetheless. It was great to see the East Lighthouse again, we’d seen it flashing (it flashes 24 hours a day) at us a few times and I’d also caught sight of the light from Islay in January. It’s a fairly powerful light. As we knew about the small lighthouse this time it was obvious once we’d looked at it. The lights are within a locked compound, which makes it difficult to get a good view of the little one, but if you walked along the coast a bit further you could see it as well as the height of the cliffs that it sits on. Really impressive and unexpected, although it shouldn’t be unexpected really given its location.

The two towers of the East lighthouse

We wandered on back to the main village and had a look around a little gallery selling location-produced gifts before stopping at the cafe for a cup of tea and cake. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the day spent on a really beautiful and very interesting island. While the population of the island has decreased in recent decades, it certainly still attracts a great number of visitors and you can see why. So much is known about the island’s history – who built which house and who lived where. A real community island and generally a fantastic place.
It certainly won’t be my last visit to Rathlin, I am sure of that 🙂

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A cup of tea in Glenelg!

If you were based on the north coast and travelling home from Fort William which way would you go? Probably the A82 and then the A9 I would imagine. We’ve done that route many times and there’s nothing wrong with it at all, it’s quite beautiful in places, although it can get quite busy in the summer months. There may be other slightly more convoluted routes available, but one you’d possibly not choose to take would be via Skye.

Anyone who knows Bob will know that he rarely takes the path of least resistance, and today was a perfect example of that. But it was all fine because the reason for going that way was to pay a visit to the old Sandaig lighthouse, which is now located near the Glenelg-Kylerhea ferry. The lighthouse is really quite easy to access, you can either drive right up to it or take the ferry across from Kylerhea to see it. I had done neither and had just seen it from the other side of the water at Kylerhea a couple of times.

Setting off from Fort William, the first leg of the trip involved getting across to Mallaig for the ferry to Armadale. I booked it on the way there to avoid getting all of the way there to find it was fully booked. The joy of technology! We managed to get on an earlier ferry and in just over half an hour we were on Skye.

I think Skye is a wonderful place, but it is vast. While many might think that it’s just an island it can’t take that long to visit everything, I have found that no matter how many times I’ve been, there is still something left to see ‘next time’. It really is a massive island. Today though, we were just spending a short time on it, but fortunately that short time involved passing by the village of Isleornsay. Anyone who has spent any length of time visiting Scottish lighthouses will know the lighthouse on (and this is where it gets complicated) the islet of Eilean Sionnach, a tidal island off of the island of Ornsay which itself is a tidal island off of Isleornsay. Now, whoever decided to put a lighthouse in that particular location – I’m going for David and/or Thomas Stevenson – must have known that they were about to create what is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful views in Scotland. Some might say they wouldn’t have thought of that, but I think they must have done. Or even if they hadn’t they would have stood back at the end and said to each other “Well that was definitely worth the effort”!

Ornsay

Ornsay lighthouse

Continuing back up the main road we spotted the Ornsay East Rock light, which I hope to get a closer view of later this month – a very exciting trip coming up so look out for reports of that in a few weeks’ time!

A while later we arrived at the ferry at Kylerhea. From here it is possible to see the Kylerhea light to the north and the object of my attention today, the old Sandaig light, just across the water. The Glenelg ferry, a turntable ferry, is fascinating to watch, such a clever invention and not one I’d seen in action before. The ferry only started running for the season yesterday so that was lucky!

Glenelg ferry

The turntable Glenelg-Kylerhea ferry

As we approached Glenelg on the ferry I got particularly excited as the lighthouse doors were open. I’d heard that it was possible to go inside and I’d had my fingers crossed that it was still the case, which it certainly is.

Glenelg

The old Sandaig lighthouse, now at Glenelg ferry

Now for the history bit and how the lighthouse came to be in it’s new home. The cast iron tower, designed by David A Stevenson, was constructed on one of the islands off of Sandaig around 5 miles to the south west of Glenelg in 1909. As is often the way, as technology progresses organisations are always looking at ways to reduce costs and replacing these structures was one of the ways the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) did this. The tower was replaced in 2004 and this is where the local community stepped in and said they wanted to keep the lighthouse and move it to is current location. The NLB were very helpful, firstly giving some money towards the project along with a number of other funders, and then supporting the relocation itself. After the light had been dismantled it was taken by the NLB to it’s Oban depot to be renovated before being delivered to Glenelg.

Inside Glenelg

Inside the lighthouse

The lighthouse now contains the details of this process as well as information about the local area, including the turntable ferry. Various items are for sale there too, but of equal importance is the fact that you can get a cup of tea or coffee! It all works on an honesty box system. What a great place and a wonderful community effort.

Above Glenelg

The old Sandaig lighthouse with the turntable ferry in action

It is another picturesque location and the place has a good feel about it. Unfortunately not quite accessible enough to stop by for a cup of tea in passing regularly, but definitely somewhere I’d like to return to. Needless to say, I was very glad of our detour today 🙂

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The long road to Ardnamurchan

The Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) Oban-based event continued today (see yesterday’s post for adventures on Lismore and the in Northern Lighthouse Board’s Oban Depot). While yesterday involved very little travel time, today was a different matter – as it always the way when you attempt to get all the way to the most westerly point of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

Corran across the loch

Corran Point lighthouse seen from the other side of Loch Linnhe

I met the rest of the group at the Corran ferry and had a little while to wander around taking in the views of the Corran Point lighthouse on the other side of the narrow stretch of Loch Linnhe. It was a dull morning with drizzly rain and overcast skies. I knew this would be the case as I have a theory that there are never blue skies at Ardnamurchan lighthouse, which is a shame as the beautiful Alan Stevenson granite tower would look much more wondrous with a bit of sunshine on it. Anyway, the group arrived on the minibus and I joined them before crossing over on the ferry. The plan had originally been to stop for a look around Corran lighthouse before heading along the peninsula, but with the weather as it was and the conditions looking better for the afternoon we decided to stop at that one on the way back.

You forget just how long a road it is out to the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan. There is no doubt it is picturesque, but there are some pretty scary moments when you are on a small coach, passing other vehicles on single-track roads or on particularly narrow stretches with a fairly sheer drop on one side. We stopped briefly at the distillery for a break before continuing the journey. We finally got there and the group showed their true commitment to lighthouse bagging by heading straight to the cafe!

After a cup of tea we set off to the lighthouse. I can’t recall a lighthouse with a more beautiful welcoming design inside the door. I could describe it, but instead I shall just include a picture as it really does speak for itself (see below). Ardnamurchan lighthouse has some very subtle design features which take some time to notice. The walk (or should I call it a hike) to the top of the tower is fairly exhausting and there is very little to see on the way up – in fact there is nothing except the stairs, blue walls and the occasional window.

Ardnamurchan entrance

Welcome to Ardnamurchan lighthouse

Near the top of the tower we met Stevie. He had a tough job today with all of us turning up in groups of 2 or 3 at a time and often overlapping. We did chat to him for a while though and he explained the concerns they have over the new LED arrangement they have very recently had installed in the tower. He, quite understandably, misses the rotating beam and is hopeful that at some point they may bring it back in some way. He used to enjoy seeing the sweeping beam across the beach near his home.

Ardnamurchan light

The current lights at the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse

I went for a somewhat bracing stroll around outside at the top of the tower, looking down on the old fog horn and as far as I could see in all other directions. Neil Wright from the Northern Lighthouse Board, who also joined us on the trip, said that on a clear day you could see all the way out to the incredible Hyskeir from the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse. It certainly wasn’t that clear today.

At the top of the tower Neil had turned the new LED light on. We were warned not to look directly at it due to the power of the light. As I mentioned before, the detail at the lighthouse is subtle. There are small lion heads within the metal frames around the windows which would very easily escape your attention. As I have tended to do at the top of all of these towers over the past couple of days, I was chatting to Neil about all things Northern Lighthouse Board. He said that when they do any work at Ardnamurchan they most often travel by road, which takes around 2.5 hours from Oban, but they sometimes arrive by boat, which knocks about half an hour off of the journey time. It really is quite remote. Stevie explained to us what life is still like out there and how you are fairly self-sufficient due to not being able to just pop to the shop! It’s refreshing to hear when so many people’s lives these days are all about convenience and spending money.

Adnamurchan decoration

An example of the decoration inside the tower at Ardnamurchan

 

I had a wander around the buildings there before we left. They have the original lens from the tower on display in the exhibition room and you can also see the old compressors for the fog horn. I had a quick look down towards where Neil said the NLB boat arrives when they do travel there by sea. There are even picnic benches down that way. I was surprised to learn that the lighthouse still attracts visitors in the winter months, which often causes problems for the NLB guys when they are trying to work.

Ardnamurchan fog horn

The lighthouse and fog horn at Ardnamurchan

Once we had all gathered back on the coach we set off on the long return journey. The sky had cleared a little by that point, although there was still some low cloud hanging around the hills, which was very atmospheric.

We made it back to Corran lighthouse and spent a while in the chilly breeze on the beach in front of the tower. From here it was possible to see across to the Corran Narrows light on the opposite site of the loch. I recalled from our visit to Islay in January that the Loch Indaal lighthouse seemed to very closely resemble the Corran lighthouse, and this was confirmed by Neil. Not only are they similar towers, but they both benefit from having a mountainous backdrop. They also, apparently, feature the same type of LED light, although the Loch Indaal light still holds a lens rather than the two lights we saw inside Corran today.

Corran Point

Corran Point lighthouse

It’s a tiny tower in comparison to Ardnamurchan and features three sets of very steep ladders. There’s not a lot to it, but the sector light panels at the top make for a very colourful picture. The light had been turned on again so we could get the full experience. Although there is no longer a lens filling the lantern it was a wonderful place to be and we did need to be kicked out in the end as we’d been up there too long! I could happily have stayed there for longer.

Corran light

Inside the lantern at Corran

Once we’d left the lighthouse we returned on the ferry and that was where I left the group. What a fantastic couple of days it has been, meeting new people, getting to know others I’d met before a bit better and seeing some great places I would never have otherwise been able to see. The highlights for me: Lismore, the tour of Pharos (the Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel) and probably getting inside the tower at Corran. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to more adventures with my new-found lighthouse friends 🙂

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Day one of some Oban escapades

As mentioned in previous posts, about six months ago I took on the role of Events Coordinator alongside two others for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK). Although I had attended their AGM in South Wales last year, it was only a matter of time before a trip coordinated by the new team would take place. Today the time finally arrived in the form of a two-day event based in Oban.

The blue sky made an early appearance today, just in time for our journey over to Lismore lighthouse on the small island of Eilean Musdile, not (as the name suggests) on the island of Lismore itself. I’d previously landed on Eilean Musdile and seen the lighthouse at close range in 2015, but this time we were going to get inside the tower as well as meeting the couple who now own the cottages. Lismore is one of those lighthouses that you can’t go past on a ferry without noticing. The lady who now owns the cottages on the island said that you can almost see the ferry tilting over as people rush to take pictures of the lighthouse before it then starts to tip the other way as they get closer to Mull and Duart Castle.

Lismore from below

The boat ride over to the lighthouse with Coastal Connections, who also took us over last time, was good and it was nice to catch up with Struan, today’s skipper, and chat to my ALK friends. Landing on the island is a fairly dignified affair and as soon as you are there you are captivated by just how beautiful the place is. The owners of the cottages clearly do a fantastic job of keeping the island from getting overgrown and too wild, while also maintaining its natural beauty. When the owners first arrived, they knew there must have been a path there somewhere that joined the top end of the island (where the stone for the lighthouse arrived), across the beautifully constructed bridge, past the slipway and to the tower. The owner described how he spent a good few years (they are usually on the island for around 10 weeks every year) finding the path again and one of his jobs each year is to maintain the path. Another reason for doing this was so that nesting birds on the island could remain undisturbed in the longer undergrowth. They have also installed a small wind turbine to provide electricity to the cottages as well as pumping the fresh water from the well on the island to their houses.

Lismore entrance

The path that takes you to the lighthouse is a perfect match for the stunning white tower at the end of it. Before we got carried away with wandering up the tower we decided to walk down beyond the tower to get some pictures of it standing tall. There really is no angle that Lismore lighthouse doesn’t look awe-inspiring from. An incredible piece of architecture from Alan Stevenson and his attention to detail is evident at the top of the tower. With perfectly carved features inside the lantern room as well as even more impressive additions when you step outside the door at the top, you realise the thought that must have gone into so many elements of this amazing structure. I got chatting to Neil Wright, one of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s technicians who has recently been to and worked at the Flannans, Sanda, Skervuile and the Bell Rock. Neil posts some fantastic pictures on Twitter of parts of these lights that the general public would never be able to see. Needless to say we chatted for a while about his work with the NLB, where it has taken him and he also showed us how the remote monitoring of the lighthouses works. It is incredible to see just what they can find out about a lighthouse from just a laptop.

Lismore lens

Neil also pointed out how the lighthouse differs from many others as it has rectangular window panes rather than triangular, which is related to the characteristic of the light. The little lens in there is small but perfectly formed allowing for plenty of space to wander around. The lighthouse has not been upgraded to an LED light…which means it still has a number of buttons and panels inside. Neil told us that he was, sadly, responsible for the change of the light at Noss Head from a rotating lens to an on/off LED. They have recently upgraded Duncansby Head, but fortunately have decided to retain the rotating lens and just replace the lamp with an LED. We were informed that this will also be the case at Dunnet Head in the coming months. I am pleased to learn that the light will still work with a rotating lens, but I will miss the warm colour of the light as it is at the moment.

Back down at the bottom of the tower we stopped off to have a cup of tea with the couple who own the lighthouse. The cottage is very spacious with large rooms, a wide corridor and windows that allow plenty of natural light in. You can tell that they have maintained some of the original style of the cottages while also adding their own personal touches here and there. They are a really lovely couple and were incredibly welcoming considering they had 20 lighthouse enthusiasts wandering about.

Lismore bridge

Before heading back to the slipway, we took a short walk to the top of the island where you can look across the short stretch of water to Lismore itself and the snow-capped hills beyond. It felt a little bit like heaven, and I found that the longer you stayed there the more you wanted to stay. But leave we had to unfortunately. It was a very enjoyable and memorable morning at a wonderful place which I would return to in a heartbeat.

Back in Oban we had lunch before the second instalment of the day: a tour of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Oban Depot and Buoy Yard. I always get excited when I see the Northern Lighthouse Board logo and it can be seen everywhere here! We were shown around by the Depot Manager initially who gave us a tour of the storage facility. When you first walk in all you see is large shelves filled with wooden boxes that appear at first glance to be of little interest. It’s only when you take a closer look that you notice that each box has the name of a lighthouse on it and, in some cases, the boxes contain the old lenses from the towers. Among the names written on the boxes were Calf of Man, Strathy Point, Sule Skerry, Barra Head, Stoer Head, Chicken Rock, Ruvaal and Rona. It was clear that there is a big plan for upgrading Eilean Glas lighthouse as we saw its new kitchen, tins of paint and various other items all destined for that beautiful place.

Storage Sule Skerry

The Buoy Yard gives you some idea of the scale and amount of work that takes place there. Every eight years the buoys are brought in and cleaned and then go through various other stages before being re-painted ready to go back out. It was really interesting to see the range in types of buoy and how big they actually are. In comparison to most things you see at sea buoys always look so small, but they aren’t small at all. I was particularly interested to see an example of the buoys used to mark wrecks.

Buoy yard

The next part of the tour involved Neil showing us the variety of LED lights that the Northern Lighthouse Board currently use. From his talk it became very clear just how quickly technology is progressing and as Neil said himself it will be interesting to see the types of lights they have lined up there in 5 years’ time. They also have some of the old lamps in storage in this area, including those from Cailleach Head and Lady Isle. It is clear that the shelves here are already becoming full and, over time, there will only be more and more coming in. Eventually another long-term solution for their storage/use will need to be found and I really hope there is something that can be done with them. While they aren’t as impressive as the Fresnel lens, for example, they are a big part of lighthouse heritage.

Lights

It was very obvious before we even arrived at the Depot that the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel, Pharos, was there. I recall the first time I saw Pharos and that was at the Bell Rock. Every time I’ve seen it since it’s been from a distance and you don’t realise just how big it is until you are standing right next to it! We were on our way towards the exit when we were delighted to hear that the captain of Pharos was happy to give us a tour. I’m not going to lie, I dashed back down the gangway before they changed their mind! Getting on board Pharos was a real treat for me. It was certainly not somewhere I ever thought I would get a chance to look around and here we were being offered the chance to do just that. First we set off for the helideck – what a place that must be when the helicopter comes into land. I’ve obviously stood on a number of helipads at some of the more remote lighthouses on Scottish islands, but this was somehow different.

Pharos

We were also shown the deck above where the crew communicate with the helicopter crew as they are coming in to land. We then looked down over the winch area at the back of the boat. The winch is huge, but then it would need to be with so much weight to be lifted in those buoys. Last, but by no means least, we were shown around the bridge where the magic happens. And when I say “magic” it really is magic. Thanks to advances in GPS, weather and sea monitoring the boat can near enough sail itself these days. The paper maps and amount of buttons and levers in the bridge though are a reminder that, if things do go wrong, the manual back up of a person is still very much a requirement. We finished off our incredible tour of this vessel with a group picture alongside the Northern Lighthouse Board’s longest-serving captain. What a special opportunity that was and, as much as I enjoyed seeing the maintenance vessels before, I appreciate them on a whole new level now.

Pharos bridge

More adventures to come tomorrow! 🙂

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A fine ‘old lady’ in Happisburgh

I’ve often referred to lighthouses as ‘she’. It just seems right that they are female. I’ve also been known on more than one occasion to sing Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder during lighthouse visits. Well, I discovered that I am not alone in this during a visit to Happisburgh lighthouse on our way back home from the recent Isle of Wight trip. On my original lighthouse tour I’d obviously driven to Happisburgh and, as with a lot of the lighthouses on that trip, my timing was atrocious and I arrived about half an hour after it had closed. So, I’d not managed to get inside this frankly stunning structure. Well, last year, through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, I met Joy and Patrick who are part of the team that have taken over the operation and maintenance of the lighthouse at Happisburgh (more on that in a minute). I knew we would be in Norfolk on our way home so got in touch with them and they very kindly agreed to show us around.

Happisburgh

Happisburgh lighthouse

During this tour, which I will describe in a moment, I discovered that Joy too believes that lighthouses are female and very fondly refers to Happisburgh lighthouse as their ‘old lady’. The lighthouse certainly is old, dating back to 1790 when it was built as one of a pair of leading lights, with this one being the high light. Joy informed us that there is very little to see of the old low light now, but occasionally it is possible to spot some small sections of the old curved wall on the beach. Although the remains are now on the beach, the lighthouse itself was located on the cliff. This is evidence of the amount of coastal erosion in the area. It’s frightening when you see how the coastline has changed in recent years.

Happisburgh view

The view from the top towards where the low light would have been

The tower, which is now so distinctive with its red bands, used to be white, but when the Low Light was removed the red bands were added to distinguish it from the other nearby white lighthouses in Winterton to the south and Cromer to the north. Although the old low light was demolished, it is great to see a section of the lens from the old tower  in the ground floor exhibition area in the lighthouse – it even lights up! After the lens had been removed from the low light it was used in Southwold, which has since been converted to a different type of light. When the lens was no longer required in Southwold, Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust approached Trinity House and asked if it could be brought back to Happisburgh and they now have this on loan, so part of it did make it back home!

Happisburgh low lens

Part of the old lens from Happisburgh low light

The inside of the tower is actually quite open-plan. As Joy pointed out, it is not until you are almost at the top that you have space/a room to stop and catch your breath! It’s fantastic though, looking down on the main space on the ground floor, which is just full of amazing things to look at. I was so busy chatting I didn’t get a chance to fully take it all in so I’ll just need to go back again some time – and probably end up just chatting some more!

Happisburgh light

The view inside the lens

There is one room near the top (aside from the lantern room, of course) which contains information about the history of the lighthouse, as well as a really lovely display of lamps of all shapes and sizes from various lighthouses. There is also information here about the community takeover of the lighthouse. It really is a unique arrangement. In 1987 Trinity House announced that Happisburgh lighthouse was to be discontinued. The community, understandably, fought against this decision and two years later everything was in place for the newly formed Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust to begin leasing the lighthouse and running it themselves. Of course that is an abridged version of events and it was much more involved. It’s a really inspiring story and a perfect example of just how important lighthouses can be to communities.

The Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse are doing a great job of fundraising to keep the lighthouse going. It looks brilliant both inside and out, especially after the tower was re-painted last year. You can’t really go wrong with red and white stripes on a lighthouse, I don’t think, and Happisburgh is a perfect example of that. It is a fine place to spend some time and even those who aren’t necessarily into lighthouses would find it hard not to enjoy a visit. Joy and Patrick were such wonderful hosts, so a big thank you to them.

When Bob finally managed to drag me away from the lighthouse we continued our journey home – and what a long journey it was this time! Fortunately, we were going up the east coast for a change where it is fairly easy to stop off and see a few lighthouses.

River Nene East End

The River Nene East End lighthouse

Now, back in 2012 I saw the two lighthouses on the banks of the River Nene to the east of Sutton Bridge. I had only walked (still not sure why I walked it from Sutton Bridge, but never mind) to the Guys Head light and seen the East End lighthouse from across the river, so it seemed like a good place to stop as the sun was shining.  There aren’t many lighthouses surrounded by trees, but these two are, which makes it difficult to get pictures of them, but we did our best and our best wasn’t too bad. It’s just about getting the right angle – and at the right time of day too as the sun can really be in the wrong position sometimes!

River Nene Guys Head

River Nene Guys Head lighthouse

It was dark by the time we arrived in Newcastle, not far from our hotel. I’d not seen the old light on the Tyne Swing Bridge before so it seemed like a good opportunity while we were in the area. I wandered along the river bank and up onto the bridge. With the light no longer being operational it’s not so easy to see (or photograph – unless you are capable of fancy camera work). It was nice to see it though and it was a calm evening. I’m not used to being in cities visiting lighthouses, so it made a nice change.

Tyne Swing Bridge

Tyne Swing Bridge and its lighthouse

On the final day of our journey home we happened to be in the North Queensferry area around lunch time so stopped off to see the little lighthouse there. It was a really pleasant day which made for a nice visit, although the tower is currently closed for maintenance (normally you can get inside and sometimes even light the lamp). They are due to open again very soon.

North Queensferry

North Queensferry lighthouse and the Forth Rail Bridge

It was nice to break up what was a really long journey with some lighthouse visits. Time to have a break from lighthouse trips for a month or so now to recharge my batteries ready for the next adventure! 🙂

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A lighthouse morning on the Diamond Isle

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.

Oratory

St Catherine’s Oratory

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.

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The unfinished Salt Pot

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.

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St Catherine’s lighthouse

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 🙂

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The distinctive lights of South East England

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 Guide which 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.

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Gravesend Town Pier light

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!

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Gravesend Royal Terrace Pier light

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.

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Isle of Grain

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.

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Hastings West Hill

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!

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The light on Brighton West Pier

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!

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Littlehampton

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! 🙂

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Fraserburgh: where the lights are kept alive

This afternoon a slight detour on the way home took us to Fraserburgh for another trip to the fantastic Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. I first visited the museum on my original tour in 2012 and then again in January 2014. Five years and countless new lighthouses later I knew it was time for a return and that I would appreciate it so much more than I ever had before. Hence why it is getting its own blog post this time.

For anyone into lighthouses it’s a gem of a place. Not only is it home to the old Kinnaird Head lighthouse (the first to be built and lit by the Commissioners of Northern Lights (now the Northern Lighthouse Board), but its modern replacement as well as the former towers from Suther Ness in Shetland and Hoxa Head in Orkney.

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The old Suther Ness lighthouse from Shetland

As soon as you step inside the door you know you’re in a very special place. The staff, for a start are so welcoming, and as soon as you enter the exhibition you are greeted by the most beautiful display of lighthouses lenses. The first room is home to 10 stunning pieces originally from the likes of Dunnet Head, Turnberry, Fair Isle South and Neist Point.

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The wonderful display of lighthouse lenses. Pictures here are those from Fair Isle South, Chanonry, Dunnet Head, Neist Point and Turnberry

We didn’t have time to catch the film this time, but we enjoyed the other exhibition rooms, including one I couldn’t recall seeing before, oddly. That’s the one featuring the old Hoxa Head lighthouse. You can walk inside and read the information on display – or just treat it like a fun little house to walk into and out of repeatedly as the kids did. There are far too many artefacts in the room, and all of the rooms for that matter, to even consider mentioning them all. Definitely worthy of mention though is the lantern and lens from the former Roseness lighthouse in Orkney as well as the lenses and light mechanisms from both Ailsa Craig and Langness. The award for most impressive lens and mechanism combination goes to Sanda though, which is so huge it needs two storeys to show off its full glory. The mechanism itself is visible at the entrance to the exhibition while the optic appears on the upper floor. Truly amazing.

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The old Sanda lens

It was approaching 3pm and we set off back down to the museum entrance for the guided tour. I’d been in contact with Michael Strachan, Collections Manager at the museum, prior to this visit in relation to a couple of questions I had for my book. Fortunately, it was Michael who was our tour guide today, which was a good opportunity to put a face to a name and thank him for his help.

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The modern and old lighthouses at Kinnaird Head

Due to the chilly breeze at Kinnaird Head, which Michael informed us is always windy, we went straight to the old foghorn engine room to start the tour. I imagine that even hundreds of years down the line, the smell of these rooms will not have changed. As if they were only used yesterday. Every time I am in one now I will remember watching Brian at Sumburgh Head starting the machines up with such meticulousness.

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The foghorn engine room at Kinnaird Head

From here we went to the old castle through which the lighthouse was built. There is nothing now to indicate how the building was used before the lighthouse was constructed. The tower is still as it was when the lighthouse was manned though. The wonderful paraffin smell is very much present and I always enjoy seeing an old television with buttons on it such as the one in the old occasional lighthouse keeper’s room. There is a distinct lack of buttons these days!

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At the top of the tower

The original lens still sits proudly in position at the top of the tower. Always a great room to spend some time and then we had a brief wander around on the balcony. After leaving the tower, we had a chance to quickly look around the Principle Keepers’ accommodation, which is full of information about the life of lighthouse keepers.

Back in the shop, the kids received their certificates for climbing the tower, although now I think of it, I don’t know that I have one myself yet!

Michael has very kindly provided me with information about the lenses the museum own as well as others he is aware of. I spoke to him about the old lens from Sule Skerry, which I’d attempted to visit yesterday at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. He’d had the same experience recently and had found out through social media just yesterday that it is indeed in storage there. Let’s hope it becomes more visible to the public soon. It’s a shame to let these things sit in storage with no one able to enjoy them. I’m obviously biased though and think that every museum should have at least one lighthouse exhibition!

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The old Hoxa Head lighthouse from Orkney

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the museum again and will make more of an effort to ensure it’s not another 5 years before I am back there again. It sounds like there are exciting plans for introducing the old Fair Isle North lens, among others, to the collection. Something to look forward to seeing next time hopefully! 🙂

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Back to the Bass!

My last post mentioned that I was banned from lighthouse trips and probably wouldn’t do another for at least six weeks or something. Well, as usual, I was wrong…

Last month I joined a chartered boat to take a trip out to Bass Rock with the intention of landing. You can read about it here but, put simply, I didn’t land and as a result it remained on the “to do” list.

The ever-persistent Alan, who has organised a number of boat trips including the Bass Rock trips, maintained his regular contact with Dougie who operates Braveheart out of North Berwick. He’d said that this weekend was the next potential date but being in January, which is often the stormiest month in Scotland, I wasn’t hopeful. However, I was very glad to be proven wrong when Alan got in touch on Thursday to say the trip may go ahead and then confirmed that it would later on that evening. This time Bob wanted to come too, to make sure I landed this time. There was also another trip straight afterwards to Craigleith, so he would have the opportunity for a new island too. My ever-willing mother-in-law came across to look after the kids, and didn’t seem to mind the short notice!

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“The view” of Bass Rock

We took the scenic route into North Berwick today, which meant we got “the view” of Bass Rock. In my opinion the best view you can get of it from the mainland is near Tantallon Castle. Being fairly early it was still flashing away at us, although not quite as magnificently as it would have been before the new light was installed. I’d planned to pay a visit to the Coastal Communities museum in North Berwick after the trip as the old optic is now on display there, but shortly after finding out that the optic was there, I discovered the museum doesn’t open until Easter. A reason to go back to North Berwick, which is never a bad thing.

Off we went on the boat and the sea seemed to be similar to last time, so I was prepared to be scared all over again. It was actually a lot better than before, really nothing to worry about. I didn’t even need that much help! I was absolutely delighted as soon as I set foot on the island. The lovely Jane, who was “catching” us as we landed, celebrated briefly with me. She understood my fear, even if she was quite comfortable getting onto and off of the boat herself. There I was, on the Bass!

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The view from the landing area

As soon as you arrive you have a wonderful view looking up at the lighthouse. In fact, you have amazing views all around. A fascinating island, with so many steps! Everything is covered in guano, but that pales into insignificance with the enjoyment of being on the island. Just above the landing area is the helipad for the lighthouse and slightly further up you can walk along to the alternative landing point (the skipper chose the best place to land us, for sure). The concrete path and steps take you past all of the highlights of the island. My priority was obviously the lighthouse, which is where I, Bob and our friend Adrian went first. As I told Bob on the way back, it was best to go there first to get pictures without lots of people there, and also if the trip had been cut short for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the lighthouse.

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The approach to the lighthouse

It was a really good feeling to finally reach the lighthouse I’d seen so close before. The island really does add to the beauty of the lighthouse. The giant cliffs that sit behind the tower and its associated buildings, while being the source of some of the major landslips (or mudslides) in the area are the perfect backdrop. When I’d been on the trip in December, Dougie had told the group to take care near the lighthouse as there was deep mud from a recent landslip, which resulted in a lot of mud gathering near the lighthouse. It is clear that this has fairly recently been shifted as the area surrounding the lighthouse is now clear and actually very tidy. There are warning signs on the approach to the lighthouse about mud, but it certainly wasn’t an issue today.

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Bass Rock lighthouse

What a place that must have been to serve as a keeper. So close to the mainland and yet so disconnected. It is a massive shame to see the state of the cottages, which have been long neglected since the light was automated. This became even more evident as we climbed higher and higher above the lighthouse on the main path. The light continued to flash away (or turn on and off as the modern LEDs do) as we continued on up the path. It’s not often you get higher than a lighthouse at such a close range.

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The view from above the buildings

 

There is evidence of mud sliding in other areas on the island. In some areas, the steps are buried, probably not helped by the number of birds that choose to reside there in the spring and summer. The presence of birds on the island cannot be forgotten when you visit. Every now and then, while on the path, you will spot the remains of a number of gannets in particular. There is a gannet who clearly met a very grisly end involving a metal stake in the old chapel. It is positioned almost halfway along, opposite the main entrance doorway and, as such, gives the impression of being almost a prized display. It was odd and obviously not a great way for the gannet to go (I don’t often sympathise with gannets).

Very handily, the path has a handrail all of the way long, and the path takes you to the north of the island where there is a little foghorn sitting, ironically, in perfect peace and quiet. The weather was by no means wild today, but the calmest place on the whole island seemed to be at exactly the point where the foghorn once operated. The old equipment, or at least some of it, is still inside the little building. The foghorn faces the Isle of May, which was visible today from the foghorn. The views, in general, are fantastic from Bass Rock. The further you move up the island, the more visible the coastline to the south becomes.

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Bass Rock foghorn

Bass Rock was an incredible place to visit. I am so glad I went back and finally got onto the island. For such a small space, there is something that would be of interest to anyone I should imagine. Our group consisted of those who wanted to get to the island high point, but also the lighthouse, the foghorn, to take pictures, or just generally to get to the island. It is one of those islands that seems so close and yet incredibly inaccessible. That certainly adds to its appeal.

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One of my favourite views on the island, of which there are plenty

Once back on dry land I began my journey to Edinburgh to meet the others while Bob continued his boat trip. My destination was the National Museum of Scotland. While being the place that I would meet up with the kids and Bob’s mum, it is also home to a small number of lighthouse-related exhibits. The key exhibit is definitely the old optic and mechanism from the Inchkeith lighthouse, which stands proudly in the Grand Gallery. Jane had described the old Bass Rock optic in the museum in North Berwick as almost a piece of art. Well, that’s what they are really. Absolutely beautiful, while also completely functional. Jane had said that the light from Bass Rock used to be visible for miles. I won’t say I got annoyed with people being in my pictures of the optic at the museum – although that would be a lie. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they were also appreciating it, but they just weren’t.

There was a small area in the museum dedicated to lighthouses, which featured a model of the Eddystone lighthouse, a modern LED light, a section of the old hyper-radiant lens from South Foreland lighthouse, a RACON (radar beacon), an electric arc lamp, an oil lamp and reflector, and an electric filament bulb as well as a Fresnel lens. Considering it is only small display it the museum, it’s quite a nice collection. The old Sule Skerry optic also now calls the museum its home, although I believe it is currently in storage. The old Eilean Glas optic, now on display in the Science Museum in London, is also officially owned by and on loan from the museum.

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The old optic and mechanism from Inchkeith

Overall, it’s been a great day. To have successfully landed and enjoyed Bass Rock was a big achievement for me. Maybe in summer it would have been easier to get onto the lighthouse, but there would have been birds to contend with. Today it felt like it was our place to enjoy and we just had to share it with each other. Luckily the others didn’t get in the way of my pictures! 🙂

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A short walk at beautiful Gairlochy

Continuing my gentle re-introduction to normality, having seen two lighthouses yesterday, I simply had to see one today. I’d had a distant view of the lighthouse at Gairlochy on the banks of the Caledonian Canal a few years ago, but time limitations meant I’d not been able to walk to it at that time. This morning was the perfect opportunity though while travelling between Fort William and Inverness.

It’s a great little walk and considering it was a Sunday morning it was surprisingly quiet. I passed one person just as I set off, but that was it. There was rain in the air and maybe that had put people off, but otherwise it was a nice morning. The water was as calm as it could possibly be. The banks of the canal are lined with trees of varying shapes and sizes, which looked fantastic today with the reflections in the water. With low cloud added into the mix, it was all very atmospheric. The positioning of the lighthouse in relation to the surrounding land meant I couldn’t see a reflection of the tower itself in the canal, but as I’ve said a lot recently, you can’t have everything.

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Gairlochy lighthouse and the Caledonian Canal

The tower is very similar in style to others dotted along the canal, namely Fort Augustus and Corpach. I think they’re a likeable sort of tower, very understated, they just get on and do their job, but in such beautiful locations. There are a couple of nice little touches on the Gairlochy light that make it stand out a little, such as the small porch area leading to the curved door (it’s not often you see a curved door). The lighthouse also features the year it was built, 1932, a tiny hint at a celebration of its own existence. Otherwise, it seems to happily sit there minding it’s own business

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Gairlochy lighthouse

You can always tell that a lighthouse is easy to get to and frequently visited when it has a bench next to it! A nice little spot to relax and clear your mind – if you can spare the time for such luxuries. Today was not a day for that as I had to get back to Bob and the kids, and continue the journey home. Back I went along the towpath, a walk I would be more than happy to do time and time again. One day I will sit on that bench and enjoy the beauty of it all. I may even have a little chat to the lighthouse too – or would that be taking things too far?! Probably.

I have a feeling that this will indeed be my last blog post for a little while – maybe six whole weeks in fact. In the meantime I shall be busily working away on the book whenever I possibly can 🙂

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