Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: an introduction to the islands

In this third part of my series of posts about my lighthouse journey I will be covering the period from mid-2012 to mid-2014 when I began to visit places I never imagined I would get to.

When I first planned this Reflections series, I’d not considered this rather important couple of years as separate from the years that followed, but it very much is. As a result, this will now become a five-part series.

Holy Isle Outer, or Pillar Rock, lighthouse on the small island of Holy Isle just off Arran

As mentioned at the end of my previous post, I returned from my lighthouse tour with no plans for future lighthouse visits. That changed completely with the introduction of Bob. Many of my longer-term followers, friends and family will know the story of how we met, but for those who don’t, the best way to catch up on that is by reading this post. It’s quite an interesting one to read back for myself. It reminds me that 9 years ago I was filled with excitement and enthusiasm for visiting these places; the kind of feelings you get when you have discovered a new pastime that you enjoy so much. That’s not to say, of course, that I no longer have the same feelings, but it was a more innocent, carefree enjoyment then. I will say more on how that has changed in the final post of this series.

On my first visit to Loch Eriboll lighthouse in 2012

Those two years were a time of massive change – the biggest of my life so far. Within that period I’d gone from living in London and having no plans at all to settle down, to then moving to the north coast of Scotland, getting married and getting pregnant. Looking back now it was a whirlwind and I don’t think I even had time to take it in as it was happening. During the first year I would work full time during the week and spend weekends away visiting amazing places. While Bob was away for over two months for his attempt to climb Everest from March to May 2013, I filled my spare time with wedding planning and packing ready for my move. Once I’d moved it was only two months until we were married and then another couple of months before I fell pregnant. Life then was very much ‘don’t think, just do’ and I enjoyed the ride as all of these life-changing events were taking place.

The lighthouse on the stunning tidal island of Davaar

There were two very important changes that happened during this time in relation to my appreciation of lighthouses. Firstly, lighthouses on islands suddenly went from being in the ‘not likely to ever reach’ domain to ‘I could actually go there’. I’d recognised the need for more time and money being required for visiting islands, both of which were not something I had been able to afford previously, hence my focus on the mainland with the original tour. However, when you have a successful first date on Arran, as described in the post linked to above, you know islands are likely to become a more regular occurrence.

Lundy North lighthouse, one of three on the idyllic Lundy Island

Secondly, I gained access to a range of new resources that gave me a much clearer picture of where lighthouses were. It was from looking at mapping software that I became aware of many more lights that I wasn’t aware of. One of these was Loch Eriboll lighthouse, which I wrote about recently after a revisit. Since discovering this one I’ve grown more and more fond of these very modern structures. A short time after visiting the first at Loch Eriboll I encountered the second at Hoxa Head in Orkney, which is the same standard flat-pack type tower. Even in those early days I recognised the glorious surroundings you witnessed when visiting these small, and often overlooked, towers as well as the more challenging off piste walking required to reach them. The discovery of these was the start of being propelled onto a new level of fanaticism. It turned out I wasn’t just your average lighthouse bagger (if there is such a thing) who is only interested in a tall tower with a lantern, gallery and coloured bands as a bonus. My lighthouse adventures started to become more about going to new places and not solely about just getting to see the lights.

Sorry about the wonky picture – it was taken from a boat and, I think, adds character. This was my first encounter with both Bell Rock lighthouse and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos

It was sometime during the second half of 2012 that I came across the book The Relative Hills of Britain by Alan Dawson. Bob’s well-thumbed copy had set up home in his car’s passenger side pocket so it was only natural that I would take a closer look at some point. I was fascinated by it as only a list person could be. It featured, among other chapters, maps of the U.K. split into sections followed by a listing of all hills with a prominence of at least 150 metres within that section. I knew my lighthouse list at that time was not comprehensive and I longed for a lighthouse equivalent list of Alan Dawson’s hill listing. Bob, the bright spark, suggested I should do it myself and this was the first ever mention of the idea behind my book The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. Rather optimistically Bob’s suggestion was to get it published in my maiden name before we got married. That turned out to be an unrealistic timescale as it rather quickly became apparent that there would be more to it than just scouring maps and making a list. Key to the development of a list was having a definition and it took me quite some time to finalise that, based on what I already knew of the lighthouses I’d visited and those I had yet to see. It turned out I needed a few more years’ bagging experience before I felt able to establish a definition I was happy with.

Europa Point lighthouse in Gibraltar

In the meantime there were plenty of trips to be had. While I was still in London many long weekends were spent away in such places as Cornwall, Gibraltar (for the romantics among you who don’t know this bit, here’s the post from that trip), Orkney, South Wales, Davaar and the Mull of Kintyre, North Wales, the Isle of May and Bell Rock lighthouse. After moving north there were further destinations across the country including Pentland Skerries, Northern Ireland (another link for those romantically-inclined) and Colonsay. There are so many memories packed into those sentences and looking back now it feels like it all happened a long time ago. I very quickly went from doing a lot of my adventures alone to sharing the experience with someone else and along with that came more challenging walks to lighthouses, more access issues, and more pushing the boundaries in order to reach a goal. I suppose to summarise the change that occurred in my outlook during that period was the development of the bagging mentality – and it turned out I was going to need that very thing in the coming years.

My first Northern Irish light, Donaghadee

Up until this point any boat trips to islands or offshore lights were undertaken using scheduled ferries or on routine tourist boat trips – but boy, was that about to change… 🙂

Pladda at last

After the success of yesterday’s adventure on Loch Long, the crew at Sea Clyde had reserved the best weather day this weekend for getting to the island of Pladda – and what a day it was!

We set off from Largs mid-morning – the fabulous four: Bob, John, Seumas and I – with skipper Dan and were pleased to hear that conditions we’re looking great for landing on the island, but there was a fair amount to see from the boat even before we got there.

After an unsuccessful attempt to see Kylie, the resident dolphin, we continued on our way towards Little Cumbrae. Hugging the coastline as we went to protect us from any swell, we sailed down the west side of the island, taking in the views of the two lighthouses (and of course the old lighthouse on the approach) while at the same time occasionally glimpsing across to Bute where Rubh’ an Eun lighthouse could be seen from a greater distance. This felt like a proper return to the islands, even if we were just bypassing them.

The old and modern lighthouses on Little Cumbrae

Onwards towards Arran we went and as we approached the small stretch of water between Arran and Holy Isle the skipper pointed out a submarine in the water ahead of us. Now I know I was there for the lighthouses, but to see a submarine in real life was very exciting. Needless to say Seumas was delighted too! There are restrictions on how close you can sail to these monstrous vessels, so it wasn’t like sailing straight past it at close range, but it was still great to see.

It wasn’t long until we were sailing down the west side of Holy Isle and, of course, there was the Holy Isle Inner lighthouse ahead of us. This little tower is in such a great location and seeing it reflected in the water with the land rising to the highest point of the island behind it was just beautiful. That really is the best angle to see this one from.

Holy Isle Inner lighthouse

Back out into the sea again and rounding a corner I heard the cry “lighthouse” from the back of the boat – Seumas has really taken to the role of lighthouse spotter. There ahead of us was Pladda with the fantastic two towers basking in the lovely sunshine.

An aerial view of Pladda

It’s always a pleasure to land onto a nice jetty rather than rock hopping. It feels a little like luxury. The jetty is actually looking a little worse for wear now with large cracks running down it. Still it held together under our combined weight and that’s the most important thing.

Arriving on Pladda

From the jetty it was a short uphill walk to the level grassy section of the island following a good, clear path which took us all the way to the lighthouse. The double towers are absolutely fantastic and, although the low light is no longer in operation it is still very well maintained on the outside.

One thing about Pladda lighthouse is that it’s not the easiest one to take a picture of, particularly if you want both towers in the same shot without one looking like it’s leaning toward the other. You can get some rather dramatic views from the courtyard though.

The two towers on Pladda and the old foghorn air compressors

While Bob was flying his drone and capturing various aerial views, the rest of us explored around the old foghorn and took a number of pictures of the foghorn looking out towards the beautiful lump that is Ailsa Craig.

Looking out towards Ailsa Craig from the Pladda foghorn

In our next attempt to get a good view of the two towers I suggested the best area might be down near the rocks to which John replied that it would, but it would be a bit of a “jaump” (which I believe is a combination of “jump” and “jaunt”!?) He was right, although I wouldn’t have jumped it! There was another spot a bit closer next to the solar panels that I thought could be a good angle so we made our way around there, wading through the thick grass. This was a slightly better viewpoint, but still not quite right. John did find a ladder though that went down to the lower level. He went down, but decided not to walk too far as the birds were getting a bit stressed.

The Pladda towers, taken from the solar panels

We did a quick selfie using the drone (a “dronie” I believe it is called) and then explored the old gardens a bit. It was here that we discovered the best angle for getting both towers in the one picture and although it did mean upsetting a few birds we tried not to disturb them too much.

The two towers on Pladda seen from the garden

We trekked across the long grass towards the highest point on the island, which gave some excellent views towards the lighthouse (minus the little tower, which is obscured at that angle) with Ailsa Craig sitting quietly in the middle of the sea in the distance.

The view from the highest point on Pladda

It was then time to head back to the boat where we found Bob and Seumas playing on a small section of rocky beach. Seumas had built a lighthouse in the water and was throwing rocks (or asteroids) into the water surrounding it. That was his favourite part of the day!

Hopping back on the boat we took a quick spin around to see the lighthouses and foghorn from the sea, which again gave another interesting angle.

Pladda lighthouse towers and foghorn from the sea

Then the return journey began. This time we sailed up the east side of Holy Isle to get a nice view of the Pillar Rock lighthouse, which lived up to my expectations in terms of views. The steep slopes behind it looked a little frightening and Bob pointing out one of the crevasses up near the high point added to this.

Holy Isle Pillar Rock lighthouse

There was still no sign of Kylie the dolphin on the way back, but arriving back in Largs I think we all agreed that it had been a very successful and enjoyable day out. Pladda has most certainly moved up a number of places in my favourite lighthouses list. It’s such a great island with its unique two tower arrangement. Days like this really is what it’s all about. 🙂