uklighthousetour

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

The VIP treatment at Hurst Point

Back in 2010 I went on my first ever trip organised specifically to see lighthouses. The trip had been organised by a friend and my sister, and took in the lighthouses at Anvil Point and Portland. It also included a visit over to Hurst Point, taking the boat from Keyhaven. I’d not been back to Hurst Point since and so what better time than a Friday in mid-December when everything is closed to the public?!

Thankfully I was armed with my super lighthouse friend John (previously referred to on occasion as my flat pack partner in crime) who, being a volunteer there, knew the right people and where the keys were!

On the way to Keyhaven on Friday morning, we took the coastal route giving us some wonderful views across to the Needles. I often forget that the Isle of Wight isn’t so far away from mainland UK, mainly because I spend most of the time travelling there on a boat in Southampton waters! It was great to be able to see the island from this angle.

Thanks to John’s excellent pre-planning, we were able to hop on board the boat as the Hurst Marine team set off to undertake some ongoing maintenance work out there. It was a nice ride out and with the low winter sun there were plenty of beautifully lit views all around.

Hurst arrival

The active lighthouse at Hurst Point

In lighthouse terms it doesn’t get much more exciting than approaching four lighthouses. Yes, four! The only one of these I’d seen really close up before was the white tower – the most noticeable of the four and the only one still in operation. The priority this time though was to get at those inside the grounds of Hurst Castle. So in we went.

Hurst low lights arrival

The old low lights within the grounds of Hurst Castle

I must admit that there was one I was particularly excited about and that is the old lantern from the tower that used to sit on top of the Nab Tower. I think John knew this as, aside from a brief stop at the office for those who volunteer at the Association of Lighthouse Keepers’ Museum at Hurst, it was our first stop. First a bit of background: the Nab Tower is located to the east of the Isle of Wight and was introduced to protect again German submarines. Originally it didn’t feature a lighthouse, but this was added after the Nab Tower itself was no longer required. The decision was made to replace the nearby Nab light vessel with a lighthouse on top of the Nab Tower. The structure now at Hurst Castle is that very lighthouse lantern. It was removed in 2012 during a big renovation and had to be dismantled to get it inside the castle at Hurst before being reconstructed (without instructions).

Old Nab Tower

The old Nab Tower lantern

It’s fantastic to see how much love and attention it has had to get to the point it is at now, which is near enough ready to be open to the public as a child-friendly exhibit. Complete with rotating light and child-size steps, I can tell it’s going to be a very popular addition. It was a real pleasure to see this one.

Old Nab lens

The rotating lens now inside the Nab lantern

Next we moved on to the Association of Lighthouse Keepers rooms. This was wonderful to see. Just like the Association itself, the rooms are a real celebration of lighthouse keepers in particular. The displays include some wonderful pictures and also what has proven to be a very popular exhibit, a map pointing out where the lighthouses are so visitors can see where their nearest one is. Alongside the Trinity House rooms, there is a lot of lighthouse information there. I even got to wind up the rotating mechanism on an old lens – I would have been a useless lighthouse keeper! The old Egypt Point lantern was on display too, which was brilliant to see. Also the old Holm of Skaw lantern from Shetland. Amazing! A treasure trove of all things lighthouse.

Rotating lens

The lens that I (just about) managed to rotate

While we were in the area, I was allowed to venture up onto the roof of the castle, which is normally out of bounds to the public (another benefit of going when the castle is closed). John has informed me that this was a great angle for getting a picture of all three of the Hurst towers. We weren’t able to get along to the prime viewing point as there has been some fairly significant damage to the castle in that area in recent months with the shingle underneath the walls being washed away. Work is very much ongoing to try and reduce any further damage, but nature is a real force to be reckoned with. The roof was definitely a great point for a picture of the three towers.

Hurst three lights

The view from the roof

Next on the priority list was the old grey low light. The grey tower is open to the public on the odd occasion and I was very pleased to have my own private tour. With the lower half being just a metal framework section it was all external staircases initially. Once inside there were some really interesting features. The round windows with their large handles intrigued me and when looking through the windows to the east there were some nice views of the other two towers.

Grey light lamp changer

The replica lamp changer in the grey lighthouse

John showed me the replica lamp changer, a great little contraption. I saw a larger version at the top of the tower where the lamp changer is still in position and the old lens is still in situ too. John showed me exactly where to stand to be able to get a view through the lens of the Needles upside down! A rather unique view on those iconic rocks and the lighthouse.

Upside down Needles

Spot the upside down Needles!

We got even better views from the balcony, including a fairly close view of the other low light, the stone tower. Another lovely looking building. Again John was on hand to show me the two positions to stand in to see the different colours of the sector lights on the active lighthouse. With the wind picking up, the sea was getting much more choppy and you could see where different currents were meeting and causing quite a stir. Another excellent vantage point.

Old stone tower

The old stone lighthouse, viewed from the grey light

On the way back down I took a look at a map showing the various lighthouses that have existed on Hurst Point in the past. Once back on ground level we poked our heads into a store room beneath the old stone tower and could see the curved wall of the tower. In another room there was a little doorway leading to the base of the tower where there was a beautiful curved ceiling. There was, sadly, no access to the rest of the tower from here.

It would have been rude not to have taken a stroll over to the white lighthouse so that was where we went next. It’s a really distinctive tower, with the oversized “ball” on top of the lantern. At least that’s what we called it, for want of a better (or more accurate) term. The tower looked perfect against the bright blue sky, as it had when I had last visited. It must always be sunny at Hurst! The diggers being used to help save the castle walls towards the east could be seen in this area, as could the big waves splashing up over the shingle.

Hurst Point lighthouse

Hurst Point lighthouse

We took a look around the east wing of the castle, which at times feels like being in a maze with so many different doorways and sets of stairs. One area on this side gave some more great views of the old stone tower from a different angle with the shingle spit that links Hurst Point to Keyhaven visible in the distance.

Old stone tower from east

The old stone lighthouse viewed from the east

Hurst is a really fascinating place and I have much more of an appreciation for it now that I have spent more time there and seen how much hard work goes into the improvements and the essential ongoing maintenance. There is so much more to it than I ever imagined.

Tour guide John

Me with tour guide John

I am, of course, massively grateful to John for taking the time to show me around, making arrangements to get out there, and for such a fun time. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and definitely won’t be leaving it another 9 years before going back this time. 🙂

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My first ALK event

At the weekend I finally made use of my Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) membership, which I have had for 5 years, and attended their AGM and associated lighthouse visits in South Wales.

Earlier in the year I received an email to say that the ALK required a new team to organise their events and I had expressed an interest in joining the team. After meeting their Secretary/Events Coordinator, I was still keen to be involved so I spoke to their Chair, Neil Hargreaves (a former lighthouse keeper for Trinity House), and Trustee Lin Sunderland, who is also joining the events team and is on the committee for the St Mary’s Lighthouse Group and a volunteer at Spurn lighthouse.

Of course, to organise any events for the ALK I needed to attend at least one of them, and the AGM in Cardiff seemed like the perfect one – particularly as the members would be approving the new events team at the meeting. Going along to the AGM would also mean I’d get to see Ian Duff again (see my earlier post on Skerryvore for more information about Ian), as well as Stephen Pickles from Bidston lighthouse who I’d met a few years ago on our visit there. Prior to the event I had also been in contact with another ALK Trustee, John Best, who shares my enjoyment of lighthouses of all shapes and sizes (including the Northern Lighthouse Board’s “flat-pack/IKEA” type). John has been a massive help recently in my attempt to pull together some form of a list of lighthouses. So the AGM would also be an opportunity to meet him.

So Bob and I went along and were immediately welcomed by the record number of ALK members attending the AGM. I shall prepare separate posts about our lighthouse visits over the weekend, which included East and West Usk, Caldey Island, Flatholm and Nash Point. We met a number of them during the day on Friday and had some good first in-person chats with Lin, John and Neil.

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The particularly impressive ramparts at St Donat’s Castle

On the Saturday afternoon we arrived at the amazing AGM venue, Atlantic College at St Donat’s Castle. It really is a hidden gem with some incredible buildings and a fantastic little beach and slipway where the early lifeboats/RIBs used to be launched. The room we had dinner in reminded me of a smaller-scale version of the hall in Harry Potter, and I don’t even know where to begin with describing the toilets…

The AGM went well and the new events team proposal was approved, so I am now officially involved with the ALK. As well as Lin, I also met Laura who is the third member of the team and has embarked on her own lighthouse tour this year. She had come across this blog while preparing for her tour, and it was nice to hear that it was useful to her. The three of us had some good laughs over the weekend, so I am sure we will get on well as a team. The AGM was concluded with a fascinating presentation on foghorns delivered by a lady who is doing a PhD on the human aspects of the topic!

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The view from the slipway at Atlantic College, St Donat’s Castle, where the first RIBs were launched

As well as meeting Neil Hargreaves, I was also privileged to meet another former keeper, Gerry Douglas-Sherwood. Gerry was one of the three founding members of the ALK alongside Neil and the recently departed Graham Fearn. Gerry served at the Needles lighthouse and wrote the first issues of the ALK journal, Lamp, on a typewriter during his time in the lighthouse. Getting a chance to speak with both Gerry and Neil, as well as Ian again, was a real honour for me. To date I have found no other profession that people are more proud of than lighthouse keeping. It is incredibly refreshing in a time when work is so frequently seen as a chore. The former keepers also seem very grateful to the rest of the ALK membership for their appreciation of the structures they lived and worked in. They all seem so modest and humble. Such a wonderful experience to speak to them.

Among the others I met at the AGM and dinner were Chris Nicholson whose book Rock Lighthouse of Britain was one of my first ever books on the topic. Also, Roy Thompson who appears to know boatmen all over the country and will, I’m sure, be a huge help in putting us in touch with the right people. There were a number of very well-connected people there who were happy to help anyone looking to visit a particular lighthouse. There were also a number of people wishing me “good luck” with taking on the events! I’m not sure if I should be scared by this or not. I guess only time will tell!

While this hasn’t been my standard sort of blog post, I felt it was important to share and to give some more details on the ALK. As stated on their website:

“The Association of Lighthouse Keepers provides a forum for everyone interested
in lighthouses, lightships and aids to navigation. We have a number of serving and former keepers amongst our members, although being a lighthouse keeper is not a requirement for joining the Association.

Membership is open to everyone!”

There may be some regular visitors to my blog who aren’t aware of the ALK, but if you are interested in lighthouses anywhere in the world (they have members from a number of countries) then do check our their website. Annual membership is only £18 per year, £24 for joint membership or £35 for family membership. I would highly recommend it already and I’ve only just become an active member. Why I left it so long, I don’t know!

More to follow soon on the lighthouses we visited over the weekend 🙂

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A brief lighthouse trip to Wales

The lighthouse on St Tudwals Island West

The lighthouse on St Tudwals Island West

A couple of weekends ago, Bob and I made a break for freedom, leaving our little man with his grandparents for the weekend. The purpose of this trip was to spend some time in Wales, particularly for a boat trip out to get a closer look at the lighthouse on St Tudwals Island West off of the west coast. A hill-bagging friend of ours had arranged the trip with the owner of St Tudwals Island East who had kindly agreed to take us to his island. Due to it being August, the owner of the West Island (Bear Grylls) was staying on the island and, understandably, very much likes some privacy with his family. That meant it wasn’t possible for us to land, but Carl did take us on a spin around the West Island so I could get a good view of it. Carl, who co-owns the East Island, was telling us that he suspects the St Tudwals lighthouse may be discontinued shortly, which would mean that Bear Grylls would inherit a lighthouse. Lucky him! It’s an attractive little structure. We spent a short time on the East Island, enough time to wander up to island high point for Bob and to take a stroll around some of the coast there – with some nice views across to the lighthouse too. What amazed me most though was the small house that sits on the east side of the island. From the outside it doesn’t look like there’s much going on, but as soon as you step inside there are tables, decorations aplenty and even an upper floor with a double mattress! It’s a great little island and the owner is full of some amusing stories. He described how he went about getting large stones airlifted onto the island for a stone circle he set up there about 10 years ago. It was a really enjoyable trip and the weather was absolutely perfect.

Llanddwyn Island lighthouse

Llanddwyn Island lighthouse

During my tour in 2012, I attempted to visit the lighthouse on Llanddywyn Island off of the south coast of Anglesey. Officially its not a tidal island, but many (and the name itself) would tell you otherwise and, when I visited before it was spring tide time so the tide was particularly high and access to the peninsula was not possible. This time we were able to time our visit perfectly so we arrived as the tide was retreating. From afar it didn’t look like there was much to it, but it’s actually a great place to explore, with paths leading out to the beacon at the very end. The old lighthouse there is really interesting in that the light was displayed from the base of the  structure, rather than the top. I think there is often confusion over which is the lighthouse out of the two as it would be easy to miss the old lamp room in the lighthouse if you’re looking for it at the top. There’s a lot of history surrounding the island (sorry, peninsula) and a great deal of information on display around the island relating to pilgrimages. After leaving the island, we noticed some wooden poles on display near the car park with various carvings on top and one of them was clearly a carving of the old lighthouse. As the weather was so good that weekend there were plenty of people around on the beach, but not so many taking the walk out to Llanddwyn Island, which made it much nicer.

Penmon Point at low tide

Penmon Point at low tide

We had a little time to spare that day before dinner, so Bob suggested going along to Penmon Point to see the black and white lighthouse there, which I’d visited on my tour in 2012. As we followed the coastal road north it was clear that the tide was quite far out, so we were hopeful that we would be able to walk out to the lighthouse for a proper “bag”. I was very amused when we arrived and Bob, excitedly, when dashing off towards the lighthouse. We managed to get right out to it and Bob, as usual, chose to climb up to the door using the very cleverly built footholds. It wasn’t too busy there either so we only had to share the lighthouse with a couple of other people. There’s nothing worse than crowds of people when you’re trying to get a good picture!

On the Sunday we headed home, but first we needed to get at least one lighthouse visit in, considering it was International Lighthouse-Lightship Weekend! I’d read online that both Leasowe and Bidston Hill lighthouses would be open to the public that day, so it was an opportunity not to be missed. We had a bit of time to kill before Bidston Hill opened, to we had a quick look at Leasowe and then drove along to Hoylake. When I’d been there in 2012, I’d seen the lighthouse (or what I thought was the lighthouse) so this was an opportunity for Bob to see it too. We had a quick stop there and then went on to Bidston Hill. It’s not one I had seen before, so it was an added bonus for me to actually be able to get inside it too.

The Bidston Hill lighthouse

The Bidston Hill lighthouse

We arrived just in time for the first tour of the day, which was run by Stephen Pickles who is an active member of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers. I had, in fact, received an email from Stephen shortly before that weekend asking if I would be interested in preparing a piece on my favourite lighthouse for their journal, Lamp (more on that later in the year). It was a really interesting tour and you could tell that Stephen is not only the owner of the lighthouse, but has a real fondness for its history too. There are some fascinating stories about how they would go about informing the port authorities at Liverpool that a boat was on its way in. There was a group of amateur radio guys halfway up the lighthouse, chatting away to others around the world as part of the Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend. We were fortunate enough to get into the lamp room at the top of the lighthouse, which boasts panoramic views of the surrounding area and out to sea. Sadly, there is a lot of damage to the panes of glass in the lamp room. They suspect someone has been shooting at them from outside and they are currently looking to replace the panes, which isn’t going to be cheap for them. Why anyone would do such a thing is beyond me. We had a chance to speak to Stephen and his wife for a while after the tour and got a stamp for my lighthouse passport. It was during our chat with them that we found out that the building we’d seen at Hoylake is actually a lighthouse folly and not the actual lighthouse. So, we will need to head back there again at some point.

When we left Bidston Hill, we did consider popping into Leasowe to have a look around, but we were running short on time for getting home that evening, so decided to give it a miss this time. We hope we will be back in the area when it’s open again some day soon. We’re nearing the end of our peak lighthouse-bagging season, but it’s not over yet. There will be at least one or two new ones in the next couple of weeks. More on this to follow soon! 🙂

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