Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the storm before the calm – part one

I left my previous post, which covered up to Summer 2018, at the end of what I called ‘the bagging years’, when there were lighthouse and island trips aplenty on board chartered boats. Those years were relatively care-free with little knowledge of the 18-month juggling act that was to come. With so much going on it has been difficult to fit it all into one final Reflections post, so this is part one of ‘the storm before the calm’. As usual I have scattered pictures taken during this period throughout.

As mentioned in a previous Reflections post, the idea of writing a book containing a comprehensive listing of UK lighthouses came about in 2012/13. I had been working on this list on a fairly casual basis since, but it was in around 2017 that my efforts to get it completed and into some sort of semblance of order that could be published really picked up. By Spring 2018 it felt like I was getting there and, encouraged by Bob, I contacted Whittles Publishing to see if they would be interested. I have a tendency not to give myself much credit for the work I do and so had expected I would need to self-publish. As you can probably imagine, I was delighted when I had a response from Whittles saying that they were very interested and even included a paragraph about why they thought they would be the best publisher for the book!

Skerryvore lighthouse, where it wasn’t as calm as this picture makes it look

Just a month or so after this initial contact I was having a look through the quarterly journal from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) and noticed some vacancies for their events team. By that point I’d been a very inactive members of the ALK for almost five years with my only contribution being writing a piece about my favourite lighthouse after I happened to meet Stephen who owns Bidston Lighthouse and is a Trustee for the ALK, and made him aware of this blog. The role looked interesting – organising events to see lighthouses, why not? I’d had plenty organised for me over the years so it seemed like a great opportunity to do the same for others. I made contact with David, the ALK’s Secretary, and within a couple of days I’d spoken to three of their Trustees and was near enough on board.

With hindsight, taking on both the publication of the book and the role at the ALK within a couple of months was a little over the top. I was already working part time and had a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old to look after. However, I knew it would take a little while before the ALK events would get up and running and so the book could be done and dusted by the time that picked up – or at least that’s what I thought.

The island of Fidra in the Firth of Forth was a wonderful place to visit

In the meantime there were more bagging trips to be had. A trip to Tiree in September 2018 with an attempt at landing on Skerryvore was an offer I simply could not refuse. The organiser, Brian, asked if I knew of anyone else who would be interested in joining as there were some spaces available. With my new contacts at the ALK and at fairly short notice I was able to recruit one man and he just happened to be a former Skerryvore lighthouse keeper – what could be better!? There is considerably more detail about that trip here, but it was the first to combine the bagging trips with another person primarily interested in lighthouses. Just 10 days or so after this there was a day trip to Fidra planned by organiser-extraordinaire Alan. It was excellent to be back in the company of a number of those on some of my earliest bagging trips.

My efforts for the ALK really began in September that year at their AGM in South Wales. There were so many people to meet, things to learn and ideas to take in. It was a great weekend though and I left feeling like I’d made so many new friends in a very short space of time. One of these friends in particular has had a few mentions here since, my lighthouse pal John. I found out before the AGM that John was also into the flat-pack lighthouses dotted around Scotland so I was, of course, keen to meet him. John actually turned out to be one of the overlaps in much of what was going on back then. He was happy to review my list for the book and share some of his pictures with me to help fill in some gaps. He was also was very helpful in getting me up to speed with the ALK and he would, a short time later, go on to join a number of trips with me.

One of the benefits of being an ALK member is getting inside lighthouses you couldn’t normally, such as the tower on Flatholm

Later in 2018 I arranged a meeting with Whittles and prior to that they sent over a draft publishing agreement. I was asked for a sample chapter and so I sent over the text and pictures for the Northern Scotland section. When Bob and I turned up for the meeting I was amazed to see there in front of me a draft design of the chapter. It was an incredibly bizarre but brilliant feeling. We agreed some minor changes to the publishing agreement and decided on a deadline of February 2019 for me to get all content to them.

The deadline for the book put a little pressure on as I knew there were some gaps where neither myself or John had good pictures of certain lighthouses. Prior to 2018 I’d had a fairly clear “bagging season” which generally ran from about April to September, give or take a month every now and then. With Autumn approaching I was going to need to put in some out of season effort.

Corbiere lighthouse and the tribute to those who saved the lives of all passengers on board the French catamaran Saint-Malo after it struck a rock in the area in April 1995

Possibly the most outlandish trip happened in late October/early November that year when the kids were left with a grandparent while Bob and I flew south to the previously unexplored Jersey where we spent two days cramming in all of the lighthouses. We then were in Ayrshire for a day or two with the kids and on a RIB ride along the Clyde to see more lights before driving to Aberdeen where we flew up to Shetland for a couple of nights. That was some adventure and probably best described in the posts from those times rather than summarised here. As we prepared to leave Shetland at the end of that week I was falling asleep in the hire car on the way to the airport after all of the travelling, rushing about and staying up late to write up what the antics of the day for my posts.

The old Muckle Roe tower and Sumburgh Head lighthouse in Shetland

Three further, but less intense, trips followed with one to Northern Ireland in December 2018, another family trip to Islay in January 2019 and finally a day out in South East England to grab a few more pictures before settling down to get the content pulled together in that final month. Always happy to fit in just one more opportunity I finally made it out to, and landed on, Bass Rock in January 2019, which was a real achievement after a failed attempt a couple of months earlier.

It was a big bonus to see my very first Republic of Ireland light, Moville, during boat trip to see some Northern Irish lights

The deadline for my book came and went with everything submitted on time. I felt I could temporarily take a deep breath before diving back in again. The best and worst was yet to come… More very soon 🙂

The beautiful island of Fidra

As mentioned in my previous post, we were informed of a fairly last minute boat trip that was headed for Fidra on Wednesday. Fidra is one of those islands that, although it is fairly close to the mainland, isn’t so easy to get to. During bird nesting season landing on the island isn’t really allowed, meaning boat operators just won’t take you there. It is the same for Bass Rock, which is even more of a challenge to land on. Obviously as soon as the nesting season is over the weather starts to turn, so you just need to hope for a good weather window in autumn or winter in order to get to these places.

Bass Rock
Bass Rock from North Berwick

When we arrived at North Berwick and managed to jump into a newly vacated parking space on the sea front, we had wonderful views over to Bass Rock with its immediately identifiable shape and lighthouse. The sky was blue, but there was a fair wind coming from the west, which we thought wouldn’t have much of an impact on the Firth of Forth, but it certainly does!

We found our fellow passengers and the boat, Braveheart, where the skipper informed us we would need our waterproofs for the crossing. Always nice to hear! He was definitely not wrong though. While it wasn’t a particularly bad ride it was bumpy at times with a lot of splashing. Two of our party had taken up the most unfortunate positions at the back of the boat. You may recall in older television comedies where it was clear that buckets of water were being thrown at people to resemble being in a boat on choppy seas. Well that was what it was like. It was good fun though.

Fidra arch
The natural arch

As we approached the island the conditions became much calmer and by the time we pulled in alongside the jetty it was positively calm. Landing on the jetty was easy, much easier than many other landings. A couple of members of the group wandered off over to the tidal section of the island (the South Dog) while the rest of us followed the route of the old tracks leading up to the lighthouse, passing the ruins of the old 12th/13th century chapel. There is a wonderful natural arch in the rock to the right as you walk up. It’s not a big island, but it’s stunning. I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful, possibly because it isn’t particularly remote. I always felt that islands that took a long time to get to were often the most beautif

Fidra3
Fidra lighthouse and the old cable drum

As the highest point of the island is to the east of the lighthouse, once you’ve landed on the island it’s not possible to see the lighthouse. It was only after a few minutes of walking up the old tracks that it came into view. Just after passing through the wall that surrounds the compound, we saw the old cable drum that was used to haul the carts up from the jetty to the lighthouse. We also spotted one of the wheels from a cart on our way back down too.

The different land levels around the lighthouse give a variety of perspectives on it. The large rock to the south of island, as one of the other group members said, almost seems as if it was placed there just for people to get a good view/take pictures of the lighthouse from. So often it’s the surroundings of the lighthouse that add to its appeal and that’s definitely the case with Fidra.

Fidra
Fidra lighthouse from higher ground

The lighthouse here was designed and built under the leadership of Thomas and David A Stevenson. The light was established in 1885 and was automated in 1970. In 2009, along with lighthouse on Inchkeith and Elie Ness lighthouse, ownership of the light was transferred to Forth Ports.

After we left the lighthouse, we had a stroll around the old lighthouse garden, which is a fair size. It is covered with old puffin burrows so we had to tread carefully.

Fidra is a stunning island and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. A little gem in the Firth of Forth! 🙂