A closer look at South Cumbria

With a day to get home from Preston, a bit of a detour en route felt necessary to clear up a few things lighthouse-related. I had yet to see a couple of the lights along the south coast of Cumbria, along the north bank of Morecambe Bay as well as the Walney Channel.

Living where I do in the far north of Scotland, and the vast amounts of time I have spent in areas with big, wave-battered cliffs, the relatively flat landscape and the resulting fast-moving tides of this area fascinates me. To me it somehow seems more dangerous than spending time on coastal routes in areas with more dramatic scenery, and this is all to do with those tides. To spend a second day in an area where lighthouse bagging is so impacted by the tide is a really interesting experience.

Before we get to that though, our first stop of the day was Ulverston. I’d stopped here briefly during my 2012 lighthouse tour and the reason any lighthouse bagger visits the town is surely for the Sir John Barrow Monument. Generally monuments aren’t lighthouses (although I can think of a few), but this one in Ulverston has a couple of interesting connections.

The Sir John Barrow Monument is clearly visible from the centre of Ulverston

When it was built in 1850 its construction costs totalling £1,250 were mostly paid for by donations from the public. However, £100 was paid for by Trinity House (the lighthouse authority for England and Wales) and the reason for this was it would be used as a seamark. There are conflicting stories related to this with some sources stating that Trinity House contributed based on it it being a seamark alone – though the original plans included a room in the basement that would act as the ‘lighthouse keeper’s’ living quarters. Others suggest that the funds from Trinity House were given in case the tower ever needed to bear a light for navigation purposes, and another that the donation from Trinity House was to ensure that the tower would never bear a light. It is all rather confusing.

On the way up Hoad Hill

That is not the only link though between the monument and lighthouses. The tower design is based on that of John Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse, which can now be seen on Plymouth Hoe. So, in a way, when you visit it does feel a little like you are visiting a lighthouse. I should add at this point that you may well be wondering who Sir John Barrow was, which is exactly what I was asking too. Sir John Barrow was born and raised in Ulverston and went on to become an explorer, a writer and – perhaps most relevant – Second Secretary to the Admiralty for 41 years. He passed away two years before the monument was constructed.

The Sir John Barrow Monument up close

It was a pretty hot morning actually and so the walk up Hoad Hill to the monument, especially given that Bob insisted on using the steepest paths, was a good way to work off the remnants of alcohol left in my system from the previous day. The views were great as you got higher though, with those looking out towards the sea being of most interest to me. Chapel Island stood out for me as this big rock in the middle of the sea. I have since discovered that it is possible to access it at low tides, but with real care and from the east bank of the River Leven.

Chapel Island can be seen on the far right out to sea

The monument is really impressive and quite beautiful actually. It does have a lighthouse vibe about it, which probably has a lot to do with the original design inspiration. It is possible to climb the tower on certain days between Easter and October. A good sign that the tower is open is if the flag is flying, but it is well worth walking up even if it’s not.

Joe the Drone had a wonderful time flying around the monument, pictured here with some glorious Cumbrian hills in the distance

Back down off the hill, it was time to head for some lighthouses with lights! The first of these was Rampside, a wonderful skinny little brick tower known locally as ‘The Needle’. This tower, built in 1875 to guide ships into Barrow-in-Furness, is the last remaining one of thirteen of this same type.

Rampside Lighthouse, also known as The Needle

The lighthouse is really easy to spot, sitting just off the road at Rampside on the way to Roa Island. Though it is close to the road, it is another one to be careful near due to those tides. The tide was pretty low while we were there, but there were still little puddles of unknown depth around that you need to watch out for. The fact that it has a ladder up to the door also is a good indication that the sea can impact access to it.

The ladder leading up to the door is visible here

It’s a sweet tower and with most of it being red brick I was imagining it wouldn’t really be a very useful daymark, but seeing it later on from a different angle, it really is quite noticeable. This is another one with great views across to Foulney, Roa, Piel and Walney islands.

Rampside Lighthouse’s daymark features are more obvious from the seaward side

Speaking of Foulney Island, this was the next destination. Thankfully the tide times worked in our favour that day as this one really is tidal. Foulney Island is a shingle spit (with some grass) that reaches out 2 miles into Morecambe Bay. It is a nature reserve and an important area for birds during nesting season so some areas of the spit are cordoned off at certain times of the year.

The first part of the walk to Foulney Island is easy enough

It wasn’t necessary to walk the full 2 miles to reach the lighthouse here and it is clearly visible from the parking area at the entrance to the island. The walk out here was initially a little wet with many (thankfully successful) attempt at avoiding get our feet wet in the muddy puddles presumably caused by the area being flooded at high tide. Then it was onto the shingle, which gets a bit tough going after a while. There are the remains of a 19th century stone causeway here, which was constructed to prevent the silting up of the Walney Channel. With the state of some sections of this causeway now though it would be more like boulder hopping to walk along it.

Here you can see the rocky causeway leading out to Foulney Island

The lighthouse here is a funny thing, even I will admit that. It’s an oddly shaped white glass reinforced plastic tower, which is very much a different coloured version of the light at Cardiff Barrage. Probably understandably there’s not a lot of information out there about it.

Foulney Island light with Roa Island and its Lifeboat station in the distance

This turned out to be an excellent area for Joe the Drone to stretch his blades and grab some great shots with the tidal sections of the islands all around exposed at that point. There are the remains of an old stone building just beyond the lighthouse. It’s not clear what purpose this would have served. Beyond that, although we didn’t venture that far, you can begin to see the first of many pile lights in the area just off the end of Foulney Island. It was one of these type of lights I was keen to see next.

Foulney Island from above

In researching my book, one of the resources I’d used was the fantastic Online List of Lights website. The owner of this site aims to have a picture of every active aid to navigation listed in the Admiralty List of Lights. This is quite an undertaking as it is ever-changing and covers the whole world. I could, and have, spent hours scanning through this site taking a look at the lights of all shapes and sizes. It was on this site that I came across the Walney Channel West Pile light and you can see its entry here. It doesn’t look like much, but the little white hut on top of the pile structure was what caught my attention. It was time for me to take a look at it for myself.

Passing through Barrow-in-Furness we arrived on Walney Island and found somewhere relatively sensible to abandon the car in Biggar. The OS map showed a footpath running down to the east coast of the island from here and this was really straightforward to find, passing along a narrow grassy area between two fields. Initially the walk was easy enough once we got to the coast, heading north and then east. After a while it began to get a bit wetter underfoot and I was very grateful to have had my wellies available for this walk. Again, it’s another area that becomes flooded at high tide. We stuck to fence line though to try and avoid, as much as possible, the wettest areas. At one point we needed to cross a stream about a metre wide and Bob checked it out first to test how deep it was. Fortunately it wasn’t high enough to go over the top of our wellies so we carefully waded through it and then continued on our way.

The area combines grass with lots of salt marsh

Rounding the corner we spotted a whole range of pile lights ahead of us. Quickly recognising that, even at low tide, the land between us and any of these lights was pretty saturated in many places, we decided to send Joe in to investigate from the sky. It was unclear which light I was actually looking for here, which was the first sign that something had changed in terms of the light structure.

Walney Channel and the surrounding area look great from above

After inspecting both Joe’s photos and the grid reference against the map, I was a little sad to have to confess that this one was a lighthouse demotion. The light being investigated is now possibly the most unimpressive of all of them. Some have some very fancy coloured daymark triangles on them, but this one was just a pile structure with a light on a stick coming up out of the top.

The somewhat disappointing Walney Channel West Pile light

It wasn’t the most exciting or joyful end to the day’s bagging, but to go to these places to check things out always feels worthwhile whatever the outcome is. It was also quite fun to wander around to which is really a big part of the adventure of lighthouse bagging.

This marked the final day of a week’s worth of lighthouse visits. It really was quite a week and one that saw me visit those lights I had left to see on the Isle of Man and in North West England, so I returned home with a nice sense of achievement having reached this goal and explored yet more of our amazing country’s (and the Manx) coastline. 🙂

Tipsy on a tidal island

Although the day I’m about to write about wasn’t all about the tidal island and not all about being tipsy either, I just couldn’t resist the title.

I arrived back on the ferry from the Isle of Man following the recent lighthouse bonanza over there, and was met by Bob at Heysham. I’d made some lighthouse plans for later that day and we had a little time to kill beforehand.

While in the area we decided to pay Hale Lighthouse a visit. I’d not been here since my 2012 tour and I felt I hadn’t really explored the area properly on that occasion. Hale Lighthouse was built in 1906, replacing an 1838 light in the same location. The light was introduced to help guide ships safely around Hale Head as they approached the Mersey. This area is renowned for its fast moving tides and the ever changing sandbanks that can sit just below the water level, a hidden danger to shipping.

Approaching Hale Lighthouse

When the original lighthouse here was built there was already a private bathing house in this location and with the introduction of the first lighthouse, this house was converted into the keepers cottage. This cottage was demolished shortly after the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1958 when the need for the light was no longer essential owing to the reduction in trade in the area and the use of that particular shipping channel.

Hale Lighthouse with the modern bungalow coming into view

The cottage has now been replaced with a new property and this, along with the lighthouse, is now in private ownership. There is plenty in the area to suggest that, although a public bridleway runs along here, visitors to the area aren’t necessarily welcome. However, you can see why this might be the case judging by the amount of graffiti on the wall to the seaward side of the lighthouse.

Signs that the coast near Hale lighthouse is a popular spot for some

Getting around down here involved a little hop over a bit of fencing (we later found the actual way down), wandering around on some rocks, and then trying to avoid getting stuck in the mud just below the lighthouse. Our shoes didn’t thank us for that that bit!

Hale lighthouse with clear signs of erosion nearby

With the big plans still ahead for the day it was time to get a shift on down towards the Wirral. Thankfully there was a little time to spare which allowed us to take a swing by Ellesmere Port. On my original 2012 lighthouse tour I’d not managed to get to this one and I recall reading that it was part of the National Waterways Museum, so I’d assumed that I could turn up there and get to see it. I am not sure to what extent it is a part of the museum, but the land it is on is now private with the building owned by a fire brigade union. Having done my research though I knew where we needed to go to get the best view of it and so it was a relatively straightforward visit.

The best publicly accessible view of Whitby Lighthouse at Ellesmere Port

This lighthouse, built in 1880, is also (rather confusingly to my mind) known as Whitby Lighthouse. The village of Whitby in the area has, in more recent years, merged with other neighbouring villages to form Ellesmere Port. There is a wonderfully detailed explanation around why the lighthouse was originally built and its relationship to the waterways in this area on the excellent Lighthouse Accommodation website.

There is a fantastic old picture on the Ships Nostalgia website showing the lighthouse when it marked the entrance to the Shropshire Union Docks and Canal. Sadly the introduction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 meant the lighthouse became surplus to requirement after only 14 years.

Ellesmere Port, or Whitby, Lighthouse can be seen behind the tree in this view from a nearby loch on the canal

It was time to head for the exciting afternoon we had planned. In my role as Events Coordinator for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers I’d come into contact with the owner of the lighthouse in Hoylake, which is now a private home. I’d made contact with him ahead of this trip and had also mentioned our intention of heading over to Hilbre Island while in the area. He very kindly offered to walk over to Hilbre with us and show us around the Hilbre Island Canoe Club’s base there, which seemed like an opportunity not to be missed.

First though he (Charlie) had invited us to meet him at his home and, of course, I couldn’t resist the chance to take a look inside such a beautiful building and lighthouse. For a start the garden is just glorious and so well kept. To see the lighthouse towering out of the top of the very grand looking house makes for such a fantastic scene. Charlie explained to us which parts of the house would have been there when the lighthouse was operational and how the building was split into two with a shared access hall when it housed the keepers and their families.

The magnificent Hoylake (High) Lighthouse

Hoylake Lighthouse was originally the high light, working in partnership with a low light that has since been demolished. Charlie has a wonderful map on his wall showing the area and you can clearly see how these lights, which appear relatively inland, would have helped to guide ships. The navigation on the Wirral is particularly interesting as running through a series of lining up lights was necessary for safe passage.

The view of Hoylake Lighthouse tower from the back of the property

The existing lighthouse was completed in 1866, replacing its predecessor which had been operating for just over 100 years by that point. The light was discontinued in 1886. When Charlie purchased the house he also inherited the old lighthouse log book which, as you can probably imagine, is a wonderful thick tome just full of history.

The old log book offers a fascinating insight into the history of the lighthouse and the people who lived there

I won’t say too much about the house itself as it is a (beautifully decorated) private home, so I will skip ahead to the tower. It’s a really unique tower, very open and the type that those without a head for heights would really struggle with. There is no central column, just open space, and the spiral staircase is made up of fantastic lattice metal stairs which allow you to see right through them to the area both below and above. There is definitely nothing enclosed about this lighthouse tower.

Looking up the tower. The stairs in the lighthouse almost create an optical illusion.
And the view back down Hoylake lighthouse

Just below the lantern there is the usual small room where, these days, operational lighthouses would have a couple of boxes that keep the light going. Then it’s just a climb up a ladder to get to the lamp room. What a space that is! Again it’s very open and bright with 360 degree views. What amazed me most up the top though was the width of the gallery. The railings around the gallery are pretty low so you do need to be a bit careful, but it is such a wide space compared to those I have been to before that I was quite impressed. Again, it’s all about the space at Hoylake.

The wide gallery at Hoylake Lighthouse with the view over the houses towards Hilbre Island, and Wales beyond

Charlie had very kindly carried his wonderful and heavy old binoculars up the stairs (no mean feat) and set them up so we could see a number of the other lighthouses in the area, including Talacre (Point of Ayr), Bidston and Leasowe, the latter of which could be seen quite clearly with the naked eye that day. We could also see across to Hilbre Island and this served as a reminder that we should probably start heading that way to ensure we caught the tides right.

Charlie’s wonderful binoculars in the lamp room at Hoylake lighthouse

Hilbre Island, or the Hilbre Islands (actually three tidal islands, with Hilbre being the biggest) sit just off the coast at Hoylake. Although it is recommended to go from West Kirby at low tide, Charlie said that walking from Hoylake was fine as long as you knew which way to go. The timing for Hilbre is key as there is plenty to see on the island and you definitely don’t want to be only just starting the walk back with the tide already coming in.

Hilbre, here we come

Considering it’s a small island it has a really interesting history. There’s a great piece on the Hilbre Island website that gives masses of information on various aspects of its past. My interest in visiting was largely a result of the light over there, but I got somewhat waylaid when Charlie showed us the Hilbre Island Canoe Club building. He is a member of the club and the building is full of a variety of pictures from past and present.

Arriving at Hilbre Island and one of its many very interesting areas

While Bob flew Joe the Drone around the island, Charlie showed me a photo album which gives a wonderful overview of the club’s past – oh, and the wine came out!

The Hilbre Canoe Club and lighthouse from above
A bird’s (or Joe’s) eye view of HIlbre Island

There was so much conversation about the Club and other topics that I almost forgot what I was there for, but we did eventually make it to the lighthouse. I’d had a couple of discussions before with my lighthouse pal John about whether or not the light on Hilbre met the criteria for inclusion in my book. As a result, my first priority was to check that it did and that it was actually big enough for a person to be able to get inside. As you will see from the picture, the door is considerably taller than me. There may not be room to swing a cat in there, but it could fit a person inside. I would give it a good go!

The size comparison between me and Hilbre Island Lighthouse

Around 1810, two wooden markers were installed at the north end of Hilbre to help guide ships into the Hilbre Swash at the entrance to the River Dee. In 1840 these were replaced by new markers on Little Eye (the middle of the three Hilbre Islands) and just offshore at Hoylake. After being replaced at some point they were eventually demolished during WWII to avoid the enemy using them as landmarks.

A navigation light, an acetylene gas-powered light on a lattice tower initially, was first introduced by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Authority in 1927 to mark the Hilbre Swash. It was later replaced by the existing steel structure and ownership of the light changed to Trinity House in 1973.

Hilbre Island Lighthouse
Joe the Drone’s view of the north end of Hilbre Island with Hoylake in the background

Close to the lighthouse is the old telegraph station, which was the second station on the island (the original was a wooden structure). This was one in a long chain of stations used to communicate messages from as far as Holyhead to Liverpool. A couple of other lighthouse locations were involved in this process, those being Great Orme and Bidston Hill. The telegraph station on Hilbre was completed in 1841 with the system continuing to be used until 1860.

Hilbre Island telegraph station

We then had a great walk around the island.

The beautiful west coast of Hilbre Island

Then it was back to the Canoe Club where I proceeded to gulp down another glass of wine. When you are on a tidal island you can’t be hanging around for too long sipping on a glass of wine! The walk back across to Hoylake was thankfully very refreshing. On arrival back at Charlie’s we discovered his lovely wife Ali was back so we popped in and I enjoyed even more wine.

I had arranged to stop off at Bidston Lighthouse that evening to collect something and poor Stephen and Mandy ended up waiting very patiently for our arrival only for me to turn up a little worse for wear. As far as I could tell they didn’t seem to mind too much though and very kindly gave me coffee. The visit to Bidston was actually very well timed as it is currently one of four lighthouses currently lit up with beautiful moving light designs by Hendrick’s Gin, which seems like a wonderful image to leave you with at the end of this long and crazy day 🙂

The Hendrick’s Gin light display on Bidston Lighthouse

The Great Manx Lighthouse Extravaganza – a personal finale

As mentioned in my last post, the Association of Lighthouse Keepers‘ Isle of Man event was over, but I still had one more task to do before I left the island. I’d arrived on the Isle of Man with five lighthouses left to get a close look at. With the lights in Ramsey and Laxey now visited, it just left the slightly trickier Derbyhaven light to reach. The only reason Derbyhaven Lighthouse can be difficult to reach is that it is on a tidal breakwater that was built to allow shelter for Derbyhaven Bay. More on that later though.

The closest view of Derbyhaven breakwater and lighthouse I’d had prior to the visit. There was’t time to visit on this day.

With low tide predicted to be around 4.30pm there were plenty of hours to play with before heading to Derbyhaven. I’d agreed to spend the day with John, Steve and Lianne as they continued their trig-bagging adventures. They had three in mind and it didn’t get off to a great start with the first trig surrounded by cows and calves. After satisfying ourselves with seeing it from a distance, not wanting to disturb the cows if they were going to get funny, we set off for the next one. Parking near the entrance to the beach at Sartfield near Jurby we set off heading south and it quickly became clear that a bit of a climb up the grassy bank was required to reach the trig here. I was quite happy at this point to sit on the empty beach and just enjoy the sights and sounds (while also dealing with emails relating to the second Isle of Man trip which was starting just a few days later), and let the others get on with it.

The beautiful beach near Jurby

Cronk ny Arrey Laa was the final trig pillar on the list for the day and it was a great walk up to it from the nearest road. The views from the top of this hill were superb and it is clearly frequently visited as the large cairn at the top is surrounded by some clear little paths that allow you to enjoy the view from every single angle.

The final trig pillar of the day on Cronk ny Arrey Laa

After lunch in Kirk Michael it was time to head for Derbyhaven. We stopped at a little grassy area and parked up and it seemed like the tide was low enough to walk across without getting wet feet. It’s always a bit of a worry with walking on tidal sections of a beach as you never know how soft the sand might be, but thankfully it was okay here and I didn’t at one point wish I had my wellies with me, which is always a good sign. We took a slight detour on the way out to avoid the worst of the puddles that remained, but it was all quite straightforward.

A little green, slimy and wet, but an easy enough stroll

The breakwater is much bigger than it appears from the shore, but it does have a very handy slipway leading up to it. It’s actually a really impressive structure. I’ve done a little research about the light and the pier in the general. When it was constructed in 1842-3 it was built, at a cost of £3,524 on the solid foundations of the North Rock. This, presumably, would have helped no end in the construction process. Originally the plan had been to build a larger breakwater like the one in Plymouth which would only leave gaps for ships to pass through on either side, but the smaller design was chosen instead.

Arriving on Derbyhaven breakwater

While we walked along the breakwater John said that it looked like the breakwater could do with a bit of pointing as there are gaps between each of the large stones. I’ve since found an IOMToday article from 2020 though that suggests that instead of pointing the breakwater, which is in need of repair, ‘there are now plans to drill some 4,000 holes into the blocks to anchor steel reinforcing mesh and then entomb the carefully-crafted stone blocks in a ’concrete overcoat’.’ This seems a real shame to me as it looks great close up.

On Derbyhaven breakwater

Though the Manx Electric Railway Society website features an article stating that a light exhibited in Derbyhaven from 1650 was the first navigation light on the Isle of Man, the current breakwater light was not added until 1946, as confirmed by the date engraved above its door. It’s another very Manx-style harbour light, much the same as the Peel Castle Jetty light and the pair in Laxey.

The little lighthouse on Derbyhaven breakwater

I was quite sad to see that the lighthouse is now disused. I wasn’t aware that this was the case. I’ve done some research into when the lighthouse was replaced by the LED on a skinny tripod (not as catchy as ‘lantern on legs’, but you get the idea). It seems the new LED light was already in place in 2020 and I imagine it wasn’t long before that it was introduced. It’s a great shame. Of course the tower is still used as a daymark, but it would have been nice for the LED to at least been placed inside the lighthouse rather than separately.

The old and new Derbyhaven breakwater lights

Still, it was my final Manx lighthouse and I had reached it. Eventually bidding the Derbyhaven farewell, it was time to head back to Douglas and get ready to leave the island the following morning after what had been a brilliant five days doing one of my most favourite things. There is nothing like a good lighthouse bagging trip with likeminded people to really get you back into the swing! 🙂

The Great Manx Lighthouse Extravaganza – part four

The Calf of Man boat trip was always going to be the only ‘Will we? Won’t we?’ part of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers’ Isle of Man event. Almost as expected, the schedule for the trip needed to be changed just a couple of days before it started to allow the boat trip to take place on the calmest of the four days, which looked to be the Tuesday. It actually turned out rather well though and the saying ‘save the best ‘til last’ was very apt here.

Before we set off on the boat though there was a little time to pay Port Erin a visit. Every harbour village or town on the Isle of Man has its own charm and the pairings of lighthouses only adds to this. In Port Erin though it’s really extra special in my mind with two very unique lighthouses.

The Raglan Pier light is what I often refer to as ‘a lantern on legs’ but this one has plenty more character than your average one of this type.

Port Erin’s Raglan Pier Lighthouse

Funnily enough my ‘group hug a lighthouse’ really seemed to have taken off by this point and Stephen from Bidston instigated this one, which worked really rather well with the legs and being able to see people on the other side too.

The Raglan Pier Lighthouse hug in action

If this little one wasn’t quirky enough, someone noticed a couple of drawings on the lighthouse. Now, I’m not a supporter of graffiti in general but with Mr Bump on one of the River Avon lights the other day I do sometimes quite like a little drawing. This one had a little smiley face on it with the word ‘smile’ underneath. What was even better though was the snail, which was rather nicely drawn just underneath some text which read ‘Follow the snail too happiness’. I’ll ignore the rogue ‘o’ on ‘to’ here because it was a sweet little thing.

Grafitti on the Raglan Pier Lighthouse

I should say though that drawing on lighthouses isn’t advisable. They do belong to someone, whether it’s the Northern Lighthouse Board or Trinity House, or a port authority, council or even a private home, so they are best left alone.

We had a little while then to walk to the front light on the beach (the rear of this pair is a light on a stick). I chose the beach walk option rather than walking along the promenade.

The view from Port Erin beach including the Raglan Pier lighthouse and, in the distance, Milner’s Tower on Bradda Head

I really like all of the little Manx lighthouses, but this one is definitely my favourite. I worry about it though as it’s on a west-facing beach so the crazy storms will cause some big old waves in the area.

Port Erin Front light

This one had to have a group hug too, of course. It was actually getting to the point now where I didn’t even need to encourage people, someone else would quite often mention it.

The hug at the Port Erin Front light was a bit trickier with the steps

We had a little spare time before we needed to be in Port St Mary for the boat trip so we headed along through Cregneash – spotting the old radio signal station which was used, in part, for signalling with Chicken Rock Lighthouse and later housed some of its keepers.

At the end of this road is what they call The Parade where you look across the Sound to the Calf of Man. We’d been blessed with amazing weather and great visibility so the views from there were fabulous. There were lots of seals around and birds which the others loved seeing. There’s a great cafe here too, which I recalled having great soup served in a crusty roll at when we’d been to the island a few years ago.

Our first view of the day of the Calf of Man across Calf Sound

It was time for the excitement to begin. We met Steve and Rob in Port St Mary and set off on their boat (Port St Mary Calf of Man Boat). Their boat is the tender for the island and has been for many years, previously being run by Steve’s father Juan.

Our chariot arriving at Port St Mary

It was a beautiful ride along the coast to reach the Calf with an incredible stack and caves. The bird watchers among the group were amazed by the number of razorbills both on the rocks and in the air. In fact, we all were.

One of the incredible views from the boat, which can get in all the nooks and crannies!

Passing around Thousla Rock with its beacon, we arrived at Cow Harbour on the Calf of Man. This is when it became very obvious that the boat fits perfectly in the harbour here and we were soon on the slipway and heading up to meet the wardens.

The Cow Harbour supply boat storage

The Calf of Man is looked after during the Spring, Summer and Autumn by a number of wardens and we were guided across the island with them. The weather was still fantastic and the views across the island and around the coast were idyllic.

The view down to the harbour with wild sheep, Thousla Rock and the Isle of Man beyond

There is almost a little community at the island’s bird observatory with a few buildings that the wardens stay in during their time on the island.

Approaching the Bird Observatory

Not too far after the Bird Observatory we began seeing the top of one of the old lighthouses and then suddenly there was the view that makes the Calf of Man such a special place for those of us with an interest in lighthouses.

The three lighthouses on the Calf of Man

With three lighthouses so close together plus a rock lighthouse visible not far offshore, the question as to why there are so many of them is a valid one. Well, it all came about due to the hazard Chicken Rock presented to shipping. The two oldest towers on the island first shone in 1819 and aimed, by working as leading lights flashing in unison, to guide vessels clear of the rock. They are stunning buildings and clearly incredibly well-built, it’s just a great shame they are no longer being maintained.

The old Low Light on the Calf of Man with Chicken Rock visible offshore

As is so often the case though, with older towers at higher elevations, they are routinely obscured by fog and in bad weather. This is the case in a number of other locations, St Catherine’s Oratory on the Isle of Wight and the original tower on Little Cumbrae immediately come to mind as two other examples. The solution to this, as decided by the Northern Lighthouse Board, was to build a tower on Chicken Rock itself. By that point they would have had both Bell Rock and Skerryvore lighthouses under their belts so the prospect may not have been quite so terrifying to them.

Calf of Man Old Low Lighthouse

Chicken Rock Lighthouse was completed in 1875 and operated successfully until 1960 when it was damaged by fire. At this point the decision was taken to automate Chicken Rock Lighthouse and also to build a more powerful lighthouse on the Calf of Man – hence the third tower.

The modern Calf of Man Lighthouse

This light was first exhibited in 1968 as the very last of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s manned stations to be built. A 2005 review of aids to navigation concluded that this modern light should be discontinued and Chicken Rock Lighthouse upgraded. The lighthouse was decommissioned two years later.

The sheltered courtyard within the 1968 lighthouse complex

It was this 1960s lighthouse that I had managed to arrange access to for this trip. Sadly, for health and safety reasons, we weren’t able to go up into the light tower, but we could still have a wander around the hallways, peering into the old bedrooms, kitchen and the engine room. The accommodation here is still used at times. When we visited a team of people fixing the dry stone walls on the island were staying there.

One of the basic, but completely functional bedrooms in the modern lighthouse

Some of the old foghorn equipment can still be seen close to the old low lighthouse as well and the views from this area were just stunning. We – or the boatman, in fact – couldn’t have chosen a better day.

The old foghorn equipment (looks like a brass band to me) on the Calf of Man

The buildings attached to the old high lighthouse is sadly not looking as well as its low counterpart, but the tower itself is still just as wonderful nonetheless.

Calf of Man High Lighthouse. The missing roof on the accommodation can be seen behind

Then there was THE view!

All four lighthouses in one shot

There wasn’t much time to hang around as there was the highlight of the day (or so we hoped) still to visit and another group were waiting back in Port St Mary for their turn. The walk back to The Cow landing was just amazing and the view of Calf Sound as you head down the final stretch towards the landing is just beautiful. I could easily look at that view for hours.

Returning to Cow Harbour

With a quick swap over, we were off again with all our fingers crossed that we would make it out to see the wonderful Chicken Rock Lighthouse close up. One of the boatman had said they’d been out in that area that morning and it had been pretty choppy so it was definitely a case of being on tenterhooks. As we rounded the corner below the lighthouses on the Calf though, we spotted Chicken Rock Lighthouse in a lovely gap between the island and a stack.

Chicken Rock Lighthouse coming into view

From that point we only got closer and closer and closer. I’m fact, I was very very pleasantly surprised to find just how close Steve was able to take the boat to the tower.

Chicken Rock Lighthouse

It must have been a lower tide as the rock was visible and the landing steps were just there, begging to be landed on. Though this visit was never going to be for landing, but we got as close as we could have done without landing.

Chicken Rock – close enough to touch, nearly

We did two laps of the lighthouse, both close in and further out, with the latter round giving some incredible views of the four lighthouses in the reverse view of what I had been taking a picture of less than an hour before.

Chicken Rock Lighthouse and the Calf of Man lights beyond

It was such a pleasure to see Chicken Rock Lighthouse so close and on a really nice day too when the sun was shining on the tower. I always find with these unpainted granite towers, like Skerryvore and Ardnamurchan, you really need to see them with the sun on them to really appreciate just how beautiful they are. It’s silhouette wasn’t too shabby either!

Chicken Rock Lighthouse in silhouette

Once we were all satisfied that we’d got exactly what we wanted from the visit – and then some – we started our journey back to Port St Mary. There was even more glorious rock formations to be seen on the coast of the Calf of Man as we sailed by.

The ‘drinking dragon’, or the Burroo, at the south end of the Calf of Man

Disembarking at Port St Mary, I had a chance to properly visit the Isle of Man’s newest little lighthouse. The small tower at the end of Alfred Pier, or the Outer Breakwater, was installed in 2018. Its predecessor was washed away and it had temporarily been replaced by a light on a stick. Interestingly, although the tower is built to the shape of a traditional lighthouse, it appears that the light itself is just a modern LED with solar panels mounted on top of what would be the lantern.

The relatively new Port St Mary Alfred Pier light

The second light at Port St Mary also needed a revisit so I headed to that one too before retiring to the pub for a much-needed drink. This one had, rather unfortunately, been branded ‘the silo’ by one of the other group members.

The lighthouse on the Inner Pier in Port St Mary

Finishing up the day a couple of hours later, waiting on the shoreline for the second group to arrive back was a really great end to the official Association of Lighthouse Keepers event, which saw us visit (or at least see) every Manx lighthouse. It was an excellent adventure with a really great bunch of people whose company I enjoyed immensely.

The event may have been over, but I still had one more objective before I could even think about leaving Manx soil! More on that coming very soon… 🙂

The Great Manx Lighthouse Extravaganza – part three

Monday was a busy day on the Isle of Man for day three of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers event. We started off at Langness Lighthouse with visits inside the tower, courtesy of the Northern Lighthouse Board and their Retained Lighthouse Keeper for the island. I’ve always liked Langness and it’s really been the landscape that surrounds it tied in with the lighthouse that makes it so special. Seeing these places when the sea is relatively calm and there’s no strong wind really gives you the feeling that it must be wonderful there all the time, and of course that’s not the case. Storms at Langness, which is a relatively narrow peninsula, must make it a particularly unpleasant place to be. The access road to the lighthouse sustained some damage over the winter and it’s easy to see why as the sea isn’t so far away on either side of the road.

The sea can be seen here on either side of the narrow section of the Langness peninsula

The lighthouse though looks fantastic and its location enabled us to see Chicken Rock Lighthouse in the distance sticking out of the sea to the west. There is a lot of sea around Langness and there are some beautiful geos in the area with clear evidence of the sea’s wild ways. It would be a great place to wander around and the former lighthouse cottages are now available as holiday lets so would make an excellent base for doing some exploring of the area.

Langness Lighthouse

The lighthouse was quite surprising, with a lot more ladders to the top than I’d expected. It was particularly interesting looking around with Stephen from Bidston Lighthouse as this lighthouse was built just seven years after his own lighthouse. There were some great discussions at the top of the tower about many aspects of the building, including the acoustics in the lantern room which are really noticeable in some towers. I always remember spending quite a bit of time at the top of Bressay Lighthouse in Shetland being fascinated by how the acoustics changed if you took a small step back or forwards.

The views from the top of the tower were, as expected, stunning. Sea for miles, but also the view back inland was wonderful with plenty of green fields, the golf course and the Herring Tower. The sun was thinking about coming out at that point too which always helps.

Looking west from the top of the tower

Before leaving Langness I took a wander over to the old foghorn. It looks like a new bridge to the foghorn has been installed since I was last there in 2015. It’s always great to see foghorns still in situ even if they are now silent.

The foghorn at Langness

From here I stopped briefly at the Herring Tower before returning to the minibus. The Herring Tower is great. The entrance is still there and an internal spiral staircase leading up the inside of the walls is still visible.

The Herring Tower in Langness

Before heading to Castletown we paid a brief visit to Derbyhaven to get some long-distance views of the little lighthouse on the end of Derbyhaven breakwater, which can only be accessed at low tide. That is my one remaining Isle of Man light left to get close to. Watch this space!

Looking across to Derbyhaven Breakwater

Castletown was our lunch stop for the day and, of course, we had to walk to the two harbour lighthouses here. The New Pier lighthouse, the most southerly of the two, was much bigger than I remembered it being, but it’s actually quite a unique shape compared to many of the others on the island.

The smaller Irish Quay light is much more like we’d been getting used to and as I was approaching the pier I passed my lighthouse pal John who said, ‘Now that is definitely a Sarah-sized lighthouse’.

The Castletown pier lights

I sat in the town square to eat lunch with another ALK member, Ed, who has cycled around the coastline of England and Wales, including some islands, visiting lighthouses to raise funds for a MS charity. His website The Beacon Bike is well worth checking out. We chatted in the sunshine before it was time to go back to the minibus. We then had a quick visit to the large item store belonging to the Manx Museum. We were met by Nicola who was so welcoming and showed us into the store. The main reason for this visit was to see the former Chicken Rock lens which we very quickly spotted when we went in. It was quite a bit smaller than many of us had expected, being what a few in the group felt was a fourth order lens.

The old lens from Chicken Rock Lighthouse

There was also a lot of the lighting mechanism and the lens from Douglas Head Lighthouse too! In fact there was a lot there. Nicola explained they have been trying only to take ownership of items or photos from only the Isle of Man and that space really prohibits them from displaying more in the museum itself. However, they are keen for the store to be available for the public to see and so they are happy to show people around upon request, just as they did for us. There is a real variety in there, from chairs and grandfather clocks, to old motorbikes, musical instruments, old fire engines and even an old night soil cart, which actually I never even knew existed until yesterday.

Some of the Douglas Head collection of artefacts at the Max Museum’s large item store

We could easily have spent hours at the large item store, but our final lighthouse of the day was calling, Douglas Head. We were dropped off at the top of Douglas Head and made our way down to the lighthouse. Unlike all of the other major lighthouses on the main island, there is no road access to Douglas Head, but although both options for walking to the lighthouse involve going down (and, more importantly, coming back up a series of steps it is not a long walk.

When you reach Douglas Head you can tell this would have been a station that keepers and their families probably enjoyed living at. There’s this wonderfully sheltered courtyard with all the buildings contained within it. They probably had a fantastic little community here and with its close proximity to Douglas itself and the wonderful rocks and tiny stoney beaches nearby it would have been a real hit for everyone I should imagine. Our coach driver showed me an old picture in which you could see a swimming pool area and I imagine this was heaven for the kids based at the lighthouse as it was for him.

The calm – on this day anyway – cove next to Douglas Head Lighthouse

The cottages here are now available as holiday lets and we were fortunate that the cottages weren’t occupied at that point so we had a good wander around outside the buildings. Between monitoring the groups going up the lighthouse in small numbers, I took a quick walk down to the old boat landing area. It may seem surprising that a lighthouse so close to a major town has a boat landing area, but the lack of road access would have meant that any large deliveries of items needed to be brought in by boat. This may in fact still be the case as there is no helipad here either. The landing area certainly doesn’t look in such a bad state compared to many of the others I have encountered, although there was a particularly dodgy-looking ladder there.

The boat landing area at Douglas Head Lighthouse

Finally it was my turn to explore inside the tower. The only problem with being the responsible adult on these trips is that you need to make sure everyone else gets a chance to go up and no random member of the public just turns up and climbs the tower. Then again, being in the last group to go up there are usually only a few left at that point so it’s easier to avoid getting people in your pictures when you don’t want them to be there.

The staircase inside Douglas Head Lighthouse

The tower is so well kept, both inside and outside. In fact the inside of all four of the main Manx lighthouses we’d visited were really well looked after by Fred, who I saw when I got to the top of the tower. The light here has been modernised with four of the “pudding” LED lights now installed. I also pointed out the dark filter used across the panes of glass on the landward side of the lantern. Fred wasn’t entirely sure, but suspected that when the character of the light had changed at some point, which meant it flashed more often, someone complained about the light shining across to Douglas more than it previously had, so this measure was to address that.

The light source now inside Douglas Head with the filter on some of the windows are visible here too

I always have, and probably always will, harp on about the views from the top of lighthouses, and Douglas Head Lighthouse is another one I will happily harp on about. Normally it’s the sea, the rocks or the coastline that I enjoy seeing and I did again. However, in this instance, the views back across towards Douglas were also very impressive and made a nice change.

Looking towards Douglas from the top of the tower

It was time to say goodbye to Fred and thank him for bearing with us, our questions and our general desire to hang about at the top of a lighthouse. From here we wandered back towards Douglas, hoping to get a closer look at the Battery Pier Lighthouse for some members of the group. Sadly the pier was closed off because a fuel boat was in refilling. It was still a nice walk back though as it got into early evening 🙂

Douglas Head Lighthouse

The Great Manx Lighthouse Extravaganza – part two

Day two of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers event on the Isle of Man was all about the island’s little lights, and most importantly two new ones for me. These were to be found in Laxey. I’d visited on a previous occasion, but hadn’t been down to the harbour. It turns out I’d missed a real treat last time as the harbour here is wonderful. Before arriving at the piers though we were delighted to see replicas of the lighthouses in Laxey on the village’s new bridge. This bridge was built following the collapse of its predecessor in December 2015 followed a period of torrential rain and flooding. The collapse resulted in a double-decker bus ending up in the river. This new bridge was built to withstand the extra strain caused by flooding in the future. It’s a really lovely spot, with very picturesque views looking both out towards the harbour entrance and back inland too.

One of the replica lighthouses on the new Laxey bridge

Further on we arrived at the first of the two lighthouses, the pier light. In its own wonderful little way it has great character about it, and I am really rather fond of these little dumpy lights that are unique to the Isle of Man – or certainly I’ve not seen any exactly like them before elsewhere.

Laxey Pier Lighthouse

As at Point of Ayre yesterday, I had to get a picture of the others in the group hugging the lighthouse. However, this time I had the opposite problem to yesterday when I didn’t have enough people. Today I had a lot around so there was no need for the spreading out of arms. It was, as always, just a bit of fun.

The group “measuring” Laxey pier lighthouse

Though the little lighthouse on the breakwater in Laxey looks fairly close, just like those in Ramsey, it involves quite a walk to get to it and today’s was far more of a challenging walk than we’d had the day before getting between the two Ramsey lights. Firstly we needed to head back to the new bridge and from here cross the river and this was where it got a bit tiring. There are a series of steps, of very varying heights, contouring up the side of the hill. Some of these steps were almost too high for my little legs to manage and by the time I got to the top I think we were all glad of the break.

The view of Laxey harbour on the way to the breakwater light

A short walk from here though rewarded us with some glorious views looking down on the harbour entrance, Laxey beach and the coastline beyond. It was such a wonderful spot and you can see why they have put a bench up there as it would be an excellent place to spend some time just enjoying the view and taking it all in, all along this short grassy section.

The view from above Laxey harbour

What goes up must come down they say, and so it was to get onto Laxey breakwater. A track leading down, again contouring, with a handrail on one side was ready and waiting for our descent to the bottom where the entrance to the breakwater. We were immediately greeted by a duck and we let him wander past before proceeding to the light.

The welcome party on Laxey breakwater

They really are such sweet towers. At one point I stood in the doorway, which had a rather ginormous step up to it. The door, however, was less than ginormous with John referring to it as a ‘Sarah-sized lighthouse’. I’m not sure I could live in it for any length of time, but I’d give it a go. Although it was a fairly windy day, it was still quite calm, but I imagine it’s entirely different during wild weather from the west with waves breaking over the breakwater and pier. Today though it was fantastic. Just milling around at a lighthouse with friends is a great feeling. We are all there for the same reason and just enjoying taking in the scenery.

The Laxey breakwater light

A member of the group pointed out Snaefell, the highest hill on the Isle of Man, in the distance which gives a good idea of just how clear it was.

Laxey harbour as seen from the breakwater with Snaefell visible above the pier

It was time to head back up the hill to the coach as Peel was beckoning for the afternoon. We had plenty of time in Peel so very few of the group were in a hurry to see the lighthouses immediately here and lunch took priority. With full bellies – as the portions were huge, but excellent – we eventually set off in the direction of Peel Castle and the lighthouses. These two are significantly easier to get to simply by walking along the short pier and the large breakwater opposite the castle.

The breakwater and Castle Jetty lighthouses in Peel

The Castle Jetty Lighthouse is very similar to those in Laxey and, in fact, really interesting colours with very pale beige to match some of the other harbour buildings and then there are the green bands. It’s also the only lighthouse I’m aware of that has, what look like, traffic lights on it. The fellow ALK member I was with suggested that it is likely to be related to the tides and whether or not it is possible to gain access to the harbour. I’d noticed one or two others of these smaller harbour lights are showing signs of damage to the glass around the light which this one also has.

Peel Castle Jetty Lighthouse

The lighthouse on the end of the breakwater had been in view the whole time and it was time to head to it. Breakwater walks generally are longer, but in a way they are also better as you get so many different vantage points on the harbour, village or town as you walk along them. Peel breakwater was no exception.

Strangely this lighthouse, unlike in Ramsey and Laxey, was not a twin of the Castle Jetty light. It actually has a Cornish feel about it – a little like St Ives’ most modern harbour light without the gallery. It was a wonderful point for some gorgeous views across Peel, to the castle with the hills beyond, and far out to sea.

The view from the breakwater towards the castle and hills

I was keen to visit a locally-based ALK member and she suggested taking a look at the nearby cathedral after I left. Although it’s not lighthouse-related, I felt it worth including a few nice pictures here of the gardens surrounding the cathedral in Peel.

Plenty more to come tomorrow 🙂

The Great Manx Lighthouse Extravaganza – part one

Two years ago I was due to go on an event to the Isle of Man organised by the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (which sort of means me as I’m their Events Coordinator). Then the pandemic began and it was put on hold. Another year went by without being able to hold the trip and so I was delighted to finally be able to go ahead with it this year alongside 21 other lighthouse fans.

Today we set off for Point of Ayre, the most northerly tip of the island. We’d prearranged to meet the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Retained Lighthouse Keeper, Fred Fox, here and after the safety briefing off we went with little groups heading up while others explored the surrounding area. There is plenty to see here with not only wonderful views of the main lighthouse, but also the old foghorn tower and little Winkie on the shingle. The geology of the island is worrying, but also fascinating. A lot of the coastline is being eroded and much of this eroded material is being washed up the island and gathering at Point of Ayre, meaning both lights here sit further inland now than they previously did.

Point of Ayre Lighthouse

Then it was my turn to go up the tower! Point of Ayre was a fairly brutal lighthouse to kick off with as it has a lot of steps to get to the top, but when you get there you are greeted by stunning views from every single angle. There is sea in almost every direction you look and where there isn’t sea it’s just land that stretches for miles and miles. The Isle of Man has a remarkably small population when you compare it to the much smaller Isle of Wight, and our coach driver explained that this is due to the Manx Government’s restrictions on building on a lot of the land there. As a result it has a much more vast and open feel about it.

The view north from the top of Point of Ayre Lighthouse…
…and looking south

The lens in Point of Ayre Lighthouse is wonderful and I was so pleased to hear that the Northern Lighthouse Board plan to retain it. In recent years they have been replacing the lenses with smaller, more energy efficient lights (more on that later) so hearing that this one is due to be kept in action was very welcome news.

Inside the Point of Ayre lens

After finishing up in the tower I took a quick stroll down to see the Winkie lighthouse and old foghorn tower.

The Winkie backed by the old foghorn tower and Point of Ayre Lighthouse

As always my zany ways always kick in somehow during a lighthouse visit. This time I was speaking to our coach driver whose wife is related to John Kermode, a former NLB lighthouse keeper. I recalled him being in the picture at Sule Skerry holding a small wind measuring device and was trying to find the picture online. Strangely a Google image search brought up a picture of a group of us from the West Coast Adventure in 2019 with our arms around Rona Lighthouse. I showed this to a few of the others and Stephen from Bidston Lighthouse suggested we should do the same at Point of Ayre Lighthouse. By the time I got back down the tower there weren’t so many people left as they’d headed back to the coach, but there were thankfully enough for me to recreate the Rona moment there. Many thanks to Christa, Joanna, Dave, Katka, Margaret, Kristy, Debbie and Paul for humouring me with this!

Craziness at Point of Ayre Lighthouse

Back on the coach it was time for some lunch in Ramsey. Well, for me that meant eating lunch whilst walking to the two small harbour lighthouses. I started this trip with five lighthouses left to visit on the island and the two in Ramsay were on that list so I was adamant I had to do them first before anything else. It was a windy old walk up the south pier, but with good company you can make light of these things and there was the usual jovial moans about people getting in each other’s pictures.

Ramsey South Pier Lighthouse

The light on the end of the north breakwater is only a short distance from the south pier as the crow flies, but it’s not quite as quick as it sounds getting between the two. It is necessary to head back inland and then cross the river over the swing bridge before heading back towards the harbour entrance.

The swing bridge in Ramsey

It was a really nice walk though and we’d been joking on the way about who was going to touch the lighthouse first, my lighthouse pal John or me. We had a bit of a race, which he won, but he did wait for me so we could touch it at the same time, so I couldn’t complain really.

Ramsey North Breakwater Lighthouse

The view from the north breakwater light is actually even better as you have the south pier in the foreground backed by Ramsey and then beyond a great hilly landscape.

The view south from Ramsey’s north pier

After a cup of tea we were back on the coach and headed for the most surprising part of the day. It wasn’t surprising in that it didn’t go as expected, more that I’d never given Maughold Head Lighthouse much credit. It’s not so easy to see, although there are fantastic views of it just before you enter Maughold village, and to spot the tower there is really only one space you can see it much closer and then is just off the approach road to the lighthouse. As it sits right on the edge of the cliff I wasn’t expecting there to be much there beyond a staircase going down to it and then just a lighthouse tower. On the face of it, that’s what it was, but it was also such an incredible place and one of those where everything just works so well together. The beautifully simple tower, that first glimpse of it as you start down the steps, the incredible cliffs around it and just the general feel of the place. It was glorious and I think we were all quite amazed by it and really just keen to spend as much time there as we could. Even standing in the base of the tower chatting to the other members was just really enjoyable and relaxed. There is definitely something about Maughold Head.

The wonderful staircase at Maughold Head
The view south from the top of Maughold Head Lighthouse

I mentioned previously that many of the lighthouse lenses across the UK are now being replaced by modern lights and Maughold is one of these. Around 2017 a new pair of modern LED lights were installed and the massive lens was covered with cloth, which it still is to this day. I’m going to assume that this may be because it would be incredibly difficult to remove the lens from the site with the staircase leading up outside, but I bet it’s a stunning lens. It was very warm in the lamp room today and after I pointed this out Fred recalled how it often felt like a sauna in summer when he used to be up there cleaning the lens, which must have been unbearable I should think.

The new lights in Maughold Head Lighthouse with some of the cloth covering the old lens visible on the right

I eventually managed to drag myself away from the lighthouse and marvelled at it one more time from a nice little area near the top of the steps. It’s a place that I could quite happily waste hours just enjoying, but it was time to start heading back to the coach.

Saying a very fond farewell to Maughold Head Lighthouse

Once back in Douglas and with a full stomach I decided to take a stroll towards the town’s two lighthouses, namely Battery Pier and Douglas Head. Both had been beckoning me since my arrival on the island and although the whole group will be visiting on Monday it seemed like a nice time to see them as the sun was getting low in the sky. It was a nice walk and I strolled along Battery Pier first to get a good look at it bathed in the beautiful yellow light of the setting sun. It’s such a great spot with a wonderful little platform behind it which gives you some excellent views out to sea and also across to Douglas.

Battery Pier Lighthouse in Douglas

I’d already decided not to walk all the way to Douglas Head, but thought I’d just take a quick look from a slight distance. What I hadn’t expected was the stunning view of it I got. All I can do to describe it really is just to share the picture.

Douglas Head Lighthouse

It was just glorious and a really perfect way to finish a truly excellent day out with friends 🙂

A final note from Shetland – and the challenges with lists

It’s been the final full day in Shetland today, ending a 10-day period of absolute perfection in terms of achieving everything I wanted to. With only three days of no boat trips, plus an extra day for me to spend with the family, there was just enough time to get to the land-based lights I had left to visit.

After the visit to Peerie Bard, home to Mousa Lighthouse, yesterday I have now visited all of the modern flat-pack (SPLAT) lighthouses in Scotland. There are a few I’ve not been close enough to touch yet, but have seen at very close range.

There was one, however, that had been mentioned to me and I’d not included on my list: Head of Mula. This one was built of the same aluminium framework as the flat-packs, but if didn’t have the white cladding on it, which to me is an open structure and therefore not meeting the criteria for inclusion on my list.

I mentioned Head of Mula to my lighthouse pal John and he was keen to see it. I thought it was definitely worth going along to check it out too, given that I am such a fan of the flat-pack type. It looked to be only a short walk from the ferry terminal on Unst. I wasn’t wrong. It is very easily accessed by following the main road north of the terminal for a short distance and then taking a right turn at a track heading uphill.

The track up to to Head of Mula

The track was great and after just a few minutes we spotted the top of the light just above an old wall ahead.

The light on Head of Mula

Beyond the lighthouse there were the remains of abandoned houses and it was really quite strange to be seeing such old buildings against the backdrop of a relatively new light structure.

The new light and the old building

The tower was exactly as had been described to me. This was where it got tricky though as the debate was then on as to whether or not it did qualify for my list. Is it possibly for someone to be enclosed within it? Not really. Someone could certainly step inside the frame, but they would still be completely exposed to the elements and visible to anyone on the outside. Therefore it doesn’t meet the criteria, but here is where the challenge has always been for me in preparing a definitive list of lighthouses.

Head of Mula Lighthouse (as the Northern Lighthouse Board plaque on the door says)

I always wanted my list to be objective and based entirely on what did or didn’t meet the criteria. I am well aware that one lighthouse may mean a lot to one person and very little to another. I’ve seen plenty of subjective lighthouse lists for Scotland out there and they usually feature the biggest and most impressive of the Stevenson lighthouses, often leaving out the smaller lights that (in my option) are just as enjoyable to visit – if not more so in some cases – as the large ones.

For me one of the big appeals of the flat-pack lighthouses has always been the beautiful places they take you to. Often places rarely explored by the masses and this too is the case at Head of Mula. The views here are fantastic, particular looking south/south east towards the Loch of Heogland and Holm of Heogland close in and then beyond to Fetlar.

The view to the south east

Looking west over Bluemull Sound was also excellent and the ferry moving back and forth between Yell and Unst was a regular reminder that civilisation was just down the track.

The view to the west

The light at Head of Mula has everything going for it that most flat-pack lighthouses have, except the white cladding. We jokingly referred to it all day as the ‘naked flat-pack’ due to its lack of white cladding “clothes”.

A closer look at Head of Mula

Thinking about my list, there are some lighthouses on there that I would be more than happy not to visit again, usually due to their location, but I’d happily stroll back up to Head of Mula again. This is where I feel a little envious of those who have their own personal list and can add/take away anything they please. From the point of view of The British Lighthouse Trail though, I need to be less subjective and not adjust it to become a list of lighthouses I personally think people should visit – although I do think that would make an excellent list.

The final decision on Head of Mula then? I’m going to have to say that the jury is still out. In terms of meeting the definition it’s a no. But if I think it’s important that people get to hear about it and visit it then absolutely yes. If any readers have any thoughts on this then do feel free to share these below in the comments.

The plaque on the lighthouse door

Back to Shetland though and, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, the past 10 days have really been made so successful by the crew on the two boats we have used. Kevin, Michael and Alan on Lysander and the wonderful aluminium tender were exceptional. Magnie and John on the Papa Stour and Ve Skerries trip were more than happy to get us wherever we wanted to go too. It makes such a difference to have boat crew who enjoy their time out with the baggers. It was a real pleasure to spend time with them all.

That’s it for another trip. I’m not sure where the next one will be yet, but I shall be sure to take my followers on here along wherever it is and report back. 🙂

Next stop: Out Skerries

It’s been another day onboard Lysander in Shetland today and it’s really starting to feel like home now. With Michael the fantastically knowledgeable and friendly skipper, and the equally knowledgeable and skilled tender skipper Alan, we have been in very good hands.

My first lighthouse stop of the day was Wether Holm. We were informed by Alan that ‘wether holm’ is the name given to islands where the sea gets shallower and breaks on the island. There are plenty of Wether Holms about in Shetland, but only one of them has a lighthouse. This is a flat-pack lighthouse and after we were dropped off it was just a quick stroll up to it. There were nice views across to Whalsay from the lighthouse including Suther Ness Lighthouse just across the water.

Wether Holm
Wether Holm Lighthouse
Wether Holm Lighthouse and you can just make out Suther Ness Lighthouse on Whalsay in the background

After we left the island Joe the Drone went for a fly and got some great aerial shots of the island and surrounding area.

Wether Holm from above
The tiny Wether Holm Lighthouse in a grand landscape

Next we landed on Inner Holm of Skaw. There’s no lighthouse here, but we were told that there were stories suggesting there was a human skull to be found near the cairn on the island. This intrigued us all so we took the opportunity to have a hunt for it, and with success too. Lying under a flat round rock close to the cairn were indeed bones. There was part of a skull, a jawbone still with some teeth in it and a few other bones too. It was very strange. Bob pointed out that there was a chapel marked on the map and when we looked back towards the cairn there was evidence of rows of stones that could well have been the walls of the old chapel. Our skipper looked into it a bit more and was informed that the remains are actually believed to be of the monk who built the chapel there.

The cairn on Inner Holm of Skaw

Onto my second new lighthouse of the day, Muckle Skerry. We’d considered landing on this one two years ago, but it had been raining and – given my experience of it today – I’m glad we didn’t. It’s a skerry so it’s rock really and although it looks from a distance like it has some nice grass on top it’s really just flora and fauna that thrives in wet environments combined with an occasional hard bit of soil and then random rocks in and around it all.

Muckle Skerry

It took us a little while to pick where we would land. The side of the island looked like any landing there would involve a scramble up rocks that looked green and potentially very slippery. We made our way around the island on the tender coming across another potential landing area where there turned out to be too many rocks just under the water. We then found a deeper section which got us onto some barnacle-covered rocks followed by a short section of slippy rock and then it was rock hopping all the way up to the mixed terrain described above.

Muckle Skerry Lighthouse

Muckle Skerry Lighthouse is another flat-pack and this time without a fence around it. There are great views all around which always make the less straightforward landings more worthwhile. It’s certainly somewhere you would struggle to land without the near perfect conditions we had today. We were very fortunate with sea conditions today.

Muckle Skerry Lighthouse, surrounded by the varied terrain

Joe was launched from the boat and caught some pictures which hopefully illustrate the tricky terrain of this one.

Muckle Skerry from Joe’s eye view
A very skerry-looking Muckle Skerry

We were bound for Out Skerries next. There are so many islands within this group that it wasn’t surprising that to save time we all dispersed a bit. Skipper Michael and I were dropped off on Bound Skerry, home to Out Skerries Lighthouse. Michael had never landed on the island before so we left the big boat moored up on the main island and Alan took us across.

Out Skerries Lighthouse on Bound Skerry

Although I’d been to Out Skerries Lighthouse before it was really nice to visit it with someone who was really looking forward to getting there. We had the island to ourselves for some time before the others arrived and we took a stroll around the rocks, getting as far to the east as possible so Michael could reach the most easterly he’s ever been in Shetland. One particular view from the highest point of the island was excellent with the lighthouse in the foreground and the shore station on neighbouring Grunay beyond.

The lighthouse on Bound Skerry
The walkway linking the lighthouse and the landing point

On a calm day it’s very hard to imagine how wild it must get there. Today is just seemed so tranquil and serene. For a while I sat at the base of the lighthouse and just enjoyed being there – that was until Bob came and asked me to move so I didn’t get in Joe the Drone’s pictures! However, I can’t complain as he did get some superb images. The blue sky appeared too!

Bound Skerry with its own lighthouse

A few hours – and a number of islands – later we arrived at Hoo Stack. John as well as Alan the boatman were keen to land here and I went ashore too, but stayed down on the rocks. I’d already been to this lighthouse back in 2019 and with the swell picking up I didn’t want to slow anyone down. The swell had picked up a fair amount by this point so landing wasn’t so easy, but we all did it and stayed dry, and John and Alan were happy.

Hoo Stack from above
Hoo Stack and its lighthouse

It’s been a long day, but another successful one. Mervyn has now set foot in one way or another on over 100 islands so far and I just have one lighthouse left to achieve my personal goal for this trip. That one is lined up for tomorrow. All fingers are crossed 🙂

To Papa Stour and Ve Skerries

It’s been some day today and certainly varied, taking in two very different lighthouses in extremely different settings. It is the day I have been waiting for, to make it to the remote and challenging Ve Skerries Lighthouse.

Leaving from Aith this morning, we set off for Papa Stour with our skipper Magnus Scott and John Anderson from Simmer Dim Charters. All four of us baggers on board had something of interest on this island that’s not so easy to get to, with one ferry a day in each direction only three days a week. For me, or course, it was a lighthouse – or, as I call it, a lightbox.

Upon arrival at the island Bob and John set off for the island high point and trig pillar while Mervyn and I took a stroll along the road, discovering quite a lot about the island community. For a start they have a great ferry terminal with tea and coffee making facilities, a book swap, a nice seating area and toilets.

Looking back at the pier on Papa Stour

There aren’t many houses on the island and those that are there are scattered alongside the road that runs from the pier to the airport landing strip. There’s a Primary School which has been closed now for around 8 years and the population of the island is just 6. A small community, but a really wonderful one which embraces its island and its history. This is very clear to see throughout Papa Stour.

Standing stones on Papa Stour

There is a wonderful ‘stofa’, an old Norwegian-style house made from carved wood. This was built in the place of a former stofa, but part of the build project was to allow younger people to learn the traditional skills of Norwegian building. It is really quite beautiful to see how well-constructed it is.

The Norwegian stofa on Papa Stour

We also took a look inside the Kirk, which is perfect for a small community. The building features a stained glass window that was designed and made by the locals to commemorate the lives of the four men from Papa who lost their lives during the Great War. It also contains a prayer tree which people can hang messages on explaining who they are praying for. There is also a small room with local history information and some locally made products for sale.

Papa Stour Kirk

From the Kirk we walked around to East Biggings and then began the attempt to reach the lighthouse. It had been visible nearly all the way around the road, but we’d not spotted a clear way to reach it. On our return journey we found a gate and followed the edge of a field down towards Housa Voe. Through one more gate and another field and we were there.

The field we walked around the edge of to reach the lighthouse

I would never say that these little lightboxes are anywhere near the most impressive, but they certainly do the job. The one here at Housa Voe is a similar type of structure to the two at West Burrafirth. It’s essentially a small square dry dashed building with a door at the back and a directional sector light shining out the front. There’s little more to it than that, but you can see when you step into the path of the light that it does it’s job very effectively. I had some fun for a few minutes walking back and forth in front of it and watching the red light change to white and then to green. This light is owned by Shetland Islands Council, which sort of explains its appearance. Clearly its purpose is to guide vessels safely into Housa Voe.

House Voe Lighthouse from the landward side
House Voe Lighthouse
House Voe light source

It was nice to introduce Mervyn to this type as well as they are very rarely visited. I’m not sure he was particularly impressed, but he pretended to be which was good of him. This is one of the delights of lighthouse bagging, discovering new places above and beyond just looking at the lighthouse.

The green light in House Voe Lighthouse

We left the lightbox behind and headed for the ferry terminal for a nice cup of tea. Even the waiting room is a trove of historical treasures relating to Papa Stour.

A little cove near the lighthouse

Once we were all back we set off to a few islands off of Papa Stour before we began to head north west towards a little collection of rocks called Ve Skerries. I’m not sure how well known Ve Skerries is in lighthouse circles. When you are as into lighthouses as I am you sort of lose any sense of what others do or don’t know. Anyway, for those who don’t know, Ve Skerries is a collection of very small islands/large rocks off the west coast of Mainland Shetland. They mark the most south westerly point of St Magnus Bay. On a clear day you can just make out the lighthouse in the distance from Eshaness. It is renowned for being a very dangerous area for ships with numerous wrecks occurring there. The most recent of which was the Corelleira in 2019 though thankfully there has been no loss of life there since the Ben Doran wrecked in 1930.

Ve Skerries

The sail out to Ve Skerries was actually not too bad at all and it was very encouraging to see hardly any swell around the islands. A fairly rare occurrence I think. I climbed into the tender with Bob and John and we set off to land on Ormal, the lighthouse island. We found somewhere to land and getting out of the boat was easy enough, but then the challenge began. Although the Ve Skerries are low-lying that doesn’t mean they are flat. The island is made up of tidal sections of rock and near enough all of these rocks seem to be jagged with no flat, horizontal edges. While some were covered in barnacles there was plenty of seaweed and slimy stuff about. Bob lent me his micro spikes which certainly made moving over the rocks much easier. It was a long section of rocks to cross though before we got to the helipad. Now whenever I think about Ve Skerries I remember those rocks and just have to laugh. It was quite an experience.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse

Relief set in when I finally got to the helipad which has a nice walkway across to the base of the lighthouse. There was a little stoney area down some steps from the helipad and John Anderson said it’s possible to find bits of ballast from the ships wrecked on the Skerries sometimes. I did have a look around, but couldn’t see anything.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse with a little of the stoney beach

Of course, we couldn’t have gone to Ve Skerries on a calm day without Joe the Drone coming along.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse and neighbouring islands
A Joe’s eye view of Ve Skerries Lighthouse

The lighthouse on Ve Skerries was first lit in 1979, built mainly to aid the large vessels moving around the area going to and from Sullom Voe. The wrecking of the Elinor Viking in December 1977 was also a deciding factor for the lighthouse which was already being spoken of at that point. After the lighthouse was built it received an award for its design and construction, and has very recently been granted listed status. It is a very unique structure, a real modern day rock lighthouse.

Getting back to the boat was slightly easier than the way we’d gone onto the island. However when I got towards the boat one of my feet slipped on some seaweed and my right foot ended up in the sea. Fortunately it was just my foot and I was able to get back into the boat safely before we had a quick stop in the very sheltered little harbour on North Isle, which was a great spot for watching the seals flopping on the rocks and swimming around.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse from North Skerry with plenty of seals keeping an eye on us

Reaching Ve Skerries Lighthouse felt like a great achievement. It is not frequently visited and probably for good reason.

Today was a great reminder to me of why I love doing this so much. That combination of straightforward, understated lighthouse trips and heading out into the wild extremes and creeping about over slippery rocks. Lighthouse bagging like this isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for me – even if I do get a wet foot every now and then! 🙂