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 mad plan: Jersey – part two

In yesterday’s post I explained the plan for this week, and we built upon the success of the first day with another great day in Jersey today.

We started out the day with five more lighthouses to visit and one to view from the island, Demie de Pas, which is on the approach to St Helier.

La Corbiere lighthouse at high tide

Before we got started on those though we were keen to head back to both La Corbiere and Noirmont Point lighthouses to see them when the tide was in. Being tidal, it adds an extra element of enjoyment to these islands to see them when they aren’t accessible on foot. La Corbiere was our first stop and as it magically appeared at the end of the road (as mentioned in yesterday’s post) I simply had to greet it with a jolly “Morning!” If it wasn’t magical enough at low tide it is even more enchanting when it can’t be reached. They say that often people want what they can’t have and this can certainly be applied to visiting lighthouses too.

Noirmont Point at high tide – with fisherman!

Noirmont Point is equally wonderful at high tide. You would never know that it was possible to access it and keep your feet dry. This may be why the Wikipedia entry for the tower says that the lighthouse can be accessed by wading! I can confirm that wading is definitely not necessary. One thing that possibly shattered the illusion of the island being unreachable was the fact that there was a fisherman out on the rock. He was obviously set up for the morning and would head back over at lunch time. Good for him!

The old St Catherine’s lighthouse

We had planned to head straight to St Catherine’s to see the light on the end of the pier. As we passed back through St Helier we quickly stopped off so I could see the old St Catherine’s lighthouse, which is now located outside the entrance to Jersey Maritime Museum. It’s wonderful what they have done with it. One of the plates on the side of the lighthouse best explains its new purpose:

“Apart from the five years of German occupation this light, from St Catherine’s breakwater, shone brightly for over one hundred years to warn seamen of danger. Today, it stands as a monument to those islanders who died in concentration camps far from their island home. A symbol of remembrance and a beacon of hope for the future.”

The memorial was unveiled in November 1996. It really has been beautifully done. The shiny granite of the memorial panels reflect the lighthouse really nicely, which adds to the effect of the whole arrangement. Such a thoughtful idea.

La Greve d’Azette lighthouse

Having missed our turn-off for the elusive A6 towards St Catherine’s, we decided to carry on around the south coast to see the La Greve d’Azette and Mont Ube lights. My research had highlighted that this would be a fairly easy task and it was. La Greve d’Azette sits happily at the side of the main coastal road and we used the nearby M&S car park to visit it. The tower actually begins on the beach, which was a perfect excuse for a short stroll on the sand. The tower has a spiral staircase and a daymark panel too. It’s not the most astounding tower by any stretch of the imagination, but when it is so easy to visit you really can’t complain! A little further along the road we stopped at the car park to get a distant view of Demie De Pas lighthouse. It was too far to get a decent view really, but the best we could manage (or so I thought – more on that to come).


Mont Ube lighthouse

Mont Ube was a little more tricky, but mainly due to a road closure. I was surprised how long it took us at actually see this one as it’s at the side of a road. We were actually on the small road itself and almost at the light before I spotted it. It is very much the twin of La Greve d’Azette minus the spiral staircase and daymark panel. It turned out that if you approached this one from the north or east it would be very much visible from further away.

Our next stop was Gorey. My research told me that there was a light at the end of the pier and that is had a small “room” at the bottom within the lower framework section of the structure. As we approached Gorey and spotted the pier we both became sceptical of its status. We wandered along the pier and found that this small “room” has now been removed. This does mean that it no longer makes my list of lighthouses. You can see how it looked previously on the incredibly useful Lighthouse Directory website.

The modern lighthouse on St Catherine’s breakwater

What I thought would be our final lighthouse of the day was the modern light on the end of the breakwater at St Catherine’s. This one was very straightforward. It’s a fairly long breakwater and as we walked along we noticed how similar it looked to the Gorey structure. I braced myself for another disappointment, but this one was fine with the “room” very much still there. There are a few steps at the side of the lighthouse, which lead up to the point where the old lighthouse was located. The history of the lighthouse is celebrated locally with an interpretive panel at its entrance detailing its construction. It seemed like a quiet little village, but I imagine it could get quite busy in the summer months.

With the completion of the Jersey lighthouses, we considered what to do next. As ever Bob was looking to make things happen and was determined to find a boatman to take us closer to Demie de Pas lighthouse. We headed back to St Helier for lunch and managed to get hold of Dan from Jersey Seafaris who offer chartered RIB trips. Dan was massively helpful and we arranged to meet him later in the afternoon to head out for a quick trip.

Demie de Pas lighthouse

St Helier harbour is huge and we ended up walking the full length of it to get to their boat, a 12-seater RIB. The sea was nice and calm and within ten minutes we were at Demie de Pas! I’d seen some pictures of it online and I was concerned that the top section of the structure did not feature a door, which would mean it would not make my list. We circled around the light, which is much more significant than you would guess from the island. We finally spotted the door in amongst the solar panels and I am not ashamed to say that I was very pleased. Honestly, I am getting a bit ridiculous about doors on lighthouses now! It’s a really impressive tower and Dan informed us that it takes a real battering in its location.

Dan offered to take us for a quick spin over to Noirmont Point before we went back in. Of course we couldn’t resist. It was fantastic to see it from another angle where it looks even more imposing. Jersey really does have an impressive coastline and perfect settings for its lovely lighthouses. One thing that had been bothering me since yesterday was whether Noirmont Point met my lighthouse criteria as the tower itself was not built for the purpose of being a lighthouse. Having seen it from the sea though, we have now got a picture or two showing a door on the smaller white structure on top of the tower (I can only apologise for the door obsession!) I was, of course, delighted to find this. I was even considering adjusting my definition slightly so that Noirmont Point could be included!

On our way back from the boat we paid a quick visit to the Jersey Maritime Museum. It was only open for another hour so it was a bit of a whizz around, but it’s a brilliant museum. It’s really interactive. There are occasional lighthouse-related exhibits, including a model of La Corbiere next to a small Fresnel lens (the man at the museum didn’t know where it had come from). There were some paintings from a renowned local 19th century artist (Philip John Ouless) of both La Corbiere and the old St Catherine’s lighthouse in its position at the end of the breakwater. We learnt a lot at the museum, including the translation of “demie”, as in Demie de Pas. A demie is an offshore rock not visible until half tide!

So, that’s the Jersey lighthouses complete for me! A really successful two days and we’re back to Ayrshire tomorrow. We’re managing to arrange a trip along the Clyde on Wednesday with the kids and Bob’s mum. That will take in the four lighthouses on the Clyde (weather permitting). Then Friday it’s on to Shetland. Great fun! 🙂

The mad plan: Jersey – part one

Today marked the start of what I have recently being referring to as “the mad plan”. So, the mad plan came about as a result of my distinct lack of visited lighthouses in both the Channel Islands (outside of Guernsey, which I visited in 2013) and Shetland. I am working on a list of lighthouses in the UK, Isle of Man and Channel Islands to be published – a sort of travel companion, if you will, to help others who struggle (as I did in 2011/12) to pull together a physical list to help them on their bagging escapades. It’s been – and still is at times – a real challenge, but one I am thoroughly enjoying.

Anyway, this lack of pictures was a problem and the solution was to get some, of course. Which resulted in two trips within one week to the most southerly lighthouses on Jersey and the most northerly in Shetland.

Well, today we flew to Jersey (at this point I should thank Bob’s mum for very kindly enabling this trip to be child-free for us). We arrived, having spotted the 1874 La Corbiere lighthouse on the approach to the airport. It looked so incredibly tempting (and the causeway across to it also looked uncovered a few hours before low tide) that we decided to make it our first stop after picking up the hire car.

La Corbiere lighthouse

The first thing that is wonderful when you visit the lighthouse at Corbiere is your first view of it. It just suddenly appears at the end of the road in front of you, in a magical sort of way. That’s definitely not the only thing magical about it. The way it sits up high on its rock, the excitement of getting to it at low tide only, the wonderful brick-effect painted white, the almost fairytale steps that lead up to the tower… the list really is endless. The stroll to the lighthouse is easy thanks to the excellent causeway and there are countless places to stop on the way over to take pictures. We were already aware that the tours that operate at the lighthouse are currently not running due to maintenance, so we were unlucky in that way. It was absolutely worth visiting anyway though. As I write this I am sitting at Corbiere Phare drinking wine and watching the light flashing. There’s a French light in the distance too. Not my area of expertise so I wouldn’t know which one it is.

The sculpture with La Corbiere lighthouse in the background

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Corbiere, partly because we needed lunch and partly because we saw the opportunity to get to the Noirmont Point light before the tide started to rise. I also took a moment to look at the sculpture next to the car park, which features two hands holding each other, as if one is saving the other. There is a really interesting story behind it. When the French boat Saint-Malo ended up in trouble not far off of Corbiere in 1995, the lifeboat crew was deployed and saved all of the catamaran’s crew. The sculpture was installed in 1997 as a thank you to those who were involved in the rescue mission.

Noirmont Point lighthouse

Onwards we went to Noirmont Point, which was windy! I feel the need to say that first because it really was! Like all of the lighthouses on Jersey there is a nearby car park, which is a massive help. We quickly found the route down to the lighthouse, which was pretty easy, but would be very different in wet conditions. I almost got blown away a few times, but not quite thankfully. It would have been much easier going without the wind, but we made it across and without getting our feet wet. The lighthouse was originally a Martello tower, which has had a light placed on top. Anyway, it was a beautiful view with the big tower on its rocks getting ever closer. Slightly less magical than Corbiere, but no less enjoyable to visit in terms of views. If it was windy on the approach it was even more so at the lighthouse. I had been warned by my lighthouse pal John to look out for the outside toilet, which just happened to be at the windiest part. The only way I can describe it is to say that it looks like a big stone throne with some sort of china bowl in the “opening”! The views all around the lighthouse were beautiful, but I was glad to have my handrail (sorry, I mean husband) there at some of the most exposed parts! The walk back up was much easier.

Grosnez Point lighthouse

On to our third lighthouse: Grosnez Point at the most north westerly point of Jersey. Again parking was no problem and we used my well-researched directions and headed through the old Grosnez Castle ruins. Beyond the ruins there are some steps and an actual handrail (not Bob this time) that takes you down to the lighthouse. It was windy here too, but having something sturdy to cling on to was nice. It’s a very small lighthouse surrounded by a metal fenced enclosure, so nothing as impressive as the previous two, but the surrounding area was impressive with great cliffs and a distant view across to Sorel Point, our final lighthouse destination for the day.

Sorel Point lighthouse

Sorel Point, in comparison to the other lights we’d seen that day, was quiet. We saw one other car while we were there. At the other lights there were a number of people about (getting in the way of our pictures), although mainly around the car parks. Here it was just us. Sorel Point is an interesting light. A little like Fife Ness, it doesn’t make a fuss about being there. It’s pretty well obscured until you are at it and you’d probably not think to go there unless you are a bit of a fan of lighthouses. It’s a squat tower, which makes viewing the lamp room considerably easier from outside. I liked this one. I liked how understated it was. It also has CCTV – I’m sure I’ve read something about damage being done to it in the past. It’s such a shame.

So that was our lighthouse adventures today. I have also found today particularly useful for testing my descriptions of how to reach the lights on Jersey, which will be included in my book. It’s been good and I’m feeling quite confident that my instructions are fine and I’m just making a few small adjustments where necessary.

We finished our bagging day with Bob reaching the highest point of Jersey. So success all round. As mentioned before, we had dinner at Corbiere Phares this evening. It’s almost a little Corbiere Lighthouse museum, with an array of pictures hung on the walls from various stages of the lighthouse’s history. It includes a picture of Peter Edwin Larbalestier, the assistant keeper who went to save someone who was going to be cut off by the tide in 1946 and lost his life. It’s fascinating to see it in the early years when the causeway was essentially a bridge.

Having only done half of the island there is, of course, more to come tomorrow! 🙂