Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the bagging years

I write this post after thinking over it for a few days, I can honestly say that the thing I miss most, aside from seeing family and close friends, at these times are the times I spent out on chartered boats, setting off for the relatively unexplored islands around the UK, particularly those in Scotland. These “bagging” years, as I call them, ran from around mid-2014 to mid-2019, although this post will only cover up until Summer 2018 for reasons that will be made clear in the next and final post. I have thought about those times a lot over the past year and not only because I’ve not been able to do them as I used to, but because I don’t imagine they will feature in my life in the same way going forward.

This is a fairly long post this time as there is a lot to say. I did consider splitting it over two, but I didn’t want readers to lose the essence of it in the transition between posts. I have included pictures from the bagging years throughout to make it slightly easier on the eye.

The beautiful Barra Head lighthouse

To clarify what the bagging years were here is a bit of background. As explained in my previous post, I’d met and married Bob. For those who don’t know Bob, two of his favourite pastimes are hill-bagging (reaching the summit of hills – mostly in the UK now, but he has also completed 6 of the 7 summits – or 6.9 as he says after his Everest attempt in 2013) and island-bagging (reaching the high point of an island). Both of these are guided by lists. Of course I like lists too, more specifically lighthouse lists. Bob was, back in 2014, a member of a group of like-minded people called the Relative Hills of Britain (now the Relative Hills Society) with islands naturally falling under that as they also contain hills, although members are also interested in various Ordnance Survey-related points such as trig pillars and benchmarks. Members of RHB organised group trips to islands not covered by schedule or routine ferries and boats. With Bob going off on these adventures it was only a matter of time before I was invited along too.

One of my favourite non-lighthouse islands, Scarp just off the west coast of Lewis. What remains of the old schoolhouse on the island can be seen here.

The term “bagging” and the idea of ticking things like islands off a list seems to divide opinion. Those against its use see it as simply a ticking exercise with no time spent enjoying or experiencing these places. There are three reasons I fully support what they (and I, in fact) do:

  1. It is not necessarily the case that baggers do nothing in these places to enhance their experience of it. On some of the very small islands there is little else to do than walk around a bit and then leave. On the larger islands they often do spend more time there, checking out old buildings, walking the beaches or looking at other points of interest.
  2. When they get to these islands they do what they love, walking up hills, visiting a lighthouse or getting to trig points. If others with different interests went to these places they may choose to sit on the beach and sunbathe, for example.
  3. Finally, but most importantly in my opinion, when you have been out on any of the trips with the baggers, you will end up in places that you can never imagine, that most people don’t even know exist. If they weren’t into lists then they would never see these magnificent places.

From those I’ve met most are happy to be called “baggers” and to do what they are doing. In the process they aren’t harming anyone and that, to me, is the most important thing.

My introduction to these trips came in May 2014 with a trip organised by Alan who has done so much towards getting me and others to places we had only dreamed of. We went out from Skerray harbour on the north coast of Scotland to the Rabbit Islands, which had looked so alluring from a distance for some time. It was rather an embarrassing start actually as when I went to get off the boat onto the island I was completely in control of what I was doing and going at my own speed, but Bob obviously thought otherwise and went to haul me onto the island faster than I was planning to go. The result of this being me ending up lying on top of Bob. It gave everyone a laugh and all of those on the trip went on to become friends who I always looked forward to seeing in one place or another, just like many of the others I was yet to meet.

The view looking towards the north coast of Scotland from the beach that separates the two Rabbit Islands at high tide

A month later, at 6 months pregnant, we spent a week over in the Outer Hebrides, camping at various stunning locations and heading out on a couple of boat trips, including my next island bagging adventure. This one was to the tiny island of Sula Sgeir followed by nearby North Rona, both to the north of the main Outer Hebrides. This was another trip organised by Alan. If I was ever going to wonder what I’d let myself in for and say “never again” it would have been then. Thankfully, whatever stressors I had to deal with at Sula Sgeir were all forgotten upon arrival at North Rona. North Rona was bliss, with the exception of a few bonxies hanging around ready to swoop on any unsuspecting bagger. While there the group wandered in groups or alone in various directions, chatting and laughing – just really enjoying their time on the island. The atmosphere was wonderful and from that point I was a little bit hooked.

North Rona with its lighthouse near the highest point of the island

Over the few years that followed our annual holiday would always tie in with the hill/island bagger events. One of my most memorable days spent out on boats was in 2015 on another Alan trip from Oban with Coastal Connection when we visited the island of Oigh Sgeir and its lighthouse, more commonly known as Hyskeir lighthouse. During that visit I grew so fond of the place, and I recall the enjoyment I hit from wandering along the bridges, checking out the basalt columns, spotting minke whales in the distance – in fact everything about the place was stunning. We also visited Eigg lighthouse on the little island Eilean Chathastail afterwards which I enjoyed so much for the peaceful surroundings. I remember staying at the lighthouse enjoying the sounds and views while the others went to the high point. Later that day a couple of us waited on the boat while the rest of the group disembarked for a trek across Muck. Heading around to the pier the rest of us then enjoyed sitting in the sunshine outside the little cafe where we had lunch, ready to welcome the others back with big smiles.

Hyskeir lighthouse on the island of Oigh Sgeir

The bagging years have taken me completely out of my comfort zone on numerous occasions. In fact most island landings without a nice pier, jetty or steps get me a little nervous. Thankfully I’ve not had any major incidents so far and hopefully it stays that way, but I think that is down to the other baggers and the boatmen always being willing to help me out if I end up struggling at all. I am always amazed at the baggers who will sit on the boat, fall asleep, wake up when we get to the next island and just go without giving any thought to checking out where the landing might be. One landing attempt stands out far above the others though for being really frightening and it was actually at Dubh Artach lighthouse, which we attempted to land at the day after the perfect Oigh Sgeir day mentioned above. A group of us were in the tender edging closer to the rock and Bob was just about to attempt to step out onto the rock. He got his foot onto a bit of metal grate just as the swell came in and as it was going back out we weren’t going with it. A result of this could well have been that we’d be tipped out of the boat, but thankfully the skipper handled it superbly. I was pretty glad to be back on the main boat that day!

Dubh Artach lighthouse

Later in 2015 and then into 2016 there were some Welsh visits organised by Adrian. We visited the Skerries, a truly beautiful island off the Anglesey coast, and Tudwal East in South Wales to get a closer look at the Tudwal West lighthouse, as well as landing at both Smalls and South Bishop lighthouses off the west coast. One of my most amusing memories was on The Smalls. There were numerous seals hanging around on the rock as we approached and they went off for a swim and kept a close eye on us as their heads bobbed up and down in the water. Seals, like most animals, leave a lot of mess and I recall making my way over a section of rock that was pretty slippy with their waste. I remember seeing a slightly craggier bit and thought “oh, I might get better grip on those rocks” and a few seconds later I was stranded on said rocks knowing that wherever I stepped I was going to slip. Thankfully Bob came to the rescue and escorted me to safety.

At Smalls lighthouse

Later on in 2016 Rick organised a trip out to Little Cumbrae. This was an excellent island to explore and a real treat to be able to get inside the old lighthouse for a look around. One of my favourite parts though had to be standing around for about 20 minutes at or near the island high point while a few members of the group debated which point out of two was actually the highest. I have some amazing pictures of the group standing around with some scrutinising their GPS devices while others gaze at a bit of rock looking a little bemused by the whole situation. Before the boat came to pick us up we had a little time to spare back at the jetty on the east side of the island and so we decided to make the most of the falling tide and visit the tidal Castle Island. The tide wasn’t low enough to get across without getting wet feet initially, but Bob went wading on through boots and all anyway. Others removed their boots and paddled through. I joined the final lot who waited patiently until the tide had dropped enough to allow for a dry crossing.

Little Cumbrae

Building on an already successful year, Alan’s annual trip for 2016 saw us all travelling to the Isles of Scilly. We were so lucky with the weather that week and managed to achieve near enough everything we wanted to. Lighthouses were visited, island high points were bagged and on one particular day I ended up staying in the small tender with another of the ladies on the trip as the side of the main boat was so high I knew I would struggle to get back into it from the tender. The skipper said that Gladys and I could stay in the tender and be dragged along until we reached an island where he could get the main boat in to pick us up. It was such a fun ride along. There was minor panic (probably more major panic in the main boat though) when a wave caught the boat and sent Gladys falling backwards into the middle of the tender. She was absolutely fine and we had a good laugh about it.

On board our little chariot in the Isles of Scilly

2017 didn’t start so well with an awful bout of morning sickness, but by April I was ready to head out on a Douglas-organised trip and this time to Lady Isle. It was so good to be out in the real fresh air again and going to a lighthouse that was so unique too. We were accompanied on the boat by the skipper’s lively spaniel who wasted no time in jumping into the tender for a big old run around on Horse Island, which the group visited after Lady Isle. It was a really enjoyable day and the time spent on Lady Isle itself was really pleasant.

On Lady Isle with its very distinctive lighthouse

Then came the big bagging year: 2018. For three years between 2014 and 2017 we’d been to the Outer Hebrides, shipping in grandparents for childcare duties once the kids had come along. The big aim was always to get out to the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands, but we’d just never had good enough sea conditions to be able to do it. Then 2018 came around and our first two bagging days offered calm seas, calm enough to allow us to reach both of these places, the Flannans on the Monday and Monachs on the Tuesday. Those were both such special trips and to have waited for so long to get there made me appreciate them all the more. I was also delighted to land at Haskeir after the Monachs which allowed me to see the little light there too.

The two lighthouses on Shillay, one of the Monach Islands

Later that year Mervyn planned a trip to Barra with a number of boat trips organised including one to Berneray, home to Barra Head lighthouse. That was a superb day and not only for the lighthouse. Some of the highlights of trips I have been on have actually been on islands with no lighthouse in sight. On this particular trip one such moment was on a beach on Pabbay where I walked along the beach and at one point spent about 10 minutes watching a ball of foam spinning around in one of the little streams leading down the sea.

The beautiful beach on Pabbay

During these few years there were many other lighthouse adventures with Bob, and then with our son, and from 2017 our daughter too – all of which have been included in posts on this site. I am delighted to report that the kids are well and truly into this lighthouse bagging malarkey, and can even be encouraged to do a small hill here and there if there is the promise of Smarties at the top. The little one even demands to be let into every lighthouse we see. She will go far, that one!

I am super grateful to all of those who organised the trips mentioned here as well as the other adventures not included in this write-up. I am also hugely thankful to the baggers who really supported my book and bought their own copies – to Douglas who suggested the inclusion of the listing on haroldstreet.org.uk and then to Alex and Rob who supported the case for it to be added to the site which usually only features hill lists and walking routes. Charlie and Mervyn were among the handful of people I knew at the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in September 2019, and the Relative Hills Society were keen to feature my book in their regular newsletter as a members’ publication.

I have a lot to thank so many of the baggers for. Although my interests didn’t start out being the same as theirs (and they really are “collectors of all things” as a skipper once described it) they welcomed me, helped me and – probably because they love a good list anyway – embraced the opportunity to visit lighthouses too, even enjoying bagging the flat-pack types more than most other lighthouse enthusiasts I know. I have a real fondness for them and what they do. They are amazing to watch when you’re out and about with them, they just seem to keep going and going. They will be out on a boat doing island after island and it gets to the afternoon lull period at 2.30/3pm and they are still going and you know it’s because it is what they love to do, and for some it is even more than that – it is what they live to do. 🙂

Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: an introduction to the islands

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

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

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

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

On my first visit to Loch Eriboll lighthouse in 2012

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

The lighthouse on the stunning tidal island of Davaar

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

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

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

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

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

Europa Point lighthouse in Gibraltar

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

My first Northern Irish light, Donaghadee

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

Loch Eriboll in winter

In these times of lockdown I am grateful for the vast landscape and small numbers of people we have living up on the north coast. Today was an opportunity to embrace that and go off piste for a winter return to Loch Eriboll lighthouse.

With the prediction of sunshine and very little wind, it was time for Joe the Drone to dust himself off and head out for a flight. Thankfully Bob’s mum has been staying with us in our bubble for a few weeks now and was happy to manhandle the children again so we could head out.

Loch Eriboll was the first of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s flat-pack lighthouses I had visited. That was back in 2012 and I walked along to it again in 2019 with my pal John. Each visit so far has been different and today was really no exception. The frozen bog actually made it far more pleasant and less wet than it was on my first visit.

This lighthouse, and Loch Eriboll in general, holds a special place in my heart. I can’t pinpoint exactly why that is, but I am fascinated by it. I suppose it’s a combination of it’s beauty, it’s geography and geology, and the part it naturally plays in maritime safety – being the last safe haven before Cape Wrath for ships heading west and the first point of safety for vessels after rounding the Cape. Some places you just feel a connection to and this is certainly one of mine.

The start of the walk is very much focussed on walking along the east side of Loch Ach’an Lochaidh with it’s lovely little islands. On a day like today it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than serene.

The tranquil Loch Ach-an Lochaidh

Once past the loch it’s a matter of heading in the right direction which takes you up and down, left and right as you avoid boggy sections and steep slopes. Thankfully much of the vegetation has died back which made it a lot easier to navigate.

This picture gives an idea of the terrain
Near enough all the water in this burn was frozen over
Loch Eriboll lighthouse with the entrance to the loch in the distance

Once close to the lighthouse Bob sent Joe up and I explored a little bit. I took a stroll along to a sheltered beach area to the south of the lighthouse. Sadly a lot of rubbish has been gathering here.

I then took the opportunity to sit down and enjoying the panoramic views to the north, west and south – with the occasional glance back at the lighthouse of course.

The view of Loch Eriboll during my rest
The view to the west
The view of the lighthouse to the north

Joe captured some really excellent shots. I have always been fascinated by the white marks down the rock in front of the lighthouse, which presumably is where some sort of acid was thrown down it before the structure was changed to a flat-pack.

Joe the Drone’s shot of Loch Ach-an Lochaidh
A bird’s eye view from the north east
Loch Eriboll lighthouse from the south west

A further short stroll took me closer to the lighthouse where there were some good views to be had from it too. I suppose the modern structure can’t really be compared to the natural beauty of Loch Eriboll and the snow-capped hills on west side of the loch, but if I’d not been out there to see the lighthouse I’d never have seen the natural beauties on show there.

Loch Eriboll lighthouse gets some incredible views

The walk back was just as enjoyable. The remains of the little house not too far from the lighthouse always amazes me. What an equally beautiful and challenging place to live. There’s a lovely little burn running alongside the house though and I really like the patch of trees close by.

The ruin with the lighthouse and entrance to the loch beyond
There aren’t so many trees in the area so it was nice to see these
Lovely reflections on the way back
The burn you need to cross not far from the parking area

A really enjoyable relatively short walk today, made better by doing it in such frozen conditions. I’ll get back to my reflections posts shortly. 🙂

Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the beginning

With the second Scottish lockdown in full swing and no chance of visiting any new places or lighthouses in the immediate future, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the development and progression of my lighthouse fanaticism over the years, from the very beginning to where I am now. My lighthouse journey has really been life-changing and, equally importantly, has taught me a lot about who I am.

This is the first of four parts as there have been fairly clear turning points along the way which have seen me move on to a higher level of fanaticism. In this first reflective piece I will go right back to the beginning and aim to address the commonly asked question: what got you into lighthouses?

When I was doing promotion work for my book this question came up many times and I dreaded being asked it as my answer always sounds really flaky. It’s never been a question I’ve found easy to answer. Many of my friends with various interests can name a specific lighthouse, hill etc. that kicked off their passion. This was not the case for me.

Looking back, I remember feeling the draw of lighthouses in the early 2000s, but it was a passion that already had some sort of foundation at that point. During my childhood in the ’90s we’d been on a number of family holidays in Suffolk including Southwold, where the lighthouse has a very prominent position in the middle of the town, but the lighthouse didn’t really feature much in those.

In the last few months I spent living on the Isle of Wight before I left to go to university in 2002, I spent a lot of time outdoors exploring the island like I never had before. This ignited a passion in me for being outside, particularly by the coast, and this passion has never gone away. Although visiting the island’s lighthouses doesn’t feature in my memories of this period I knew I loved them, and when I moved to live in Weymouth later that year I always enjoyed going to Portland Bill and it was top of my to do list when I first visited the area.

In 2004 I visited Cromer Lighthouse in Norfolk where my grandparents were staying in one of the keepers’ cottages and I was really looking forward to seeing it. I made a point of taking some photos as I was so close.

Cromer Lighthouse

I also finally got around to taking some pictures of Southwold Lighthouse on that trip too.

Southwold Lighthouse viewed from the pier

By 2008 I was well on my way towards lighthouse fanaticism. Living in London at the time I paid a visit to Trinity Buoy Wharf to see the old Trinity House training lighthouse.

Blackwall or Bow Creek Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London

I also dressed up as a lighthouse at a friend’s nautical-themed party on board a ferry that sailed around Plymouth Sound (excuse the picture, which was taken towards the end of the night, but it’s the closest I have of a full-body shot)!

My lighthouse costume

These memories do little to answer the question, of course. To make it even more complex, I don’t know that I ever went to the effort of visiting The Needles or St Catherine’s lighthouses (the Isle of Wight’s two main lighthouses) prior to these memories. I was however more than aware of the Needles Lighthouse being one of the main attractions on the island and often encountered references to it and tourist paraphernalia featuring it as I was growing up.

It has been suggested to me that perhaps my love of lighthouses actually has always been there on a subconscious level, in large part due to the presence of the Isle of Wight’s lighthouses. In the same way that children who grow up by the sea find it so normal that they don’t even realise how much they love the coast until they move away from it. Perhaps the love was always there, it just took some time for me to realise it. I can quite believe that this is the case. 

With hindsight I can now see that my increasing enjoyment of visiting lighthouses has very much run in parallel with my experience of growing up and discovering who I am. When I was young all I was sure of was that away from home and my family I was shy, quiet, prone to crying if I felt out of my comfort zone, and at times quite difficult to manage as a result. Home was where I felt secure and safe.

As I broadened my horizons by leaving the island and going to university, and then moving to London, I began to seek lighthouses further and further afield. My comfort zone expanded and my confidence grew. I no longer sought the security and safety of home, I wanted to explore – and it was lighthouses I wanted to see in those explorations. The more I saw the more I wanted to see, and this has continued to this day.

My increasing fascination with lighthouses has helped to shape me as a person and, even up until very recently, it has taught me a lot about myself over the years. It’s shown me how determined I am (my dad once referred to it as grim determination), how fixated I can become on something, and that I am really a ‘list person’ at heart. I am frequently reminded that the best people are.

I hope that gives some sort of background and ending here sets the scene nicely for what is to follow in the next post 🙂

A cloudy day on Mull

Contrary to what the title of this post suggests, we actually started yesterday in Oban with a short visit to Dunollie lighthouse. This little lighthouse, made up of a stone tower and lantern with gallery placed on top of it, is quite understated and that’s one of the things I like about it. I also like the fact that it’s still standing as actually, close up, it looks like it’s just made of a big pile of rocks – the sort of thing my 6-year-old might make, just on a larger scale. But standing it is and it has been for over 100 years.

Dunollie lighthouse

Joe the Drone had a little flight around the area.

Dunollie lighthouse from the seaward side

Meanwhile I spent a while at the nearby War Memorial to mark an early 2-minute silence for Remembrance Sunday.

War Memorial at Dunollie

We had a little time before we had to be at the ferry and I mentioned the old Northern Lighthouse Board houses on Pulpit Hill so we took a drive up to find them. I took a guess at which they were and the series of 5 large buildings with four front doors each seemed most likely. This has since been confirmed by my former keeper friend Ian. He actually stayed in one of them while off duty during his time serving on Skerryvore.

The old Northern Lighthouse Board buildings on Pulpit Hill

The houses were built to house the families of those keepers (and the keepers themselves when off duty) while they were based at some of the major rock stations off the west coast.

After taking a look at the buildings I contacted Ian again as I wasn’t sure how it had worked with the families. I knew the families of the keepers on Skerryvore, Dubh Artach, Barra Head and Hyskeir lived there, but I wasn’t sure if there were any others. Ian explained that initially each block was for each lighthouse, so Dubh Artach, Skerryvore, Ushenish, Barra Head and Lismore. The families of the Hyskeir keepers stayed in a separate house (Glenmore House) which is still on the other side of Pulpit Hill.

It changed when Lismore was automated in 1965 though and the Hyskeir families moved to the blocks. He added though that, as time passed and more of the lights were automated, the blocks began to house families and keepers from other lighthouses. Ian himself stayed in one of them while off duty from Pladda, for example. It was good to see these buildings and Ian has said before that it was quite a community up there with, I imagine, anything up to 20 families there at any one time.

It was time to hop on the ferry to Mull, which was thankfully very quiet. The sailing to Mull (or in fact a lot of sailings out of Oban) are always enjoyable as you pass a number of lights including Dunollie followed by Lismore and Lady Rock. It was good to see Lismore with the main island in the background thinking “I was there yesterday” and then looking over to Lady Rock thinking “I landed there last year”!

Lismore lighthouse with the island of Lismore to the right
Lismore lighthouse
Lady Rock lighthouse

Almost immediately Duart Point was next to us and to this one I thought “I’ll be there shortly – hopefully”. We weren’t sure how easy it would be to get to as we knew there was a big craggy Rock behind it and it wasn’t clear how easily we would get around that. There was only one way to find out.

We headed straight for Duart Castle, which is currently closed, but the car park is a good starting point for the walk to the Point. Bob had managed to find some directions on his GPS device for reaching a geocache very close to the lighthouse and this was a great help. I will try to include them as best I can here for anyone wanting to walk out to it.

The view from the approach road to Duart Castle

Walking back along the road we found the gate on the left just after a row of trees. Once through the gate (remembering to leave it as we found it, of course) I spotted another gate on the skyline at the top of the field as the instructions suggested.

Setting off for Duart Point
This gate marks the starting point from the road
Looking back at the second gate

Passing through that gate we turned left immediately and followed the fence and wall along. There are rough paths through the vegetation and I would actually recommend this time of year to visit if you can as the ferns have all died back exposing the grassy paths. I imagine they would be harder to see in Spring/Summer.

The landscape begins to open up – you want to head just to the right of the tree and then onwards between the two raised sections of ground

Where the wall ends the landscape opens up and we headed “straight on to the left” as Bob calls it (which basically means somewhere between straight on and left!) This route zigzags as you go downhill and once you are on a flatter section you have two options, you can either stay up high and view the tower from above first or continue around and down to the right. The tower is tucked away just to the left of the trees at the coast. As you go down you should then spot the tower as you follow the grassy track down.

Looking back up at the zig zag section
The final approach to the lighthouse

It was raining today so it was quite wet underfoot and a lot of the ground was covered in leaves, understandable as Autumn draws to a close. It was great to spot the tower through the threes and craggy rocks though. It’s a beautiful tower, originally built as a memorial of the Scottish author William Black who died in 1898 and always enjoyed Duart Point. The cost of the tower was partially covered by Black’s family and friends and there is a lovely plaque above the door explaining this.

Duart Point lighthouse

The only real indications of this being a lighthouse are the Northern Lighthouse Board plaque on the door and the modern little light and solar panel on top of the tower. There is a little platform nearby that looked like it may once have accommodated some sort of derrick.

The platform in front of the tower

The tower has enough variety in its shape to make pictures from every angle look quite different. My favourite view was of the lighthouse in the foreground with the big rock behind it.

A picturesque angle on Duart Point lighthouse

Another great angle was from the fence around the trees. This angle gave you a view of the Duart Point tower with Lismore to its left and Lady Rock to its right. It’s not often you get that kind of view.

A view of three lighthouses: Lismore in the distance, Duart Point and Lady Rock

Joe the Drone had come along and, although it was slightly wet, Bob thought he’d give him a fly anyway and he got a few great shots.

Duart Point from above
One of Joe’s great shots of Duart Point

Following the path back up we then wandered along to the top of the craggy rock to look down on the tower. This is an excellent angle on it, particularly if you want to get a better view of the lighting equipment. The viewpoint allowed us to get some Joe-type images without needing to use Joe. I would highly recommend including a stop here in your walk if you go (just be careful near the edge).

Duart Point lighthouse as seen from the top of the craggy rock
The lighting equipment on top of the William Black memorial

Annoyingly the weather started to clear up as we walked back, but we’d still enjoyed the visit to the light and the nice walk to get to it.

With no ferry leaving the island until after 4pm we had a few hours to kill. Unfortunately we didn’t have long enough for Bob to do a hill or for the walk out to Rubha nan Gall so we went for a drive. Mull seemed very unfamiliar to me, particularly the southern part, and it’s no surprise really as I worked out I’d only been once before (if you exclude the quick stop off at Ardmore Point from a chartered boat last year). It was beautiful to see it though, especially with the clearing skies and the sun eventually deciding to make an appearance.

A lone sheep on the banks of Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull
The change on weather conditions was evident at a number of points
Looking back at Loch na Keal

After a fair wait at the terminal at Fishnish we boarded the ferry for the short crossing to Lochaline. By this point it was beginning to get dark and so I enjoyed the outline of the landscape as Bob drove us along to Corran. I always find Corran lighthouse just seems to suddenly appear when you aren’t expecting it and that was exactly what happened yesterday evening as we arrived suddenly at the Corran ferry at Ardgour. The joy of seeing lighthouses at night is, of course, seeing them in action. Corran is a good one as it has the red and green sectors which make for a more colourful view. This was another one I could look at and think “I was at the top of that tower last year”.

Corran lighthouse

Across the water I could also see the little Corran Narrows light flashing away and I remembered the unnecessarily tricky walk down to that one!

After crossing the channel on the Corran ferry we began the journey northwards and home. It had been great to get another weekend away this year, while we could. Who knows what the coming weeks and months will bring. Stay safe everyone and, if I don’t manage another post then have a restful Christmas time. Let’s hope 2021 can be an improvement upon this year. 🙂

Sunshine and calm seas in Argyll

Argyll is a beautiful part of Scotland, that’s for sure, and never moreso than in Autumn when it’s beautiful tree-lined roads and coastline completely change the colour of the landscape. It also helps when the sun is shining as it very much was yesterday.

We were due to visit Lismore and had a little time to kill so a stop off at Port Appin to see Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse seemed appropriate. It was high tide too, which would give a bit of a different perspective from the last time we were there when we walked out to the light at low tide. It’s very easy to fall in love with this area and the little lighthouse is an important part of the local landscape.

Sgeir Bhuidhe from the approach road to Port Appin

Die hard lighthouse fans will have heard of its rather amusing history, when it was painted to look like Mr Blobby as a protest by a member of the local community during the period when the Northern Lighthouse Board were looking to replace it with one of the IKEA flat-pack lights. I do love a flat-pack lighthouse, but even I would have been devastated by the loss of a lovely little tower if I’d lived in Port Appin at the time.

Thankfully a compromise was reached and a replacement modern round tower was installed, and it’s one of my favourite type too. There is so much to love about this one, including the fact that ‘Sgeir Bhuidhe’ translates as ‘Yellow Rocks’ due to the lichen growing on the rocks, which is evident in these pictures that Joe took. Yellow also happens to be my favourite colour.

Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse on the ‘yellow rocks’

Bob wandered off to find a point that would allow him to fly Joe without breaking any of the rules that apply to the use of drones. I knew he would get some excellent shots because it was a wonderful location anyway, but with the calm water and bright skies it seemed perfect.

Sunlight on the water at Sgeir Bhuidhe
Sgeir Bhuide from the south
Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse from above
Port Appin

Meanwhile I took a different route. Firstly I stopped off to revisit the old lighthouse lantern. Another arrangement made between the local community and Northern Lighthouse Board was that the lantern from the old tower could stay in the area and the community have installed some information boards inside it. These boards cover local history, biodiversity and the island of Lismore, which can be seen just across the water. More importantly though it has a panel about the lighthouse and it’s history. It’s really quite clever how they have done it.

The lantern from the previous Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse
The lighthouse exhibition in the old lantern

From here I took a walk along the road until I reached the pebble beach where I cut down to the sea. It was so incredibly calm with just the sound of the little waves lapping at the shoreline and the small birds singing from somewhere nearby. It’s such a calming place and somewhere that nature takes over and you can’t fail to be affected by it. I could have spent so much longer there and hope to sometime.

This time though there was a ferry to catch. I’d gazed across the water at Lismore and now it was time to go there. Lismore could be quite deceptive for any new lighthouse bagger. Lismore lighthouse must surely be on Lismore you might think, but in fact it’s on a smaller island, Eilean Musdile, just to the south west of Lismore itself. However, we still hoped we would find something of interest relating to the lighthouse at the Gaelic Heritage Centre.

Lismore was a new island for both of us and after the fairly short ferry crossing we headed towards the southern end of the island. After finding a suitable place to stop the car Bob set off to reach the island high point, which he managed to reach after negotiating the river, walls, fences and a row of cows just before the high point. Once he was back we set off to find the Heritage Centre. It’s a great building. Very modern and a nice contrast to the little blackhouse (if they call them that in these parts too) next door. The blackhouse is an exhibit now, kitted out as it would have been many years ago.

The blackhouse on Lismore

The Centre itself has a lot going for it. It contains a big room with the exhibition panels as well as a shop and a cafe. The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into the island, its history and many other aspects. I found the information about the flora and fauna quite interesting. Lismore is known as The Great Garden, which is how its Gaelic name Lios Mor translates. It is home to 200 species of wildflower and 18 species of butterfly, so it certainly lives up to its name.

Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre

Further around the exhibition we spotted some information about Lismore lighthouse and, interestingly, the old telescope from the lighthouse, which is engraved with ‘Lismore Lighthouse (Signalmen)’. A special little artefact. There was also a lovely lighthouse design by the local children on one of the windows.

The children’s lighthouse design on the window

Standing outside on the balcony in the sunshine, we ate lunch before continuing to explore a bit more of the island. Heading up to the arrival point for those travelling on the foot passenger only ferry from Port Appin, we were able to get more views of Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse. Before concluding our visit to the island and heading back to the ferry, we even managed to buy a Danish pastry from the little phone box!

The view from Lismore towards Port Appin

The phone box with with cake

It had been a fantastic day, very much helped by the weather. It’s good to be out and enjoy the outdoors while we can as we don’t know when that might need to stop again. One more post for this weekend to come 🙂

Return to Rubh Re

Those regular readers with a good memory may well recall that the last of my posts signed off by saying it was likely to be the last of the year, although I was hopeful of being able to fit something in. Ever the opportunist, when Bob suggested a weekend away while the kids stayed home with his mum there was no way I was going to turn it down.

But where to go? As always Bob had an idea and it was to travel down to Oban where we would base ourselves for exploring a couple of places. “But Rubh Re is nowhere near Oban” I hear you say, and you would be correct, although it is still in Scotland and still on the west coast. The draw over to this part was two-fold: Joe the Drone had never been there, and the Gairloch Museum (home to the old Rubh Re lighthouse lens) had moved into a new building – a former nuclear bunker, so I’ve been informed – which had only opened last year.

Arriving in the sunshine we decided it would be best to head for the lighthouse first. The road out to the lighthouse has some fairly scary sections, but thankfully there was no unwelcoming signs or people saying it was a private road (as has been the case for many people before). I believe a change in ownership of the lighthouse cottages has helped with that!

Approaching Rubh Re lighthouse

Rubh Re is actually a fair distance from Gairloch, which we drove through on the way there. I always thought it was ‘just up the road and round the corner’ kind of distance, but the road is fairly long and goes through a few outlying villages first. It’s absolutely worth it though as, when the lighthouse comes into view it certainly is a beautiful thing to behold. To me Rubh Re lighthouse is quite distinctive and it is so often photographed from this particular angle and you can see why.

The popular angle on Rubh Re lighthouse

It was quiet there today and although we saw another car in the parking area a short distance before the lighthouse, there were no other people to be seen. As we were leaving we spotted the owner of the cottages hanging out his horizontal washing – or “lighthouse washing” as I like to call it, which must almost always be horizontal with the wind in these coastal areas.

Looking back at Rubh Re lighthouse from the north

Close to the lighthouse gate there is a sign with a little information about the lighthouse and it also directs you to follow the path to see the old jetty that was used for bringing in supplies when the lighthouse was manned. I decided to take a stroll along that way as I’d not noticed it before. It was a nice little walk in the sunshine, passing a few sheep on the way.

The path to the lighthouse jetty

The jetty is looking very good considering it’s probably not used much now. The old mechanisms have obviously gone now, but the little set of steps and the main platform are still very much intact. Tucked away around a corner it seemed like it would be quite a good landing area, but apparently that was not the case. At Gairloch Museum I listened to some accounts from a former keeper and the large rock that sits near the landing caused problems for getting a boat in. I imagine if there was a lot of swell and movement there would be a risk of striking the rock.

Arriving at the jetty
Rubh Re jetty
The landing area and the hazardous rocks

Bob had stayed back at the lighthouse flying Joe about and caught up with me as I was heading back from the jetty. He’d managed to get some great shots of the lighthouse in the sunshine. 

Rubh Re from the south
The view of Rubh Re from the west

Rubh Re and the access road

Unfortunately the sun was hiding behind a long strip of a cloud by the time he got to the jetty so the pictures weren’t so colourful. I called them “moody’. I like to think there’s at least one word for every occasion.

The lighthouse jetty and Rubh Re lighthouse
A closer view of the Rubh Re jetty and lighthouse

Leaving the lighthouse behind (but only because we couldn’t take it with us), we headed back to Gairloch and the Museum. It was a delight to see the old Rubh Re foghorn now has pride of place right outside. It turns out it was only put into position about a month ago. It’s an interesting foghorn with a wheel that opens it up. As it said in the Museum, fog wasn’t a regular occurrence at Rubh Re.

The old Rubh Re foghorn outside Gairloch Museum

When you enter the Museum now you are immediately in the shop and much to my delight, I spotted a copy of my book on the shelf. That’s always great to see – books for sale in the right places. And this is certainly the right place for it as I spotted the massive lens from Rubh Re lighthouse behind the ticket desk immediately. Once one of the ladies who works at the Museum found out they have my lighthouse book for sale she very kindly showed us her favourite angle on the lens, which is actually from the window close to the entrance. She was right, it was a great viewpoint.

The Rubh Re lens shining above the Museum ticket desk

The lens dominates the ground floor of the exhibition and is surrounded by a bit more information about the lighthouse. There’s a real focus on the human side and the keepers with details of each one listed on a screen which tells you where they were from, their previous occupation, how long they were at Rubh Re, where else they served and when they left the service. It was sad to see that three of the keepers died during service with one falling to his death off the cliffs after 6 months of working at Rubh Re.

The Rubh Re lens in all its glory

There are a range of other items removed from the lighthouse after automation on display including the old clockwork mechanism that worked with the lens. It’s a great tribute to the lighthouse and those who worked in it.

The Rubh Re exhibition at Gairloch Heritage Museum

The rest of the Museum is focussed on other aspects of the local area, such as day to day life and crafting, the geology and (Bob’s favourite bit) Gruinard Island which was used for testing anthrax and was out of bounds until 1990 when they were certain it was safe for people to go back to. They tested this by putting sheep on the island and thankfully they survived. It is still often referred to as Anthrax Island.

I couldn’t leave the Museum without a little memento (or three). They had a booklet about the road to Rubh Re which looked interesting. I spotted a copy of a recently released book about the village of Scoraig which had a few snippets of information about Cailleach Head lighthouse. It’s a fascinating place anyway so the book came away with us too and it will be nice to read a bit more about its history and the people who lived there. Finally, I spotted a mug with the Rubh Re lens on it – need I say more…We finished the day with a great drive through Torridon. A nice end to a good day of examining things a little more closely.

More to come over the weekend. 🙂

The lesser known lights

Our recent break in Suffolk had come to an end and it was time to head home, as suggested by my last post – which was due to be the final one for the year. Always wanting to get the most out of these trips though there was something that needed to be cleared up and this took us to Hawkcraig Point in Aberdour on the east coast of Scotland.

The last time I visited Hawkcraig Point was two years ago when I was entering the last few months of preparing the content for my book. I had a list of lighthouses I needed to check out to ensure they met the criteria for inclusion, and the two towers here were on that list. On the last visit we discovered that the rear of the two lights had internal access through a door on the side. However, there were no visible signs of an entrance on the front tower. Returning home I looked into it and discovered some aerial images that seemed to suggest there was a hatch on the top of the front lighthouse and so it made it onto the final list for the book.

Hawkcraig Point front and rear lights

Now that we were equipped with Joe the Drone though it was time to check it for ourselves. While I kept the kids entertained by walking to each of the lighthouses and then up the nearby steps which gave great views across the Firth of Forth (Oxcars lighthouse was clearly visible), Bob sent Joe up to investigate. It very quickly became clear that there is indeed a hatch on top of the tower which allows access to the light itself.

Hawkcraig Point from above

The lights at Hawkcraig Point remain a bit of a mystery to me as there is really no information about them online, even basic information such as when they were first introduced. Much of the history of this particular area centres on HMS Tarlair, a Royal Navy facility that was used to research and develop hydrophones to listen out for any enemy submarines in the area during the First World War. There are still remnants of this base, such as the remains of the old pier and foundations of a couple of buildings.

Hawkcraig Point rear lighthouse

Information about the lighthouses here is very scarce. This is something I am coming across more and more frequently as I look into the smaller lighthouses, particularly in Scotland, and I find it frustrating and feel the urge to be more proactive about uncovering whatever history there might be out there.

Hawkcraig Point

Bob made the error, much to my delight, of asking if there was anywhere else I wanted to go as we continued our journey home. After seeing three screw pile lighthouses during the week and my suggestion was Tayport to see the Pile lighthouse as I knew, with Joe, we could get a closer look at it – or at least better pictures of it. That was exactly what we did.

I was left with child management duties (directing them to run around benches and trees, and taking a look at a nearby large pond) while Bob and Joe got to work. There were a fair amount of birds about and Bob was keen not to disturb them too much so he got some pictures and then left the birds alone. It’s fair to say the Pile lighthouse has seen better days, but it is also looking remarkably good considering it’s not been in use for around 60 years.

Tayport Pile lighthouse

The tower was introduced in 1848 to replace the front of the two lighthouses along the coast of Tayport. It’s essentially a wooden box with a lantern (or the remains of one) on top and it stands on timber stilts which are screwed into the sea bed, hence the name ‘screw pile’.

The Tayport Pile light from above

Much like Hawkcraig, there’s not a lot on information available about this one, and perhaps the most valuable information comes from comments on Facebook posts in more modern times. It had been suggested that the lighthouse was never manned and instead someone would just travel out by boat each evening to turn the light on and then back again in the morning. There were numerous comments though from those who live or lived in the area confirming that it was in fact manned and had 24 hour cover. One particular person explained that the tower had initially contained a candle in a prism, but had later been converted to oil and paraffin. They added that there was a bell that rung from the tower too in the event of fog. The lighthouse marked the entrance channel for Tayport harbour and aided ships in avoiding the sand banks that lie to the south of the tower.

The lighthouse has also been known as the Larick Beacon, but locally it’s the Pile Light

A report on the Canmore website states that though the condition of the Pile Lighthouse does not look so good it is structurally still quite sound, although it will need some work done to prevent it from deteriorating to the point of being at risk of collapse.

A cropped version of the picture above of the Pile lighthouse in Tayport

An interesting morning and the weather had been kind too. That honestly is it for now with no more sneaky posts appearing for a little while. Hopefully it’s not too long before more adventures can happen though. 🙂

A lighthouse adventure in Essex

After our short boat trip out to see Gunfleet lighthouse on Tuesday morning it seemed a good opportunity to revisit some of the Essex lighthouses – and introduce Bob and Joe the Drone to them as well.

Back in 2012 the Naze Tower had been my first stop on my lighthouse tour and I’d not been back since. Some may argue that the Naze Tower might not have been a lit aid to navigation, but it also may have been – and, more importantly, it’s a lovely place to visit.

The Naze Tower

Due to Covid-19 the tower is currently closed, but that didn’t matter as the sun was shining and it was dry. My lighthouse pal John had joined us and we were all pleased to be able to spot Gunfleet lighthouse in the far distance having been closer to it that very morning.

The Naze Tower is quite impressive and is clearly very well looked after. The beautiful brickwork is looking excellent when you consider that the tower was built in 1720. The tower had been somewhat neglected in the past, but the owners did some extensive renovation and, in 2004, it opened to the public for the first time. Presumably it needed, and will continue to need, some repairs and maintenance done on it – it is 300 years old after all.

When it does reopen, hopefully next year, you can see it’s 8 floors which feature an art gallery with exhibitions, and a museum about the tower and surrounding area. On top of that, quite literally, you get the panoramic views.

Joe took to the sky and, as usual, captured the glorious coastline. Seeing this coastline is always tinged with a little bit of sadness though as it really does suffer from erosion. There is evidence on the beach here that some measures have been taken to try to reduce the erosion in the area as you can see in the picture below.

The sea defences were clear in one of Joe’s shots
The view from above looking towards the south

There’s a lovely little tea room nearby too and we chose to have lunch outside on a bench before waving goodbye to John and continuing on our way.

Harwich awaited our arrival and this is quite a special place for those with any maritime interest. It is where Trinity House monitor their lighthouses from – as well as the Northern Lighthouse Board lights during evenings and weekends. Trinity House also has a depot and buoy yard here. It has its own two old lighthouses, a Light Vessel you can (under normal circumstances) look around, the Lifeboat Museum and an array of other points of interest that make up the town’s Maritime Heritage Trail. In addition we were able to see three more light vessels anchored off shore in the area.

Harwich High Light and the Harwich Town Buoy at the start of the Maritime Heritage Trail
Light Vessel 18 which is usually open to visitors

The two lighthouses here are no longer active and haven’t been since 1863 when they were replaced by the two Dovercourt lights (more on those in a bit). The low light has housed the Maritime Museum since 1980 and the high light is now run by Harwich Society as a local interest museum.

Harwich High Light

The existing towers replaced the town’s original leading lights. All of these lights were intended to work in pairs to guide ships safely into the harbour.

Harwich Low Light with the High Light visible in the background

Joe had a little fly around the area too, which is actually how we realised the light vessels were offshore.

An aerial view of Harwich’s harbour area with the three light vessels visible
The lighthouses in Harwich

Harwich is a fascinating place and it would be nice to spend some more time here getting stuck into the maritime history.

Just a short drive to the south we found the two Dovercourt lighthouses. On my original tour I’d seen these two at low tide and with high tide now approaching it was interesting to see the bottom of the outer light under water and the rapidly heightening waves splashing around the base of the inner light.

The lighthouses at Dovercourt

As mentioned, these lighthouses were introduced in 1863 to replace the Harwich lights. At the time they were built they were believed to have been fairly revolutionary in that they were of the new screw pile design and were prefabricated. A ‘causeway’ was introduced between the two lighthouses which can be walked with care at low tide.

Dovercourt Inner lighthouse

The lights were decommissioned in 1917 when buoy markers were installed to mark the approach to Harwich and since then have been through a period of restoration in the 1980s. Recent investigations have found that further restoration work is required to secure their future and it looks like this is in hand, which is always good to hear.

Dovercourt Outer lighthouse

They are quite unique structures and it was good to also see them from a different angle with the help of Joe the Drone.

Dovercourt Inner light from the seaward side
Dovercourt Outer lighthouse from above

Yet another day of doing a little more exploring and revisiting had come to an end. A very good day it had been and with it also being the last planned lighthouse trip of the year I was glad it had been a success and undertaken with great company.

Let’s hope even a little lighthouse visit can occur at some point before the year is out. Finger crossed 🙂

Catching Gunfleet just in time

A key target for this trip was to attempt to get out on a boat for a closer look at Gunfleet lighthouse. After spotting it in the distance during my first visit to the Naze Tower, it had always felt so out of reach, but I like to think that these things are never really out of reach. You just need to find a way of getting there so I did some research and found a boat company, Sophie Lea Charters based in Brightlingsea, who were willing to take us out. 

I’d originally selected Wednesday as the day of the trip but having spoken to the boatman on Monday evening it was looking like Wednesday wouldn’t be possible. However, he did say an early trip on Tuesday would be an option. You have to jump at these chances when they come, don’t you? I’d also invited my lighthouse partner in crime John to join us, but the early start meant he deprived himself of a few hours’ sleep in order to arrive on time for the trip.

We found Sleeping Beauty in his van when we arrived at the car park and once we were all ready, we had a nice stroll around the harbour area, which seemed picturesque. Thankfully the rain had stopped and we could enjoy the views while we waited for the boat to arrive.

The boat arrives

Once Lee arrived with the boat and we’d hopped on board we were warned that we wouldn’t be able to get very close to the lighthouse as it sits on Gunfleet Sands, the very sandbank it was designed to make mariners aware of. This reminded me of something an island/hill-bagging friend said to me last year, that lighthouses were built to warn boats to stay away from them so by trying to get as close as we can to them goes against their intended purpose. Gunfleet was a perfect reminder of this, and in this case Gunfleet wins as the tide was low. Waiting for high tide that day wasn’t an option due to worsening conditions as the day went on and attempting to get around the east side of the sandbank would also not have been wise given the increasing wind and swell.

John pointed out a nearby faux lighthouse, Batemans Tower, which is actually a memorial. Historic England’s website suggests that the tower, when built, was actually intended to be used as a lighthouse, but the port plans in the area never materialised.

Bateman’s Tower

The trip out was good and we passed the Gunfleet Sands wind farm. It was the first time I’d sailed close to an offshore wind farm and I think we were all impressed, even those who aren’t normally so keen on wind turbines!

Passing the wind farm – apologies for the wonky horizon!

It seemed to be a while before the lighthouse came into view, but eventually we spotted it. It has a fairly distinctive shape now without the lantern on top. There’s a lovely postcard online (towards the bottom of the page) showing how it looked when it was an active lighthouse marking the sandbank. It’s actually a really interesting tower – and the sole surviving screw pile lighthouse in the area with the other few lost over the years. The whole idea of building a lighthouse on a sandbank sounds a little bit mad, but it clearly worked for a long time, although gradually these structures are being lost to the sea as time passes and they are no longer maintained. The latest casualty is the Wyre light that guided ships safely into Fleetwood on the Lancashire coast which has now almost completely collapsed. 

Gunfleet was an active lighthouse, operated by Trinity House, from 1850 until 1921 as a manned station. It lies six miles off the coast of Frinton-on-Sea. It must have been a rather interesting place of work, almost like a rock station but with less space. There’s a great page online showing a few pictures from inside the tower in 2005 when a couple of chaps visited, which can be seen here.

Edging closer to Gunfleet lighthouse

There’s another interesting tale from Gunfleet’s history, which perhaps explains a little why it wasn’t in such a bad state internally in 2005. In 1974, it was partially renovated by the team behind the Dutch Radio Atlantis (to be broadcast as Radio Dolphin from Gunfleet lighthouse). After much of the equipment was installed representatives from the police, Home Office and Trinity House visited and demanded to be allowed into the tower. Eventually the broadcasters relented and were arrested with all of their equipment being removed from the tower before they had managed to get it up and running. A full account of this story can be found here.

With the lighthouse now looking clearer Lee stopped the boat and informed us that it was as close as he could go as we didn’t have much water depth to play with. Although we weren’t as close as we would have liked to have been, we were able to enjoy a bit more of a broader view. As we began to take our pictures a wonderful ray of sunlight shone through the clouds to the left of the lighthouse which was great to see.

The lovely scene that greeted us near Gunfleet

In the meantime Bob launched Joe the Drone with my assistance (I’ve got rather good at helping with take offs and landings on boats, I must admit) and flew him towards the lighthouse. The wind had picked up by this point and Bob kept a close eye on how Joe was managing with the conditions. Always a bit worrying when the drone is flying over a massive expanse of water. Thankfully Joe made it out towards the lighthouse and got some excellent pictures, showing us more of the detail we couldn’t see from the distance we were at.

Gunfleet lighthouse from above
My favourite of Joe the Drone’s shots
A cropped version of Joe’s picture showing a bit more detail

John took these great pictures of the lighthouse with the wind turbines in the background haze, which I thought made for really interesting images.

Gunfleet lighthouse (picture: John Best)
A closer view with the wind farm in the background (picture: John Best)

We admired the lighthouse for a while and enjoyed the view as it changed again with the lovely orange sky as the sun began to break through even more of the cloud. Joe arrived safely back on the boat and we began our return journey, watching the lighthouse getting smaller and smaller.

The beautiful orange sky at Gunfleet lighthouse

We passed even closer to the wind turbines on the way back and John also pointed out the buoy that has now replaced Gunfleet lighthouse and marks one end of the sands.

Taking a closer look at the wind farm on the return journey

It had been a really good little boat ride and to get out and see something that most people take little or no interest in was pretty special. Gunfleet lighthouse had always felt like a tricky one and in a way it still is as it has that element of not being able to get close to it. At least with rock lighthouses they are on a rock that you can either sail close to or, if you’re lucky, even land on, but this is something else. But the trip was worth it, that’s for sure.

One of the lovely views on the journey back

There was more lighthouse visiting later that day, but I shall save that for another post. 🙂