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 🙂

Return to the Needles

It was a little over seven years ago that I last got a closer view of the Needles lighthouse off of the most westerly point of the Isle of Wight, the island I still consider to be home in many respects. It’s the sort of place you never lose a connection with, which I suppose could be said for any place where you were born and brought up.

The is a picture on the wall at home of the Needles, taken back in 2012, and so it’s a lighthouse that my son, in particular, is quite familiar with. He’d mentioned it a few times since we had arrived on the Isle of Wight earlier this week so we thought we’d take a drive out there to see if the boat trips that take you close to the lighthouse were running.

Needles
The picture of the Needles on the wall at home

The chairlift was clearly moving when we arrived so we were hopeful of getting out in a boat. We asked the lady at the kiosk and she said that they were due to start running the trips soon so we quickly bought tickets and rushed off towards the chairlift. On the way down to the beach my little boy asked if we were going to go inside the lighthouse and I had to break it to him that we weren’t. His response was “But I want to go inside” and all I could say back to that was: “So do I”!

We hopped off of the chairlift and looked across at the boat rolling about in the sea with a couple of men on board. The kids were quite content throwing stones into the sea so we thought we would wait there to see if the boat started to move.

Needles distant
The Needles seen in the distance from the beach

Unfortunately that plan was scuppered when the chairlift operators announced that they would shortly be closing the chairlift for technical reasons and that those who had tickets should make their way back up. We reluctantly followed these instructions, but decided we would go for lunch and try again later. It was slightly irritating to hear as we were heading to the cafe that the chairlift had re-opened, but you can’t dwell on these things.

A little while later we checked with the chairlift staff who reported that the boats were indeed due to start running very soon. Back on the chairlifts we went and wandered on over to the little jetty which the boat was moving about quite a bit at the end of. Last time we’d taken the RIB, but fortunately the only option today was the slower boat. I say fortunately as there appeared to be a fair amount of swell once you got out past the lighthouse, and the RIB takes you right around to the other side of the Needles.

Needles getting closer
Closing in on the Needles

It was quite a pleasant little cruise and a real pleasure to see the lighthouse again. The tower, at 31 metres, has got some height to it, but it appears slightly dwarfed almost by the actual “Needles” between it and the island. I sometimes think the helipads on top of the towers take away from the beauty of the structure, but what they take away in beauty they make up for in the “bring it on” exterior. The metal bars sticking out from around the helipad appear almost as arms spread wide, saying “Throw whatever you can at me. I can withstand anything”. I usually picture lighthouses as females. It’s just something I do, often singing “Isn’t She Lovely” at them, but I would struggle to do so with these rock lights boasting helipads. That’s possibly a little old-fashioned (and also quite strange) of me to think of it like that, but there you go.

Needles lighthouse
Needles lighthouse

The colour on the tower wasn’t as vivid today as it was when I’d seen it before against brilliant blue skies, but it’s nice to have different views each time you visit. We also had to contend with kids this time and while one of them held on to his seat the whole time and only moved when he was helped, the smaller one wanted to run free along the benches or lay on them singing away to herself. A natural at this boat malarkey she is, which is scary and encouraging in equal measure.

Needles and lighthouse
Looking back at the lighthouse

Once back on dry land and at the top of the cliff, the little man was repeatedly informing us that he didn’t have a Needles lighthouse toy – there was clearly a Needles lighthouse gap in his toy box! He chose, rather than a toy, a little ornament depicting the Needles lighthouse and the stacks. We also read up a bit in the shop, via an information panel on the wall, on the old lighthouse that was built upon the headland above the Needles in 1785. As is so often the case, this old lighthouse was frequently obscured by sea mist and therefore did not serve its purpose, hence the replacement tower being built at a lower level.

Today was a reminder of the variety of experiences you have when visiting lighthouses is your favourite thing to do. Some days are about the big adventure, hopping (or cautiously stepping in my case) onto and off of boats a number of times. Other days are for the enjoyment of the little ones when you take a step back, hold your hand out towards the lighthouse and say “kids, this is what it’s all about.” 🙂

Kids at Needles