Rathlin Island off of the north coast of Northern Ireland is a place that I have mixed memories of from our honeymoon back in 2013. There is no doubt I found it to be a beautiful island, but cycling across it in wind and rain with little time to fit everything in was possibly not giving it the time and credit it deserved. Hence the need for a return visit. Well, that and I hadn’t managed to get to see the West Lighthouse the first time due to it being out of season.
At the end of last year we made contact with Derek from North Coast Seatours, based in Kylesku, about another trip (hopefully to come next month). During our discussions he happened to mention that he would be bringing his boat up from Northern Ireland to Kylesku and asked if we would be interested in joining him and developing an itinerary for getting some lighthouses and islands we were keen to visit on the way. We jumped at the chance of course.
So, that is how we came to be in Northern Ireland this week. With an intentional day to spare we set off for Rathlin Island yesterday morning. As Easter has passed the West Lighthouse is now open with the RSPB centre making it a popular attraction. This has the added benefit of being the main destination for the Puffin Bus, which we happily hopped on. It’s a great journey out to the lighthouse with some fairly steep sections and tight bends. It’s only 4 miles, but the nature of the roads makes it feel significantly longer.
When we arrived at the lighthouse we bypassed pretty much everything in order to make it to the lighthouse before anyone else. Now, the West Lighthouse is really quite unique. I don’t know of any other lighthouse (and certainly not in the UK) where you enter the tower at the top and have to walk all the way down to the bottom to be able to see the lighthouse. This explains why it is known as the “upside down” lighthouse. It also the reason why it’s quite difficult to get a picture of. The platform at the bottom of the tower is just big enough to be able to get a picture of the full height if you rest the camera on the ground and angle it upwards. The tower features a number of rooms, one of which is still laid out as it would have been as a keeper’s bedroom. Further rooms give more information about the lighthouse as well as the birds and wildlife that can be seen in the area. As well as being upside down the light is also quite unique in that it flashes only red. In a number of larger lighthouses there is a red sector, but rarely just a red light.
The coastal scenery around the West Lighthouse is fantastic, particularly looking to the north. It is almost unreal and I could have stayed there all day, but there was more to be done!
An hour after our arrival we hopped back onto the Puffin Bus. I asked the driver if he would be heading anywhere towards Rue Point where the most southerly lighthouse sits. He dropped us off at the end of the road and we set off on foot along the track. It was a shorter walk than I remembered from our list visit. While the structure at Rue Point is not a traditional lighthouse it’s in a great location. It has a wonderful little walkway leading to it. It was considerably calmer this time so we took a wander about on the rocks around the lighthouse. A really lovely place and frequented by seals so it was not surprising that we spotted a few lounging around in the little bay.
From Rue Point we set off to walk to the East Lighthouse at Altacarry Head, or should I say the East Lighthouses as there are two towers, the low and high lights. I was keen to get back here as we had seen the larger tower, of course, but had failed to notice the smaller one as it is nestled in front of the high light on the seaward side.
The weather was fantastic yesterday and I was finding with the uphills and downhills that Rathlin’s roads feature that it was a bit too warm at times. It certainly seemed like a long walk between the two, but enjoyable nonetheless. It was great to see the East Lighthouse again, we’d seen it flashing (it flashes 24 hours a day) at us a few times and I’d also caught sight of the light from Islay in January. It’s a fairly powerful light. As we knew about the small lighthouse this time it was obvious once we’d looked at it. The lights are within a locked compound, which makes it difficult to get a good view of the little one, but if you walked along the coast a bit further you could see it as well as the height of the cliffs that it sits on. Really impressive and unexpected, although it shouldn’t be unexpected really given its location.
We wandered on back to the main village and had a look around a little gallery selling location-produced gifts before stopping at the cafe for a cup of tea and cake. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the day spent on a really beautiful and very interesting island. While the population of the island has decreased in recent decades, it certainly still attracts a great number of visitors and you can see why. So much is known about the island’s history – who built which house and who lived where. A real community island and generally a fantastic place.
It certainly won’t be my last visit to Rathlin, I am sure of that 🙂
While yesterday was all about visiting new lights in the north of Northern Ireland, today the objective was to improve upon those we’d seen a few years ago along the south and east coasts.
In the lead up to this trip we had been in contact with a local boat operator who had an unconfirmed booking with another group, but had said he would be happy to take us along Carlingford Lough for closer views of Haulbowline as well as the two smaller lights, Vidal Bank and Green Island. Unfortunately, we were informed that the other group’s trip was going ahead so it wasn’t possible for us. Although Bob tried to make contact with an alternative operator, we had no success. The back-up plan was paddling!
We’d been lucky with the tides yesterday for seeing the lights on the banks of the River Foyle and, in particular, managing to get close to the Otter Bank light. Today, we decided to make sure the tide was in our favour again. It obviously meant an early start, as is often the case with these lighthouse days, although thankfully not as early as yesterday.
Arriving in Greencastle, we decided to have a drive around to see the nearest place to see the lights from, focussing first on Vidal Bank and Green Island. As usual, Bob chose to park somewhere that I couldn’t possibly recommend people park when they actually visit themselves, but fortunately we checked out the access suggestion I will include in my book and that was fine. We walked onto the beach, wellies on, and I headed straight towards the Vidal Bank light, walking in as far as I could without getting my feet wet. It would not have been possible to get to the light, or its neighbour Green Island, anyway so it wasn’t worth even trying. We had the zoom lens so that helped with getting better pictures anyway.
There were a number of oyster beds nearby and we strolled alongside them to reach the closest point to Green Island. Again, in I went to get some pictures, while Bob hung back on the beach using the zoom lens! There’s not a lot of difference between the two lights, but we did spot that the green section of the legs on the Green Island light came further up than on Vidal Bank. Also the orange triangular daymarks on them were in different orientations and at different heights. This may sound like unnecessary information, but will prove to be very useful for working out which is which in pictures. Having seen the pictures included here so close together it is obvious that they are a bit different.
While we’d been hanging around the smaller lights, we were very aware that the beautiful Haulbowline rock lighthouse was a short distance away. It was even less likely that we would reach this one at low tide, but I felt that need to paddle again. This time I had the zoom lens, which helped. The sun was still low and I always think this is one of the benefits of visiting lighthouses at this time of year, as you can catch the colours of sunrise and sunset on the towers without having to get up at some ridiculous hour or stay up too late. Haulbowline has all the magnificence and elegance of a rock lighthouse, but without the need to spend hours on a boat to reach it (well, technically we had to get the ferry to Northern Ireland, but you hopefully see my point). There were some beautiful houses along the north bank of Carlingford Lough and I can see why. If I had a potential view of Haulbowline from my house I’d want massive windows too!
From here we headed north. I was very keen to get back to St John’s Point to improve upon the pictures we got last time. The problem with them was that it was a pretty overcast day and as there was blue sky this morning it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. In addition, the lighthouse has yellow and black stripes, which is very unique and is one of things I like most about it. Driving past it would have felt very wrong. I was really pleased in the end to go back there. The joy of lighthouse revisits is that you so often notice smaller details that you didn’t see before. There is a narrow slipway leading up to the lighthouse from the coast, and there are a couple of signs clearly warning people that they use it at their own risk. On one of the walls around the compound were a number of stones with names and messages written on them. Many had the dates that people had visited. Just below these stones was a small area with a few items and a large stone explaining that it was in memory of a little boy, Noah, who only lived for 9 months. It was very sad and these things always touch you more when you have children of your own. I did think it was a wonderful thing for his family to have done. He may not have reached an age at which he could enjoy a lighthouse, but it will now always be an important place to his family.
Another interesting observation from this visit was a banner on a gate near the entrance to the lighthouse. The tower’s optic is clearly under threat at the moment and the local community are, of course, wanting to challenge it. The campaign is being run by Lecale Lightkeepers, a cross-community group, and their banner calls for help to save their “iconic sweeping beam” with “Leave St John’s light alone” along the bottom. I am a huge fan of sweeping beams, you just can’t beat them and I’m always sad to see them go. The banner urges supporters of the campaign to email the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
We followed our visit to St John’s Point with a quick stop at Ardglass Pier, another revisit. There’s not a lot to say about this one, but we got blue sky pictures again – once again an improvement upon last time.
It was time for a little distance bagging on the stretch between Ardglass and Donaghadee. I very helpfully noticed (if I do say so myself) that a ferry ran across Strangford Narrows, which certainly made the journey a lot quicker. It also meant that we had the opportunity to see Angus Rock lighthouse from both sides of the entrance to Strangford Lough. Out came the zoom lens again and the best views of it were certainly from Kilclief on the west bank. We’d spotted Angus Rock on our first trip to Northern Ireland, but hadn’t made an effort to get as close to it as possible, so this was another chance to do just that.
Our next distance viewing was of South Rock, also known as Kilwarlin lighthouse. While it isn’t looking too special now, it has an interesting history since it was first lit in 1797 and it was the first rock, or wave-washed, lighthouse in Ireland as a whole. From the coast of mainland Northern Ireland you can’t really see its true magnitude, but hopefully one day we will make it out there for a closer look.
Passing Donaghadee without stopping to walk to the lighthouse should, quite frankly, be made illegal! Not wanting to break this new law I have just introduced, we spent a while on the pier there. By this time sunset was well and truly on its way, casting that wonderful warm glow over everything once again. The only problem with Donaghadee is that too many people seem to recognise the enjoyment to be had from walking to the lighthouse. While I love to advocate lighthouse bagging, I do like people to keep out of my pictures most of the time, unless I choose to have them there! Once again a great place and clearly somewhere that all ages enjoy judging by today’s visitors.
On the coastal road north towards Belfast we spotted the black and white stripes of the Mew Island lighthouses off of the coast, precisely at the point my notes had suggested viewing it from.
There was one final place to be visited before we could go to the ferry terminal. I alluded to the old Mew Island optic in my post yesterday, and how it has now been relocated to the Maritime Mile as part of the Titanic Belfast museum. During our first visit to Northern Ireland we had flown out to Mew Island in a helicopter (I had great fun, Bob was petrified when I took control though!) and we had seen the optic rotating in the lighthouse. Since then the optic has been replaced by a modern light. The optic is now being very well cared for and is beautifully presented and lit in its new home (which apparently is at the location of a former harbour lighthouse). There is a great deal of information on the boards surrounding it too about the history of the optic, the type of lens (it is one of only 30 Hyper-Radial lenses in the world for those interested) and the movement of it from the lighthouse to the Titanic Causeway. I was pleased to be visiting as it was getting dark to fully appreciate the display. I was also pleased that it is outside as it is accessible 24 hours a day and free of charge! There’s a lot of information about the lens at https://greatlighttq.org if you’d like to find out more.
So that’s the very brief visit to Northern Ireland complete. I think I can quite safely say at this point that it is definitely my last lighthouse bagging trip of the year. The end of a very successful and incredibly enjoyable year. Thank you for taking the time to read and/or follow my blog. Bring on next year and plenty more lighthouses – and my book!!! Happy New Year to you! 🙂
Back in October, at the start of what I called “the mad plan”, I alluded to the fact that I was preparing a list of lighthouses in the UK, Isle of Man and Channel Islands to be published. Well, since then progress has been made and, massively excitingly, Whittles Publishing are happy to publish it for me! I’m still not sure I believe it just yet, but it is going to happen and I have a deadline, which means that when I am not busy visiting lighthouses, writing blog posts, looking after two young children, working or sleeping, I am focussed only on getting the book done. I should add that we are currently looking at an early July 2019 release and I will, of course, post here any major developments. Aside from being excited in general about it actually being published, I am hoping to be able to help out people like the 2012 version of me who had the idea, to visit all of the UK mainland lighthouses, and could have done with a book like this to support the entire trip. Of course, the book covers islands too, as well as Northern Ireland.
So, on the topic of Northern Ireland, that is precisely where I am writing today’s blog post from. You see, the book needs pictures and while the larger lights in this wonderful part of the world were visited during our honeymoon back in 2013, I had since become aware of a number of smaller lights that will be covered in the book and, of which I had no pictures. So there was only one thing for it – an extension to “the mad plan”. Two days in Northern Ireland it was!
This morning started early – 4.45am is not a time I would ever really want to be up, but the lighthouses (and a ferry) beckoned so I had to go. The ferry crossing was great. I couldn’t convince Bob to watch Mamma Mia 2in the on-board cinema, so we settled for preparing for the two days ahead, while looking out for the lighthouses we were passing in the dark. Corsewall was the first, and what a wonderfully bright light it is. I don’t think it is ever possible to get bored of seeing the revolving glory of lights like that. Briefly turning away from Corsewall, I was greeted by the welcoming flash of one of my favourite Northern Irish lights: Black Head. I would recommend a stay at the lighthouse cottages at Black Head to anyone – lighthouse fan or not. I can guarantee you will love lighthouse by the time you leave! The final “flash” of the ferry crossing came from Mew Island – the only lighthouse I have visited by helicopter! It’s a brilliant lighthouse. Its lens was replaced a few years ago (you can see the old one in Belfast near the Titanic museum, which I am hoping we can do tomorrow – maybe) and the modern light isn’t the same, but it is just the way it goes.
Upon arriving at Belfast, we headed straight for Coleraine where one of the Aquaholics boats was awaiting our arrival. It being the middle of winter, it’s not quite so easy to find boat operators, but Richard the skipper had agreed to take us out to see a few of the smaller harbour and river lights. Can I just say before I go any further, the boat was amazing?! We’d joked about having our own private charter on the way back from Caldey Island (mainly because we were there for such a short time), but this time we did and the boat was huge with indoor seating, outdoor seating, room to wander about inside and out, and I even got to sit in one of the “bouncy chairs” (or at least that’s what I call them) next to Richard!
Anyway, off we set. Our first destination was the light on the end of the east pier at the entrance to the River Bann. It is possible to walk to it, but in the interests of time and while we were passing anyway, we went for a spin around it in the boat. Richard had said it would be choppy and it really was. It’s bizarre, just that small section of water at the entrance to the river you get some incredible waves – and today was a relatively calm day! The lighthouse isn’t one you would rave about (well, I wouldn’t anyway), but it was good to see it nonetheless.
We hadn’t really known how long we would be out on the boat for today. We’d guessed it wouldn’t be long, but obviously not anticipated the distance required to get from Coleraine to the bridge across the River Foyle – it’s quite a way. Anyway, it gave us a chance to chat to Richard. He informed us that for a few years he’d taken out groups of lighthouse enthusiasts to Rathlin Island on the trips organised by John Eagle, who very sadly passed away very recently. It was one of John Eagle’s books that Bob had given me at the start of our honeymoon and we were both aware of his lighthouse tours of Ireland. It is a real sad loss and, from a personal point of view, I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.
The next three lighthouses we spotted were in fact Southern Irish lights. Inishowen lighthouse was visible in the distance and then Warren Point a little closer. We then passed by the brilliant Moville light, which was actually my highlight of the day – even if I wasn’t there to visit Southern Irish lights. It was the first proper look I have had of a lighthouse in the Republic of Ireland and a very good first one it was too. Richard recalled seeing it when he was younger and thinking that on its skinny little iron legs it wouldn’t last long, but a number of years later it has proven him wrong. It’s got a lot of character and is something a bit different, which is always nice to see.
Onwards we went to our first light in the River Foyle, Culmore Point. You can pretty much drive to Culmore Point, but I’m glad we saw it from the boat as it wouldn’t have been half as nice to see from the land. The tide was in at the time so half of the lighthouse (the half with its name on would not have been accessible anyway from the land). Unfortunately, someone had decided to “decorate” the tower with a large drawing, the details of which I won’t go into (Richard suggested PhotoShop might be in order, let’s just leave it at that). It’s not the most fascinating of lights, but it marked the beginning of a sort of style of lights that litter the River Foyle between its entrance and the bridge.
Ballynagard was the next light, just a short distance away, that bore a resemblance to the Culmore light, although it didn’t bear its name – or the graffiti come to think of it. This one appears to be a bit harder to access from land, so we definitely went the right way about it.
The next one was a major target for me. I had seen pictures of Otter Bank online and, in order to qualify for my list of lighthouse the structure must be able to be accessed internally. From what I had seen it was difficult to tell whether it was possible to get inside this tower. So, the key priority for the day was to try and work this out. The only problem with this was that the side on which there is a small platform with what looked sort of like a door opening was surrounded by shallow water. Fortunately, Richard is a particularly skilled skipper and managed to slowly edge around the tower while Bob crept on to the front of the boat to get as close to the side we needed to see as possible. I, of course, stood back like the queen and watched. Actually I didn’t really. I did try to get a look myself, but it was Bob’s pictures that helped me to make the final decision that, yes, it is possible to get inside. It may not lead anywhere now, but you can definitely get inside. I referred to it as the equivalent of a lighthouse bus shelter!
Feeling very pleased and thinking that was us done in terms of what I needed to achieve in the Foyle, Richard suggested we go up river a little further as there were some more lights before the bridge. We passed the Brookhall light, which I knew had no internal access and this was reconfirmed. Onwards we went and as we got closer to the bridge we spotted a tower that looked fairly substantial. This tower, like Culmore, featured its name: Boom Hall. This one hadn’t even been on my radar and for the rest of the day we would call it the “unexpected lighthouse in the bagging area”. The tower had clearly not been operational for some time. It has what looks like a tree growing out of the top and the small walkway/jetty that used to link it to the river bank has long since gone leaving just the old iron legs that supported it. Interestingly, there is very little information available about this light, apart from an old picture here. The name “Boom” may well come from the fact that this part of the river was the location of the boom barrier put in place by King James II’s army during the Siege of Derry in the 17th century. Most likely though is that it was built around the same time as the nearby Boom Hall (presumably that took its name from the boom barrier). Boom Hall is also in a particularly bad state of repair. So, this was a new one for me and I was very glad that Richard had suggested going a little further.
On the way back to Coleraine, once we’d passed through the wild entrance to the River Bann again, we stopped for a little to look at the leading lights a short distance from the river mouth. I had been aware of them and we’d spotted them on the way out, but I wasn’t sure whether either of them would fulfil the criteria required for making my list. Although the views from the boat weren’t able to answer that it did give us an idea of the surrounding area and how it might be best to access them. Richard suggested walking around from the beach might be the quickest way.
Saying farewell and thanks to Richard who had been so accommodating of my requirements and requests (and hadn’t looked at me strangely once when I was talking about getting inside these small lighthouses – very grateful for that), we set off as fast as we could for Castlerock as we were losing light by the minute and wanted to get to the leading lights while we could still see our way there. We’d been out on the boat a lot longer than we’d thought we would be and so lunch had been skipped, there were more pressing matters to deal with. We found the beach and it was an easy walk across the sand and then the dunes to the front of the two lights, which I was delighted to find had a door! It looks a little like it might fall apart at some stage, but it would still be possible to get inside it, if you had the right equipment, of course. I was fairly certain that if this one had a door then the rear would.
The rear light wasn’t too far away and the route we took was nowhere near as foliage-filled as we had feared. It’s entirely different, structurally to the front light, and was easy enough to find. (Note to my friend John who will read this at some point: it’s very close to the 5th tee of Castlerock golf course when you get around to starting on the Irish lights!!) I was adamant that I should be the one to see if it had access inside first so the mountain goat (sorry, I mean Bob) waited patiently while I slid around to the back and peered in. It was one of those moments when you want to look, but you don’t just in case there is something out of a horror film waiting to jump out at you. So I looked far enough around to see that you could get inside (the remains of the door lay on the ground nearby) and then Bob took over and braved it. I did look in the end, once it was confirmed that the coast was indeed clear. There wasn’t really much to see at all, apart from a cable – you know you are scraping the barrel when all you can mention is a cable!
We didn’t hang around for too long as there was still one more light to be seen while we were in the area. It was getting darker by the time we got back to the car, but it would have annoyed me too much to have left one single light to visit in the area when we were so close. So, Portstewart it was. As I suspected it was easy enough to find. It’s a funny little thing. Like a little kiosk where you might get ice cream on a summer’s day, except it has a rather intriguing light on top. I can’t really explain it so well, so will include a picture to show you instead.
So, that was the end of a very busy, lighthouse-filled, lunch-free day! It’s great to be back in Northern Ireland and nice to spend some time in some new parts too. More tomorrow 🙂