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. 🙂

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. 🙂