Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the storm before the calm – part one

I left my previous post, which covered up to Summer 2018, at the end of what I called ‘the bagging years’, when there were lighthouse and island trips aplenty on board chartered boats. Those years were relatively care-free with little knowledge of the 18-month juggling act that was to come. With so much going on it has been difficult to fit it all into one final Reflections post, so this is part one of ‘the storm before the calm’. As usual I have scattered pictures taken during this period throughout.

As mentioned in a previous Reflections post, the idea of writing a book containing a comprehensive listing of UK lighthouses came about in 2012/13. I had been working on this list on a fairly casual basis since, but it was in around 2017 that my efforts to get it completed and into some sort of semblance of order that could be published really picked up. By Spring 2018 it felt like I was getting there and, encouraged by Bob, I contacted Whittles Publishing to see if they would be interested. I have a tendency not to give myself much credit for the work I do and so had expected I would need to self-publish. As you can probably imagine, I was delighted when I had a response from Whittles saying that they were very interested and even included a paragraph about why they thought they would be the best publisher for the book!

Skerryvore lighthouse, where it wasn’t as calm as this picture makes it look

Just a month or so after this initial contact I was having a look through the quarterly journal from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) and noticed some vacancies for their events team. By that point I’d been a very inactive members of the ALK for almost five years with my only contribution being writing a piece about my favourite lighthouse after I happened to meet Stephen who owns Bidston Lighthouse and is a Trustee for the ALK, and made him aware of this blog. The role looked interesting – organising events to see lighthouses, why not? I’d had plenty organised for me over the years so it seemed like a great opportunity to do the same for others. I made contact with David, the ALK’s Secretary, and within a couple of days I’d spoken to three of their Trustees and was near enough on board.

With hindsight, taking on both the publication of the book and the role at the ALK within a couple of months was a little over the top. I was already working part time and had a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old to look after. However, I knew it would take a little while before the ALK events would get up and running and so the book could be done and dusted by the time that picked up – or at least that’s what I thought.

The island of Fidra in the Firth of Forth was a wonderful place to visit

In the meantime there were more bagging trips to be had. A trip to Tiree in September 2018 with an attempt at landing on Skerryvore was an offer I simply could not refuse. The organiser, Brian, asked if I knew of anyone else who would be interested in joining as there were some spaces available. With my new contacts at the ALK and at fairly short notice I was able to recruit one man and he just happened to be a former Skerryvore lighthouse keeper – what could be better!? There is considerably more detail about that trip here, but it was the first to combine the bagging trips with another person primarily interested in lighthouses. Just 10 days or so after this there was a day trip to Fidra planned by organiser-extraordinaire Alan. It was excellent to be back in the company of a number of those on some of my earliest bagging trips.

My efforts for the ALK really began in September that year at their AGM in South Wales. There were so many people to meet, things to learn and ideas to take in. It was a great weekend though and I left feeling like I’d made so many new friends in a very short space of time. One of these friends in particular has had a few mentions here since, my lighthouse pal John. I found out before the AGM that John was also into the flat-pack lighthouses dotted around Scotland so I was, of course, keen to meet him. John actually turned out to be one of the overlaps in much of what was going on back then. He was happy to review my list for the book and share some of his pictures with me to help fill in some gaps. He was also was very helpful in getting me up to speed with the ALK and he would, a short time later, go on to join a number of trips with me.

One of the benefits of being an ALK member is getting inside lighthouses you couldn’t normally, such as the tower on Flatholm

Later in 2018 I arranged a meeting with Whittles and prior to that they sent over a draft publishing agreement. I was asked for a sample chapter and so I sent over the text and pictures for the Northern Scotland section. When Bob and I turned up for the meeting I was amazed to see there in front of me a draft design of the chapter. It was an incredibly bizarre but brilliant feeling. We agreed some minor changes to the publishing agreement and decided on a deadline of February 2019 for me to get all content to them.

The deadline for the book put a little pressure on as I knew there were some gaps where neither myself or John had good pictures of certain lighthouses. Prior to 2018 I’d had a fairly clear “bagging season” which generally ran from about April to September, give or take a month every now and then. With Autumn approaching I was going to need to put in some out of season effort.

Corbiere lighthouse and the tribute to those who saved the lives of all passengers on board the French catamaran Saint-Malo after it struck a rock in the area in April 1995

Possibly the most outlandish trip happened in late October/early November that year when the kids were left with a grandparent while Bob and I flew south to the previously unexplored Jersey where we spent two days cramming in all of the lighthouses. We then were in Ayrshire for a day or two with the kids and on a RIB ride along the Clyde to see more lights before driving to Aberdeen where we flew up to Shetland for a couple of nights. That was some adventure and probably best described in the posts from those times rather than summarised here. As we prepared to leave Shetland at the end of that week I was falling asleep in the hire car on the way to the airport after all of the travelling, rushing about and staying up late to write up what the antics of the day for my posts.

The old Muckle Roe tower and Sumburgh Head lighthouse in Shetland

Three further, but less intense, trips followed with one to Northern Ireland in December 2018, another family trip to Islay in January 2019 and finally a day out in South East England to grab a few more pictures before settling down to get the content pulled together in that final month. Always happy to fit in just one more opportunity I finally made it out to, and landed on, Bass Rock in January 2019, which was a real achievement after a failed attempt a couple of months earlier.

It was a big bonus to see my very first Republic of Ireland light, Moville, during boat trip to see some Northern Irish lights

The deadline for my book came and went with everything submitted on time. I felt I could temporarily take a deep breath before diving back in again. The best and worst was yet to come… More very soon 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 1

I have added “part 1” to the title of this post with a fairly high level of confidence. We are in Shetland for two weeks with various chartered boat trips organised to take us to some of the more difficult to reach islands and, most importantly for me, lighthouses. It is Shetland though and in Shetland the weather dictates most things – particularly boats, although many of the scheduled ferries (and their crew) are pretty hardy. So, I am hopeful that by being here for two weeks I will manage to achieve at least a few new lighthouses.

Now, back to the beginning. Last night we set off from Aberdeen on board the MV Hrossey. I wolfed down my dinner a little too fast in order to be able to head outside as soon as we set off. My aim was to get a closer view of the lighthouse on the end of the north pier. The pier is closed to the public so the best views I’d managed to get of it in the past were from the other side of the harbour and from the beach to the north of the pier. This was a much more successful attempt though and while I was still taking pictures of the lighthouse when some dolphins appeared. My dad, who was standing next to me at the time, later asked me if I had taken any pictures of the dolphins. I, of course, hadn’t as I was too busy concentrating on the lighthouse and only caught a brief glimpse of the dolphins before they disappeared.

Aberdeen North Pier
Aberdeen North Pier lighthouse

Happy with the views of the north pier light, I then thought I’d take a wander to the back of the boat to see how the south breakwater light was looking. Getting to the bottom of the steps I realised that at the point we were probably as close as we were going to get to it. Dashing across to the other side of the boat I caught a few pictures just in time. It was interesting to see it from that angle as it features a set of four lights all in the line. As if it didn’t look odd enough from the land, it looked even more strange from the sea. Well worth the dash to get closer to it though. I always thought Girdle Ness was fairly close to the south breakwater, but the tower seemed fairly distant from the ferry, so certainly not the best view of that one.

Aberdeen South Breakwater
Aberdeen South Breakwater lighthouse

If I hadn’t been quite so tired last night then I may have been tempted to get up early to see what lights I could spot as we travelled up towards Lerwick, but it was just not going to happen. I enjoy my sleep too much and dealing with young children on little sleep never makes for a pleasant day. So I woke in Lerwick like most normal people would.

When I visited Shetland for a couple of days last November our first stop was Sumburgh Head. There’s something about that place that seems to draw me in every time I arrive. Of course that was where we went as soon as we left the ferry. I spotted the beautiful Bressay tower across the water as we headed south (more on that one later) and also the flat-pack Mousa light. It was great to see how much the kids enjoyed wandering about at Sumburgh Head, even starting from the car park where the old Muckle Roe tower is now located.

Muckle Roe old
The old Muckle Roe light with Sumburgh Head in the background

Strangely enough the weather was very different for us today (a chilly wind and plenty of cloud about) than it was in November last year when the sun was rising wonderfully. I strolled around the outside of the buildings looking for any new angles to take pictures from. After that I joined the rest of my family in the exhibition room and gift shop. I was pleased to see that my son was thoroughly enjoying repeatedly pressing the button that set off a recording of the foghorn. Apparently most children who visit are petrified of it. Sumburgh has a nice feel about it and its location always draws you to it as it’s so easy to get to from the airport or ferry (if you have a car of course).

Sumburgh Head
Sumburgh Head lighthouse

Returning to Lerwick for the afternoon we had a quick lunch before we were due to re-board the MV Hrossey. Our arrival nicely coincided with the Lerwick RNLI Harbour Day and Northlink Ferries had organised a cruise around the islands of Bressay and Noss. Weather permitting the ferry was due to be joined by the Lifeboat, which I knew my little boy would love. Of course, I also had in the back of my mind that it would mean passing fairly close to Bressay lighthouse so I booked us all tickets to go on the cruise.

For some reason I’d expected us to set off heading south east and catching the Bressay lighthouse within the first 20 minutes or so. When the captain announced over the tannoy system that we would be heading north first it took a while for my brain to catch up and I suddenly realised that we may be sailing quite close to the Rova Head lighthouse very early in the trip. By the time I realised this, I dashed (again) to a window just in time to see the lighthouse, a flat-pack type, right outside. As the view through the window wasn’t very clear I knew I needed to go outside so I did a bit more dashing. My dashing came to a halt before I’d made it to the door though. You know how there are those scenes in cartoons where characters get stuck behind people or a person and just cannot get past, well that is exactly what happened here. I got stuck behind a very slow-moving person and then went to take a short cut only to get stuck behind a couple of people who had just come in from outside and were standing aside to let the slow person past. I eventually made it out just in time to see Rova Head getting smaller and smaller. I did get some pictures of it in the distance, but I’d not even had time to grab the camera and the zoom lens. Some of the pictures were nice though as the Lifeboat was passing between our boat and Rova Head. So I can’t really complain too much.

Rova Head and Lifeboat
The Lifeboat passing Rova Head

We arranged to go up to the bridge where the kids showed no interest in the captain’s chair or anything like that. They just wanted to enjoy the uninterrupted views of the Lifeboat bouncing about from the panoramic windows.

As the ferry began to follow the south coast of Bressay I went outside with the camera poised ready to see the lighthouse. I’m quite fond of this one having enjoyed spending time inside it last year. It’s a lovely little tower. It slowly came into view after some frankly astonishing coastal scenery. While everyone else was busy taking pictures of the Lifeboat running very close alongside us, I had my camera trained on the lighthouse. There were a few opportunities to get pictures of both the lighthouse and Lifeboat at the same time, which was nice, but the highlight was being able to see the lighthouse from this angle. As we turned the corner the natural arch very close to the tower came into view. It’s such an impressive section of the coast. It’s a shame the tower no longer contains an operational light as we may well have been able to see it from our accommodation, which looks down over Lerwick. The boat trip around Bressay was a fairly last minute addition to our schedule, but I’m pleased we did it. I’m just kicking myself a bit for not thinking of Rova Head sooner.

Bressay lighthouse
Bressay lighthouse and the natural arch

So, a positive start to the trip and let’s hope it continues in that way. We have already begun discussing back up plans to get to some of the smaller lighthouses on the mainland if boat trips aren’t running. Being on holiday with my parents, who have been looking forward to seeing the kids for months, we are lucky to be able to have a little bit of free time to go off and enjoy walks and trips that we couldn’t do very easily at all with the kids.

Hopefully more to come tomorrow! 🙂