uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

A change of plan in Dundee

This is not the blog I was expecting, or hoping, to be writing today, but it is a blog post which means lighthouses have been visited, so never a bad thing.

We’d planned to travel down to Dundee and head over to the Isle of May today to take advantage of the Doors Open Days, which would allow us to get into two of the three lighthouses there.

Book release

Collecting my book from Whittles Publishing

Before I begin on that though, I should say that I received a message from the publisher of my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide, to say that my advance copies were now in their office. Of course, that meant that I had to head over to see them after work before we began our journey south.

What a delight that was to be handed a copy of my own book! It’s taken me years to develop and I have been looking back at the process recently in preparation for a presentation I am due to give in a couple of weeks. It really has been a labour of love. To get my hands on the result is so rewarding and entirely wiped out the frustrations and stress I went through in order to get it to where it is. Such a fantastic feeling!

Right, back to our weekend. The visit to the Isle of May was not to be as I discovered by email this morning. We needed a back-up plan and this came in the form of Dundee Science Centre to entertain the kids in wet and windy weather.

Stopping here also gave the perfect opportunity to catch up with my lighthouse friend Laura who had also travelled to the area for the Isle of May. It was great to see her and nice to test out a copy of the book on exactly the type of person it is aimed at. Laura went away with a few lighthouses to do today that she’d missed the first time around and I hope she got on well with them.

We spent considerably longer at the Science Centre than anticipated, but when we did drag ourselves away we decided to take a drive up to Montrose as the kids needed a sleep and I was keen to get closer to the rear of the two range lights in Montrose harbour.

On the way to Montrose we passed the old Whitehill (or Vatsetter) light on the approach to Arbroath. I’ve seen this one a few times, but having recently been to the modern light at Vatsetter in Shetland where this one was previously located, I now have an extra level of enjoyment of it.

Montrose

Montrose Harbour Rear lighthouse

A little while later we arrived in Montrose and thanks to my book, which had the street names, we easily found the lighthouse. It’s an interesting one. It’s quite tall, but fairly slim with a fairly small, red section at the top which contains the light. I wandered around in the dunes next to it grabbing pictures from different angles. I was surprised to see dunes there to be honest. It’s a very industrial area and the lighthouse is just next to a massive warehouse. When we spotted the sign saying “Beach access” close to the lighthouse I was intrigued. I’ve since found some old pictures of the tower when it was white at the top rather than red and it certainly looks like there was much more of a beach next to the lighthouse then with no sign of the dunes. Presumably the river is shifting the sand banks over the years.

The river runs next to the lighthouse and there were a number of birds floating around on the water until a massive boat turned up and they drifted slowly towards the side of the river. It was brilliant to see Scurdie Ness in the distance too. It was great to get closer to this one after seeing from the south side of the river a couple of times.

 

Montrose and Scurdie Ness

Montrose Harbour Rear light with Scurdie Ness in the distance

The kids were both wide awake by the time we were passing back through Arbroath so we decided to stop at the Signal Tower Museum for a quick look around before it closed. It has been six years since I was last there. Life was very different then. Bob and I weren’t married and had no children, but also it was still very early in my lighthouse days. I wrote about it in my post at the time of my first visit. I had forgotten that it was as big as it is, and that they had the film depicting the building of the Bell Rock on a loop in one room. I caught the end of it and was reminded of just how incredible a feat it would have been to build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock. The film shows the Robert Stevenson, or at least the actor who played him, getting emotional when the light was first lit. It made me wonder how much of that was artistic licence (I suspect there was). It must have felt like a great achievement, but I wonder whether the Stevenson’s dealt with their successes by celebrating or whether they just moved on to the next task.

 

Signal Tower

Arbroath Signal Tower Museum

Anyway, I digress, the museum is still just as great as it was before. In fact it is better as, since 2017, they have held the old mechanism from the Bell Rock lighthouse (not the original, although they do have small parts of that too). It’s in a side room with a light inside and the mechanism is still in good working order, so it was lovely to see that in action.

I have heard that they are hoping to temporarily open the tower itself up to the public soon. It has been closed for health and safety reasons, but they are hoping to allow people to get up there a bit more in the future.

Signal Tower internal

Looking up the beautiful Signal Tower staircase

We stopped off at The Bell Rock Restaurant opposite the Signal Tower where we enjoyed smokies – we were in Arbroath after all. When we left the restaurant we spotted the Bell Rock tower in the distance with the sun shining off of it. I’d love to get back out there again some day to appreciate it all over again, and possibly even more so this time.

Although today turned out differently to how we had hoped it would, it’s still been a very good day with some lighthouses crammed in too. 🙂

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18 hours in Orkney

Another delayed post and this one follows on nicely from my Shetland Adventure last month.

After we’d booked our holiday in Shetland I was invited to present at the Scapa 100 event, marking the centenary of the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow back in 1919, which still remains the largest loss of warships ever to have taken place on a single occasion. The talk was to be related to my forthcoming book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. I was a little worried about it as all of the lighthouses were turned off during the war and only used when required by the Navy, so I wasn’t sure if it would be relevant to the subject matter, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity.

This invitation meant cutting the Shetland holiday short by a day, but it was easy enough to get from Lerwick to Orkney on the ferry and the best bit was that we would pass islands with lighthouses on them. When we set off from Lerwick it was the longest day so there was still plenty of light for being able to spot the two lighthouses at either end of Fair Isle on the way past. Fair Isle is very high on my priority list and I hope to make it there next year at some point. It’s a beautiful island from the sea and I’m sure it is equally impressive from the island itself.

Fair Isle

The perfectly formed Fair Isle

Also lovely to see from the ferry was Auskerry lighthouse, another one on my list. The ferry sails fairly close to it and I am now hoping to get out there next month – fingers very much crossed! Another one I have on my list for next month is Helliar Holm. Such a lovely little lighthouse. It’s a great shape and I enjoyed seeing this one from the ferry too.

Helliar Holm.JPG

Helliar Holm lighthouse with a midsummer sky – taken through the window

There was still a little light in the sky as we arrived in Kirkwall. I was particularly excited to see the Pharos, the Northern Lighthouse Board‘s vessel moored up in the harbour. Also part of the Scapa 100 event was the opening up of the Pharos in Kirkwall and their second vessel, Pole Star, in Stromness. I was even more excited about this as I’d managed to take a look around the Pharos in April and with the Pole Star being in Stromness, the location of my talk, I was hopeful that I would get a chance to get on board that one too during the day. I knew it would be touch and go as it was open from 1-4pm and my talk was scheduled for 2-3pm. I spotted the Pole Star in the harbour as I arrived in Stromness that evening and also got the pleasure of seeing both the Hoy High and Low lights on Graemsay in action.

The following morning I had a plan of what I was going to do before my talk. I had plenty of time to kill so I first set off to get a view of the Pole Star. It is quite a bit smaller than the Pharos, which I hadn’t realised before. As I was leaving the harbour I saw the ferry to Graemsay set off and felt very jealous of those who were going to spend the day over on the island. It is a great island and it would have been a perfect day for a trip over there.

Pole Star

NLV Pole Star

Being a little bit obsessed with Sule Skerry at the moment, following my visit to the island and lighthouse in May, I was very keen to pay a visit to the old shore station in Stromness where the families of the keepers lived when the lighthouse was manned. To get there meant walking the length of the main street through Stromness, which is never a chore. It’s got a really lovely feel about it and a lot of history too.

On the way along I was on the look-out for the old Northern Lighthouse Board depot. Until 2004 the Pole Star (not the current one, but its predecessors) was based out of Stromness and I knew that the old building and pier were still around somewhere. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find them, but I need not have worried as I recognised the buildings straight away, mainly due to the distinctive quoins around the windows. While the quoins are a different colour to the current bamboo/biscuit/buff that is so common among Northern Lighthouse Board buildings, it was obviously the place I was looking for. The building has since been taken over by the local Council so I wasn’t so keen on wandering around the area, but the view from the main street was good enough for me.

NLB depot

The old Northern Lighthouse Board depot with the entrance to the old lighthouse pier in the background

A little further on was Stromness Museum, which was also on the agenda for the day, but didn’t open until 10am so I continued along the coastal road. Once I’d passed the buildings on the right the view opened up across Scapa Flow which was stunning in the bright sunshine. I imagine that stretch of water saw its fair share of divers during those 12 days of Scapa 100 events. I was so busy looking at the sea and ahead to try and see if I could spot the old Sule Skerry shore station that I found myself at the end of the road and, turning to look back, realised I’d already walked straight past it. I continued on around the corner and walked past the back of the building first. It always feels a little strange to be taking pictures of someone’s house, but then if you live in a place like that then you would probably need to get used to it. It’s a really big building, which isn’t surprising really when you think that it needed to house up to four families at a time.

Sule Skerry shore station back

The view from the rear of the Sule Skerry shore station

Walking back around to the front of the house I discovered the true majesty of it. It is amazing and its location is fantastic to look up at and, I imagine, equally impressive to look out from. It is very similar to the old shore station in Breasclete, Lewis where the families of the Flannan Islands keepers lived. I noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, which again is the same as the Breasclete building. There’s a wonderful garden in front of the house and then, on the opposite side of the road there is a little gate leading down the a small pebble beach. What a wonderful place that would have been to have grown up – and all the while your dad would have been out working on the most remote manned lighthouse in the British Isles. What a way to live!

Sule Skerry shore station

The former Sule Skerry shore station from the front

Not wanting to hang around too long taking pictures of someone’s house, I began the walk back towards the Museum. I arrived there to find that there was some filming taking place and I was told that I could either look around quietly or I could go back again in an hour when the filming should be finished. I decided to go for the latter and found a cafe to stop at for a cup of tea. An hour later I began to walk back and happened to bump into Mike Bullock, the Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board. I’d seen him give a talk about the Northern Lighthouse Board back in 2017 when we visited their headquarters in Edinburgh during the Doors Open Days, but never met him to have a conversation with. We chatted for five minutes, during which time I’m quite confident he established that I am very much an enthusiastic “enthusiast” when it comes to lighthouses, particularly Scottish ones. I also informed him that I was the one who tweeted about really wanting to get onto the Pole Star that afternoon (a tweet he had commented on the previous day). He very kindly gave me a Northern Lighthouse Board keyring and pin badge, we said our “hope to see you later”s and I continued on to the Museum.

The filming was still going on at the Museum, but I decided that I couldn’t delay my visit any longer. They have a wonderful array of lighthouse artefacts in there, particularly relating to the lights in Orkney. While there aren’t rooms and rooms dedicated to lighthouses they have certainly packed a lot of information and items into the area they do have for it. For anyone interested in lighthouses it’s a must visit place, that’s for sure. By the time I’d finished looking around the museum the filming had come to an end so I was able to speak to the staff there. They were particularly helpful as I was keen to get someone local to the area to help me with pronunciations of place names ahead of my presentation and they certainly did that!

Old Hoy lens

The original lens from Hoy Low lighthouse in Stromness Museum

Once I’d finished at the Museum I just about managed to find somewhere to have lunch (it was very busy) without needing to go back to the same cafe I’d been to that morning. I also took the opportunity to add pictures of the Sule Skerry shore station and old depot buildings into my presentation.

Walking back across to the venue I saw people heading over to the Pole Star and for the second time that day I was envious, but still held out hope that I would be one of them too. I was taken to the room I was presenting in and we managed to set up in time for the audience’s arrival. I was pleased to see that a good number of people had come along, but it did also make me slightly more nervous. From what I could tell the presentation went well. I’d focused it specifically on the lighthouse of Orkney and added in some information about lighthouses in wartime and war-related lighthouse incidents in Orkney. It was structured as a timeline starting with the old North Ronaldsay light and ending with Tor Ness (the last one to be introduced) and World War II. People seemed to engage well with it and asked a number of questions at the end – a couple of which I wasn’t able to answer (but I later put the same questions to Mike Bullock and he wasn’t sure either, so that made me feel better). A number of them also came up to speak to me at the end too, which was lovely.

It turned out that a lady who lives in the old Sule Skerry shore station was in the audience. She said that they would really like to restore the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, but aren’t sure how to do so. She lives in a quarter of the building and is the only one to have kept most of the old fixtures and fittings as they would have been when the keepers’ families lived there. That would be amazing to see. She did invite me back for tea, which was really very kind, but I was on the late afternoon ferry so didn’t have time unfortunately. We happened to meet again on the Pole Star, which I did manage to get to in time!

As I mentioned before, it is a smaller vessel than the Pharos with no heli-deck, but still great to get onto. I was chatting to one of the crew and said “You must have been to some amazing lighthouses” and his response was that he can’t keep track of which ones he has and hadn’t been too, which seemed crazy to me, but then again I am a self-proclaimed enthusiastic enthusiast! After looking around the bridge I started speaking to another member of the crew. Unlike her colleague she is a massive fan of lighthouses and we spoke for quite a while about her adventures on the Pole Star, my lighthouse tour and the book, which she is really excited about. Her suggestion that I go on a world tour of lighthouses and take her along as an accomplice was a nice idea, although I’m not sure how I’ll fund that one! I was really pleased to have met her. If I’d had more time I would have carried on standing around chatting, but it was time for me to leave Stromness and Orkney and head back home.

On board Pole Star

The view from the bridge on the Pole Star

It had been a fantastic 18 hours in Orkney. I’d started out feel rather nervous and wanting to escape to Graemsay, but actually ended the day feeling glad to have been part of such a fantastic event. The organisers put in so much time and effort and delivered such a varied programme. I wished I’d stayed longer to see more of it, but I had to get back home to hide away and read through the draft of my book. I got a seaward look at both the old Lighthouse Board Depot and the Sule Skerry shore station as I said farewell to Stromness from the ferry.

Lighthouse pier and depot

The old lighthouse pier and depot from the sea

Another really positive and enjoyable experience in Orkney. I’m growing rather fond it that place. 🙂

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