The Calf of Man boat trip was always going to be the only ‘Will we? Won’t we?’ part of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers’ Isle of Man event. Almost as expected, the schedule for the trip needed to be changed just a couple of days before it started to allow the boat trip to take place on the calmest of the four days, which looked to be the Tuesday. It actually turned out rather well though and the saying ‘save the best ‘til last’ was very apt here.
Before we set off on the boat though there was a little time to pay Port Erin a visit. Every harbour village or town on the Isle of Man has its own charm and the pairings of lighthouses only adds to this. In Port Erin though it’s really extra special in my mind with two very unique lighthouses.
The Raglan Pier light is what I often refer to as ‘a lantern on legs’ but this one has plenty more character than your average one of this type.
Funnily enough my ‘group hug a lighthouse’ really seemed to have taken off by this point and Stephen from Bidston instigated this one, which worked really rather well with the legs and being able to see people on the other side too.
If this little one wasn’t quirky enough, someone noticed a couple of drawings on the lighthouse. Now, I’m not a supporter of graffiti in general but with Mr Bump on one of the River Avon lights the other day I do sometimes quite like a little drawing. This one had a little smiley face on it with the word ‘smile’ underneath. What was even better though was the snail, which was rather nicely drawn just underneath some text which read ‘Follow the snail too happiness’. I’ll ignore the rogue ‘o’ on ‘to’ here because it was a sweet little thing.
I should say though that drawing on lighthouses isn’t advisable. They do belong to someone, whether it’s the Northern Lighthouse Board or Trinity House, or a port authority, council or even a private home, so they are best left alone.
We had a little while then to walk to the front light on the beach (the rear of this pair is a light on a stick). I chose the beach walk option rather than walking along the promenade.
I really like all of the little Manx lighthouses, but this one is definitely my favourite. I worry about it though as it’s on a west-facing beach so the crazy storms will cause some big old waves in the area.
This one had to have a group hug too, of course. It was actually getting to the point now where I didn’t even need to encourage people, someone else would quite often mention it.
We had a little spare time before we needed to be in Port St Mary for the boat trip so we headed along through Cregneash – spotting the old radio signal station which was used, in part, for signalling with Chicken Rock Lighthouse and later housed some of its keepers.
At the end of this road is what they call The Parade where you look across the Sound to the Calf of Man. We’d been blessed with amazing weather and great visibility so the views from there were fabulous. There were lots of seals around and birds which the others loved seeing. There’s a great cafe here too, which I recalled having great soup served in a crusty roll at when we’d been to the island a few years ago.
It was time for the excitement to begin. We met Steve and Rob in Port St Mary and set off on their boat (Port St Mary Calf of Man Boat). Their boat is the tender for the island and has been for many years, previously being run by Steve’s father Juan.
It was a beautiful ride along the coast to reach the Calf with an incredible stack and caves. The bird watchers among the group were amazed by the number of razorbills both on the rocks and in the air. In fact, we all were.
Passing around Thousla Rock with its beacon, we arrived at Cow Harbour on the Calf of Man. This is when it became very obvious that the boat fits perfectly in the harbour here and we were soon on the slipway and heading up to meet the wardens.
The Calf of Man is looked after during the Spring, Summer and Autumn by a number of wardens and we were guided across the island with them. The weather was still fantastic and the views across the island and around the coast were idyllic.
There is almost a little community at the island’s bird observatory with a few buildings that the wardens stay in during their time on the island.
Not too far after the Bird Observatory we began seeing the top of one of the old lighthouses and then suddenly there was the view that makes the Calf of Man such a special place for those of us with an interest in lighthouses.
With three lighthouses so close together plus a rock lighthouse visible not far offshore, the question as to why there are so many of them is a valid one. Well, it all came about due to the hazard Chicken Rock presented to shipping. The two oldest towers on the island first shone in 1819 and aimed, by working as leading lights flashing in unison, to guide vessels clear of the rock. They are stunning buildings and clearly incredibly well-built, it’s just a great shame they are no longer being maintained.
As is so often the case though, with older towers at higher elevations, they are routinely obscured by fog and in bad weather. This is the case in a number of other locations, St Catherine’s Oratory on the Isle of Wight and the original tower on Little Cumbrae immediately come to mind as two other examples. The solution to this, as decided by the Northern Lighthouse Board, was to build a tower on Chicken Rock itself. By that point they would have had both Bell Rock and Skerryvore lighthouses under their belts so the prospect may not have been quite so terrifying to them.
Chicken Rock Lighthouse was completed in 1875 and operated successfully until 1960 when it was damaged by fire. At this point the decision was taken to automate Chicken Rock Lighthouse and also to build a more powerful lighthouse on the Calf of Man – hence the third tower.
This light was first exhibited in 1968 as the very last of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s manned stations to be built. A 2005 review of aids to navigation concluded that this modern light should be discontinued and Chicken Rock Lighthouse upgraded. The lighthouse was decommissioned two years later.
It was this 1960s lighthouse that I had managed to arrange access to for this trip. Sadly, for health and safety reasons, we weren’t able to go up into the light tower, but we could still have a wander around the hallways, peering into the old bedrooms, kitchen and the engine room. The accommodation here is still used at times. When we visited a team of people fixing the dry stone walls on the island were staying there.
Some of the old foghorn equipment can still be seen close to the old low lighthouse as well and the views from this area were just stunning. We – or the boatman, in fact – couldn’t have chosen a better day.
The buildings attached to the old high lighthouse is sadly not looking as well as its low counterpart, but the tower itself is still just as wonderful nonetheless.
Then there was THE view!
There wasn’t much time to hang around as there was the highlight of the day (or so we hoped) still to visit and another group were waiting back in Port St Mary for their turn. The walk back to The Cow landing was just amazing and the view of Calf Sound as you head down the final stretch towards the landing is just beautiful. I could easily look at that view for hours.
With a quick swap over, we were off again with all our fingers crossed that we would make it out to see the wonderful Chicken Rock Lighthouse close up. One of the boatman had said they’d been out in that area that morning and it had been pretty choppy so it was definitely a case of being on tenterhooks. As we rounded the corner below the lighthouses on the Calf though, we spotted Chicken Rock Lighthouse in a lovely gap between the island and a stack.
From that point we only got closer and closer and closer. I’m fact, I was very very pleasantly surprised to find just how close Steve was able to take the boat to the tower.
It must have been a lower tide as the rock was visible and the landing steps were just there, begging to be landed on. Though this visit was never going to be for landing, but we got as close as we could have done without landing.
We did two laps of the lighthouse, both close in and further out, with the latter round giving some incredible views of the four lighthouses in the reverse view of what I had been taking a picture of less than an hour before.
It was such a pleasure to see Chicken Rock Lighthouse so close and on a really nice day too when the sun was shining on the tower. I always find with these unpainted granite towers, like Skerryvore and Ardnamurchan, you really need to see them with the sun on them to really appreciate just how beautiful they are. It’s silhouette wasn’t too shabby either!
Once we were all satisfied that we’d got exactly what we wanted from the visit – and then some – we started our journey back to Port St Mary. There was even more glorious rock formations to be seen on the coast of the Calf of Man as we sailed by.
Disembarking at Port St Mary, I had a chance to properly visit the Isle of Man’s newest little lighthouse. The small tower at the end of Alfred Pier, or the Outer Breakwater, was installed in 2018. Its predecessor was washed away and it had temporarily been replaced by a light on a stick. Interestingly, although the tower is built to the shape of a traditional lighthouse, it appears that the light itself is just a modern LED with solar panels mounted on top of what would be the lantern.
The second light at Port St Mary also needed a revisit so I headed to that one too before retiring to the pub for a much-needed drink. This one had, rather unfortunately, been branded ‘the silo’ by one of the other group members.
Finishing up the day a couple of hours later, waiting on the shoreline for the second group to arrive back was a really great end to the official Association of Lighthouse Keepers event, which saw us visit (or at least see) every Manx lighthouse. It was an excellent adventure with a really great bunch of people whose company I enjoyed immensely.
The event may have been over, but I still had one more objective before I could even think about leaving Manx soil! More on that coming very soon… 🙂