A lighthouse adventure in Essex

After our short boat trip out to see Gunfleet lighthouse on Tuesday morning it seemed a good opportunity to revisit some of the Essex lighthouses – and introduce Bob and Joe the Drone to them as well.

Back in 2012 the Naze Tower had been my first stop on my lighthouse tour and I’d not been back since. Some may argue that the Naze Tower might not have been a lit aid to navigation, but it also may have been – and, more importantly, it’s a lovely place to visit.

The Naze Tower

Due to Covid-19 the tower is currently closed, but that didn’t matter as the sun was shining and it was dry. My lighthouse pal John had joined us and we were all pleased to be able to spot Gunfleet lighthouse in the far distance having been closer to it that very morning.

The Naze Tower is quite impressive and is clearly very well looked after. The beautiful brickwork is looking excellent when you consider that the tower was built in 1720. The tower had been somewhat neglected in the past, but the owners did some extensive renovation and, in 2004, it opened to the public for the first time. Presumably it needed, and will continue to need, some repairs and maintenance done on it – it is 300 years old after all.

When it does reopen, hopefully next year, you can see it’s 8 floors which feature an art gallery with exhibitions, and a museum about the tower and surrounding area. On top of that, quite literally, you get the panoramic views.

Joe took to the sky and, as usual, captured the glorious coastline. Seeing this coastline is always tinged with a little bit of sadness though as it really does suffer from erosion. There is evidence on the beach here that some measures have been taken to try to reduce the erosion in the area as you can see in the picture below.

The sea defences were clear in one of Joe’s shots
The view from above looking towards the south

There’s a lovely little tea room nearby too and we chose to have lunch outside on a bench before waving goodbye to John and continuing on our way.

Harwich awaited our arrival and this is quite a special place for those with any maritime interest. It is where Trinity House monitor their lighthouses from – as well as the Northern Lighthouse Board lights during evenings and weekends. Trinity House also has a depot and buoy yard here. It has its own two old lighthouses, a Light Vessel you can (under normal circumstances) look around, the Lifeboat Museum and an array of other points of interest that make up the town’s Maritime Heritage Trail. In addition we were able to see three more light vessels anchored off shore in the area.

Harwich High Light and the Harwich Town Buoy at the start of the Maritime Heritage Trail
Light Vessel 18 which is usually open to visitors

The two lighthouses here are no longer active and haven’t been since 1863 when they were replaced by the two Dovercourt lights (more on those in a bit). The low light has housed the Maritime Museum since 1980 and the high light is now run by Harwich Society as a local interest museum.

Harwich High Light

The existing towers replaced the town’s original leading lights. All of these lights were intended to work in pairs to guide ships safely into the harbour.

Harwich Low Light with the High Light visible in the background

Joe had a little fly around the area too, which is actually how we realised the light vessels were offshore.

An aerial view of Harwich’s harbour area with the three light vessels visible
The lighthouses in Harwich

Harwich is a fascinating place and it would be nice to spend some more time here getting stuck into the maritime history.

Just a short drive to the south we found the two Dovercourt lighthouses. On my original tour I’d seen these two at low tide and with high tide now approaching it was interesting to see the bottom of the outer light under water and the rapidly heightening waves splashing around the base of the inner light.

The lighthouses at Dovercourt

As mentioned, these lighthouses were introduced in 1863 to replace the Harwich lights. At the time they were built they were believed to have been fairly revolutionary in that they were of the new screw pile design and were prefabricated. A ‘causeway’ was introduced between the two lighthouses which can be walked with care at low tide.

Dovercourt Inner lighthouse

The lights were decommissioned in 1917 when buoy markers were installed to mark the approach to Harwich and since then have been through a period of restoration in the 1980s. Recent investigations have found that further restoration work is required to secure their future and it looks like this is in hand, which is always good to hear.

Dovercourt Outer lighthouse

They are quite unique structures and it was good to also see them from a different angle with the help of Joe the Drone.

Dovercourt Inner light from the seaward side
Dovercourt Outer lighthouse from above

Yet another day of doing a little more exploring and revisiting had come to an end. A very good day it had been and with it also being the last planned lighthouse trip of the year I was glad it had been a success and undertaken with great company.

Let’s hope even a little lighthouse visit can occur at some point before the year is out. Finger crossed 🙂

Putting in the effort for Ushenish

Phew, where do I begin? I’m not sure I’ve ever put as much effort into visiting a single lighthouse as I did over the past few days with Ushenish. With a good view of Calvay lighthouse from the ferry tomorrow when we leave Lochboisdale, it only left this one lighthouse that I had not yet seen in the Western Isles.

The plan for the beginning of this week had been to go out with Uist Sea Tours from Lochboisdale, land on Calvay and then head around to the landing point for Ushenish as well as doing some islands for Bob along the way. All was well, and then COVID-19 arrived on South Uist. David who runs Uist Sea Tours contacted me at the end of last week to say that he may need to go into self-isolation and was then in regular contact over the weekend with updates and then final confirmation that he would not be able to take us out. I should say that David has been incredibly quick to respond to my messages in organising the trip and I hope one day we do manage to get out on his boat. A really professional company who are up for these mad lighthouse and island-related days out.

Then the fun of finding an alternative boatman began. During the course of Sunday I contacted five alternative boat companies, two based on the Uist, one on Barra and two others on Skye. We had also floated the idea with Seumas at Sea Harris on Saturday and he ended up offering us a really reasonable price to come all the way down from Scalpay just to take us to the landing for Ushenish and then drop us back off again. I really cannot recommend Sea Harris enough! Some companies weren’t available or weren’t running due to the pandemic, one got back to me with a quote and a couple didn’t respond. Needless to say it was a lot of effort.

Bob made the suggestion that we could walk out to the lighthouse. Initially I was hesitant, thinking that it was a ridiculously long walk, but we looked at the map and I suddenly realised that this was the only way I could guarantee I would get there (boats are obviously weather dependent, although it was looking ok for today). I happily agreed to this plan and we chose today rather than yesterday as the weather was forecast to be considerably better.

This morning we set off, parking at the starting point we’d found on a short recce the other day. The route was initially following a good path and across a couple of nice (although broken in places) bridges. There had been heavy rain early this morning, which meant the paths were fairly muddy in places.

The route finder leads the way
One of two little bridges that made crossing streams easy
Some very picturesque views early in the walk
We encountered a number of ruined buildings along the way
The path follows alongside Loch Sgioport (or Skipport)

After around 1.5kms the path marked on the map ended, but for an extra half a kilometre an extended track continued. Between dodging mud and boggy sections I managed to stop and enjoy the views.

The extended path then came to an end and it was down to Bob to guide us through. One of the biggest challenges during the walk was crossing rivers. Some, such as the one pictured below, involved a bit of a leap of faith. Others weren’t so wide, but presented other challenges such as slippery rocks at crossing points which led to me getting very wet at one point!

Approaching the beautiful Loch Bein

The terrain varied from muddy, boggy, rough to overgrown. There were plenty of up and downhills too, which kept me on my toes. Bob had chosen a higher route across the section between the end of the extended path and the lighthouse landing area to help avoid the longer undergrowth and even wetter ground further down. The section with no path was by far the trickiest and when we could we followed the deer tracks. Otherwise Bob navigated us professionally through whatever terrain we came upon.

After what felt like a long time, the old lighthouse store at the boat landing area came into view and we followed a deer track along the coast.

The old concrete landing is now in a poor state.
The old lighthouse store at the start of the track to the lighthouse
The view looking back from the track to the lighthouse
We spotted the partially covered water storage hut alongside the track

I knew it couldn’t be long before we reached the lighthouse and Bob stopped ahead of me, which is always a good sign that we are on the approach.

The approach to the lighthouse

Ushenish lighthouse is a small tower, not needing to be high due to its position on a tall cliff. There are a couple of buildings within the complex, but originally there would have been the keepers’ houses here where they lived with their families – what a life that would have been! The houses have now been demolished, but you can still see their foundations.

The information panel is looking a little weather beaten, but is full of information
Ushenish lighthouse

It was a real shame to see the wall around the lighthouse falling away in places. As with Tiumpan Head the other day, it reminds you of the hard work that would have gone into building it all those years ago, over 160 years in fact. It is sad to see, but I suppose the wall is no longer so important.

It was fairly windy at the lighthouse with some strong gusts, but Bob decided to try putting Joe the Drone up to see if he could manage to capture some images. Joe only went up for a short time due to the wind, but still managed some fantastic shots.

There was an interesting structure in the complex. I recalled seeing something very similar elsewhere, it may have been Auskerry in Orkney. I’m not sure what it is for, but would be very interested to hear if anyone has any ideas. You can contact me here if you have any thoughts or information.

After having lunch at the lighthouse it was time to begin the long journey back. This was where we suddenly began to spot nature aplenty. Within the lighthouse complex there were a number of hairy caterpillars and it always amazes me how these small creatures that seem so delicate can survive in such harsh areas. I recalled visiting Eshaness lighthouse in Shetland last year and being fascinated by how many butterflies were there. They always look so small and easily damaged and yet seeing them in these locations proves that they are much more hardy than we give them credit for. All the way back to the car there were caterpillars littering the ground and I made a point of being careful to avoid stepping on them.

Further along the track we had a call from our little daughter who wanted to speak to us. As we were chatting Bob said “Is that an eagle?” and we watched as a sea eagle flew around close by and then landed near the edge of the cliff. We waited patiently to watch it fly off again, but it seemed quite happily settled on the ground. What a treat!

We reached the landing area again and braced ourselves for the off piste section again.

The walk back was tiring and we just kept walking. I felt that if I stopped I wouldn’t want to get going again so I put my head down, concentrated on one step at a time and waited patiently until we got to the easier section again.

A wonderful view looking down on Lochs Bein and Sgioport
Some Eriskay ponies welcomed us back to the path

I was glad to be back on the path, but even happier to get back to the road. It had been a long walk, about 10 miles in total with the weaving around we did to make the going a little easier. Walking to Ushenish lighthouse is the furthest and most challenging walk I’ve ever done to a lighthouse and I am pleased that it involved more effort than many others. A reviewer of my book described my ‘tenacity’ and I’d not realised until reading that how determined I am to reach these places. I certainly am determined, even if it nearly breaks me. I certainly won’t be forgetting the walk to Ushenish in a hurry. A great day! 🙂

A single little Uist light

This morning we waved goodbye to Lewis and Harris after a great few days there, and hello to the Uists. This is my first time visiting this part of the Western Isles, excluding the brief visit to Weavers Point yesterday. A new place to explore!

During the research process for my book I had looked into access to the lights on the small islands of Gasay and Calvay on the approach to Lochboisdale. Calvay was obvious, it would require a chartered boat or you could get a good view from the ferries into and out of Lochboisdale. Gasay was a bit more involved and this morning we decided to investigate for ourselves.

Lochboisdale harbour with Gasay and Calvay lights in the distance

I was aware that Lochboisdale has fairly recently undergone a harbour development programme and my research suggested that the island of Gasay had become linked to South Uist as a result. Arriving in Lochboisdale we found this is exactly what had happened with the harbour development works completed in 2015.

Driving slowly around the harbour area we spotted a slope that looked like it would lead where we wanted to go. We parked up and set off. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a well trodden track leading up from the harbour. This track led up to a recently constructed cairn from which you had great views and could see the light from.

The cairn that marks where the path leads

Fortunately the track continued further until we reached a large gravelled area which gave some views looking back across the harbour.

Looking back at the harbour

This was where we had to go off piste and stomp our way through the heather. The island is peat moorland and there was evidence of peat being dug here in the past. This meant there were some banks to get up and down, but aside from that the walk wasn’t too bad – we’d both expected the ground to be a lot worse.

The light on Gasay and the heather we crossed to reach it

I was intrigued to see what the light looked like close up as it is so infrequently photographed. As you can see from the pictures it is one of the Northern Lighthouse Board‘s metal framework towers clad with white panels, except this light has the panels on the top level only and on one side there are no panels. It’s interesting to see another configuration of the white panels as they do differ on some of the flat-pack lighthouses.

As usual Joe the Drone had accompanied us and got some great images of the lighthouse, the island and the harbour too. These aerial images give a clearer view of Gasay as an island and the causeway that now connects it to Lochboisdale.

The aerial view showing the island more clearly

The Lochboisdale Harbour website suggests that a Phase 2 for the harbour development is being considered which could see the ferry terminal moved to the south side of Gasay. Whether this will impact on the position of the light on Gasay or not remains to be seen. Time will tell.

It may not be a big lighthouse, but Gasay was well worth a visit and also provided distant views of the Calvay light to the east. Hoping to get a bit of a closer look at that one later in the week. 🙂

The remote land lights of the Western Isles

With the wind shifting around to the north and the wind speed increasing it was touch and go as to whether or not we would make it out on the boat trip we had planned yesterday. Bob spoke to Seumas from Sea Harris the previous night and I was delighted when he confirmed that we would go ahead with the trip.

It was the first time I’ve been out on the water around the Western Isles visiting lighthouses for a couple of years and I must admit I had missed it’s wild ways and unpredictable nature, and also the boatmen who know it so well (well mainly Seumas as he has got me to near enough all of the offshore lights in the Western Isles).

Off we set from Scalpay and our first stop was one I was very excited about. Sgeir Ghlas is a bit different with the red top – and it’s one of those older towers introduced by the Northern Lighthouse Board around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.

Sgeir Ghlas lighthouse

Landing on the island was fine as the sea was calm and the seaweed covering the rocks wasn’t too slippy. Being a very small and relatively flat piece of land it was only a short stroll to the lighthouse. It’s looking a little weather beaten, but apparently much better than when our skipper was last there. That time it didn’t have a door and there were birds nesting inside. It’s good to see that it now has both doors intact and reminds me of Rubh’an Eun on Bute which has also had a bit of improvement work done to it in recent years.

Bob flew Joe the Drone for a while and, as usual, got some great shots.

Sgeir Ghlas from above
Sgeir Ghlas with Sea Harris’s RIB Pabbay

Leaving the island behind we headed out into The Minch and then northwards along the east coast. The change in sea conditions became very obvious as soon as we were out of the shelter of Harris. Up the coast we passed Rubh Uisenis lighthouse which I had previously only seen from a great distance on the way to Eilean Glas lighthouse. We decided to first tackle Milaid Point lighthouse, which we all knew would be the trickiest of the day and come back to Rubh Uisenis.

Milaid Point lighthouse is a flat-pack style and these are usually not the most interesting looking. This one is a bit different though and reminded me a little of the one on the Garvellachs which is also in a fantastic location. Milaid Point lighthouse is set down on the cliff with steps leading down to it from the cliff top. As a result it’s actually not so far above the sea. The view from the sea is great with the light, the steps and two old platforms, one of which was presumably where the previous lighthouse tower was located, and the skipper recalled there being some sort of radar station there at some point which probably explains the other platform.

Milaid Point lighthouse

It was fairly obvious that we weren’t going to be able to land near the lighthouse with the rise and fall of the swell so we sailed around the corner to the south to see if we could find somewhere to land and then walk up and along. Once we were in the tender we realised just how steep the cliffs in the area were. A couple of times we spotted sections we thought we might be able to make it up, but once we were in the small tender we realised just how steep it would be. Bob landed at one place and walked/scrambled up the sections of rock to see if it would be a suitable way up. He ended up descending back down one particular section, a flat slope, using a rope as it was so slippery. So that was not an option, but I was very grateful that he had tried to find a way that I could manage.

We took the tender back around to the rocks below the steps near the lighthouse, but we all agreed that it wasn’t going to be possible to land. It was a shame, but we’d got great views of it and Bob managed to fly Joe the Drone around it a bit too.

Milaid Point lighthouse from above

We’d spent longer than expected at Milaid Point and it was time to sail back down towards Rubh Uisenis lighthouse. Although there was a landing below the lighthouse here, again there was just too much swell. We anchored just to the south in a sheltered area and hopped into the tender to see if there was anywhere here that would make it slightly more accessible than Milaid Point.

Sailing back around to the landing area for a closer look we thought it was just too much of a risk with quite a significant rise and fall in the water level. We’d spotted a potential point around the corner and so went along to that. Thankfully we both managed to get ashore, but the hardest bit was to come. I am not a climber and never will be, or even a scrambler. I’ve just scrambled a bit on very few occasions when reaching a lighthouse requires it. I think the best way to describe the section of rocks we needed to climb up is with a picture so here is one.

Our route up the cliff

It was slow going getting up there, but we made it and then there was a short walk along to the lighthouse, although there was a hill in the way so we had to go over that. I was surprised not to be able to see the lighthouse once we reached the top of the hill, but it’s another one that’s set down a bit and so we had to walk a bit further before it came into view. Once we reached the top of the slope where the ground dropped down to the lighthouse the scrambling and uphill walk were forgotten. I know you are supposed to look up at lighthouses, but there’s always something special about looking down on them, particular when it’s one of these types of towers.

Looking down on Rubh Uisenis

These round white towers were introduced by the Northern Lighthouse Board to replace some of the older small lighthouses (like the one on Sgeir Ghlas shown above), but before they started to use the flat-pack type. The Shiants Isles in the background helped to make the view even more enjoyable. Also knowing that this was a place that very few people would have been added to my appreciation of it. Rubh Uisenis is believed to be the most remote land-based lighthouse in Britain with hours and hours of walking over hills and bog to endure if you attempt it from the land.

We wandered around for a while, down some of the steps, taking a look at the platform the old lighthouse (I assume) would have sat on. There is a wonderful picture online of the previous lighthouse located here.

Reaching Rubh Uisenis felt like a great achievement. It had seemed so inaccessible previously. I was very pleased, but I also realised we needed to get back down the rocks!

Bob had brought along his trusty rope and for the descent tied it around my waist and held on tight while I went down. We did this in three sections with me stopping on a ledge part way down, pulling the rope down and then waiting for Bob to come down to where I was before I carried on. It was pretty hard going, moreso because I was struggling at times to pull the rope to take the next step, but that was a good sign as if I’d fallen I would have been glad of the tension in the rope! I didn’t fall though and we made it safely back down and onto the boat. It’s fair to say I was very relieved and very happy!

Joe the Drone enjoyed Rubh Uisenis too

Again we’d spent longer there than planned. Whizzing on down the coast we sailed past Eilean Glas lighthouse which was looking just as wonderful as it did by land on Friday.

Eilean Glas from the sea

Onwards to North Uist and this next one marked my first visit to the Uists, and what a dignified one it was.

Weaver Point lighthouse

Weavers Point, or Weaver Point lighthouse, is another one that involved a fairly long walk across difficult terrain if approached by land so what better way to arrive than by boat, especially when there are some wonderful steps leading up the cliff. Quite a treat that was, especially after the last one!

The steps at Weavers Point

Weaver Point lighthouse is another flat-pack structure and a fairly standard one, but it was good to see it up close and enjoy the surrounding scenery too. I’m looking forward to spending more time on the Uists in the coming days.

Weaver Point lighthouse

At this point I was feeling like I was hogging all of the boat time so it was Bob’s turn to enjoy a couple of islands he’d not been to before. In true goat fashion he was up and down both in no time at all.

By now the sun was going down, but there was one more stop for the day. We’ve sailed out of Leverburgh a number of times and so regularly passed the red and black Dubh Sgeir light. We were both keen to investigate it a bit more so we landed on the rocks and slowly (because I am not a goat like Bob) made our way towards the tower. When Bob says “use these steps” or “walk on the path” you can almost guarantee that what is in front of you in no way resembles steps or a path. At one point we found a large long and fairly flat rock which Bob likened it to Sauchiehall Street (one of Glasgow’s main shopping streets)!

The light on Dubh Sgeir

Dubh Sgeir is an interesting light and though there’s not much to it, it was nice to visit. As I said to Bob it felt like the the Western Isles’ answer to Barrel of Butter (which is in Scapa Flow, Orkney – take a look at this post from last year to see that one).

The sun was setting so it was time to head back to Scalpay. We had a bit of an added bonus on the way back with some common dolphins leaping out of the water alongside the boat. Normally I’m not so excited when you see the occasional dolphin or whale fin sticking out of the sea, but to see them swimming and jumping alongside us was great. They obviously wanted to celebrate my successful day. As did a few of the lighthouses we’d seen as they were flashing away as we returned to Scalpay – always a delight to see.

The dolphins celebrating with me

It had been a very long day, with 11 hours on the boat, but a really successful one. I’d reached a few lights that had been bothering me for quite some time and also been as close as it was safe to get to all of the lighthouses on and around Lewis and Harris. Another fantastic day to add to the bank of memories I have of the area.

I hope to do at least one more post during this trip, but the second boat trip we had planned has had a rather large spanner thrown in the works. Fingers crossed plan B or Plan C will come together! 🙂