Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the bagging years

I write this post after thinking over it for a few days, I can honestly say that the thing I miss most, aside from seeing family and close friends, at these times are the times I spent out on chartered boats, setting off for the relatively unexplored islands around the UK, particularly those in Scotland. These “bagging” years, as I call them, ran from around mid-2014 to mid-2019, although this post will only cover up until Summer 2018 for reasons that will be made clear in the next and final post. I have thought about those times a lot over the past year and not only because I’ve not been able to do them as I used to, but because I don’t imagine they will feature in my life in the same way going forward.

This is a fairly long post this time as there is a lot to say. I did consider splitting it over two, but I didn’t want readers to lose the essence of it in the transition between posts. I have included pictures from the bagging years throughout to make it slightly easier on the eye.

The beautiful Barra Head lighthouse

To clarify what the bagging years were here is a bit of background. As explained in my previous post, I’d met and married Bob. For those who don’t know Bob, two of his favourite pastimes are hill-bagging (reaching the summit of hills – mostly in the UK now, but he has also completed 6 of the 7 summits – or 6.9 as he says after his Everest attempt in 2013) and island-bagging (reaching the high point of an island). Both of these are guided by lists. Of course I like lists too, more specifically lighthouse lists. Bob was, back in 2014, a member of a group of like-minded people called the Relative Hills of Britain (now the Relative Hills Society) with islands naturally falling under that as they also contain hills, although members are also interested in various Ordnance Survey-related points such as trig pillars and benchmarks. Members of RHB organised group trips to islands not covered by schedule or routine ferries and boats. With Bob going off on these adventures it was only a matter of time before I was invited along too.

One of my favourite non-lighthouse islands, Scarp just off the west coast of Lewis. What remains of the old schoolhouse on the island can be seen here.

The term “bagging” and the idea of ticking things like islands off a list seems to divide opinion. Those against its use see it as simply a ticking exercise with no time spent enjoying or experiencing these places. There are three reasons I fully support what they (and I, in fact) do:

  1. It is not necessarily the case that baggers do nothing in these places to enhance their experience of it. On some of the very small islands there is little else to do than walk around a bit and then leave. On the larger islands they often do spend more time there, checking out old buildings, walking the beaches or looking at other points of interest.
  2. When they get to these islands they do what they love, walking up hills, visiting a lighthouse or getting to trig points. If others with different interests went to these places they may choose to sit on the beach and sunbathe, for example.
  3. Finally, but most importantly in my opinion, when you have been out on any of the trips with the baggers, you will end up in places that you can never imagine, that most people don’t even know exist. If they weren’t into lists then they would never see these magnificent places.

From those I’ve met most are happy to be called “baggers” and to do what they are doing. In the process they aren’t harming anyone and that, to me, is the most important thing.

My introduction to these trips came in May 2014 with a trip organised by Alan who has done so much towards getting me and others to places we had only dreamed of. We went out from Skerray harbour on the north coast of Scotland to the Rabbit Islands, which had looked so alluring from a distance for some time. It was rather an embarrassing start actually as when I went to get off the boat onto the island I was completely in control of what I was doing and going at my own speed, but Bob obviously thought otherwise and went to haul me onto the island faster than I was planning to go. The result of this being me ending up lying on top of Bob. It gave everyone a laugh and all of those on the trip went on to become friends who I always looked forward to seeing in one place or another, just like many of the others I was yet to meet.

The view looking towards the north coast of Scotland from the beach that separates the two Rabbit Islands at high tide

A month later, at 6 months pregnant, we spent a week over in the Outer Hebrides, camping at various stunning locations and heading out on a couple of boat trips, including my next island bagging adventure. This one was to the tiny island of Sula Sgeir followed by nearby North Rona, both to the north of the main Outer Hebrides. This was another trip organised by Alan. If I was ever going to wonder what I’d let myself in for and say “never again” it would have been then. Thankfully, whatever stressors I had to deal with at Sula Sgeir were all forgotten upon arrival at North Rona. North Rona was bliss, with the exception of a few bonxies hanging around ready to swoop on any unsuspecting bagger. While there the group wandered in groups or alone in various directions, chatting and laughing – just really enjoying their time on the island. The atmosphere was wonderful and from that point I was a little bit hooked.

North Rona with its lighthouse near the highest point of the island

Over the few years that followed our annual holiday would always tie in with the hill/island bagger events. One of my most memorable days spent out on boats was in 2015 on another Alan trip from Oban with Coastal Connection when we visited the island of Oigh Sgeir and its lighthouse, more commonly known as Hyskeir lighthouse. During that visit I grew so fond of the place, and I recall the enjoyment I hit from wandering along the bridges, checking out the basalt columns, spotting minke whales in the distance – in fact everything about the place was stunning. We also visited Eigg lighthouse on the little island Eilean Chathastail afterwards which I enjoyed so much for the peaceful surroundings. I remember staying at the lighthouse enjoying the sounds and views while the others went to the high point. Later that day a couple of us waited on the boat while the rest of the group disembarked for a trek across Muck. Heading around to the pier the rest of us then enjoyed sitting in the sunshine outside the little cafe where we had lunch, ready to welcome the others back with big smiles.

Hyskeir lighthouse on the island of Oigh Sgeir

The bagging years have taken me completely out of my comfort zone on numerous occasions. In fact most island landings without a nice pier, jetty or steps get me a little nervous. Thankfully I’ve not had any major incidents so far and hopefully it stays that way, but I think that is down to the other baggers and the boatmen always being willing to help me out if I end up struggling at all. I am always amazed at the baggers who will sit on the boat, fall asleep, wake up when we get to the next island and just go without giving any thought to checking out where the landing might be. One landing attempt stands out far above the others though for being really frightening and it was actually at Dubh Artach lighthouse, which we attempted to land at the day after the perfect Oigh Sgeir day mentioned above. A group of us were in the tender edging closer to the rock and Bob was just about to attempt to step out onto the rock. He got his foot onto a bit of metal grate just as the swell came in and as it was going back out we weren’t going with it. A result of this could well have been that we’d be tipped out of the boat, but thankfully the skipper handled it superbly. I was pretty glad to be back on the main boat that day!

Dubh Artach lighthouse

Later in 2015 and then into 2016 there were some Welsh visits organised by Adrian. We visited the Skerries, a truly beautiful island off the Anglesey coast, and Tudwal East in South Wales to get a closer look at the Tudwal West lighthouse, as well as landing at both Smalls and South Bishop lighthouses off the west coast. One of my most amusing memories was on The Smalls. There were numerous seals hanging around on the rock as we approached and they went off for a swim and kept a close eye on us as their heads bobbed up and down in the water. Seals, like most animals, leave a lot of mess and I recall making my way over a section of rock that was pretty slippy with their waste. I remember seeing a slightly craggier bit and thought “oh, I might get better grip on those rocks” and a few seconds later I was stranded on said rocks knowing that wherever I stepped I was going to slip. Thankfully Bob came to the rescue and escorted me to safety.

At Smalls lighthouse

Later on in 2016 Rick organised a trip out to Little Cumbrae. This was an excellent island to explore and a real treat to be able to get inside the old lighthouse for a look around. One of my favourite parts though had to be standing around for about 20 minutes at or near the island high point while a few members of the group debated which point out of two was actually the highest. I have some amazing pictures of the group standing around with some scrutinising their GPS devices while others gaze at a bit of rock looking a little bemused by the whole situation. Before the boat came to pick us up we had a little time to spare back at the jetty on the east side of the island and so we decided to make the most of the falling tide and visit the tidal Castle Island. The tide wasn’t low enough to get across without getting wet feet initially, but Bob went wading on through boots and all anyway. Others removed their boots and paddled through. I joined the final lot who waited patiently until the tide had dropped enough to allow for a dry crossing.

Little Cumbrae

Building on an already successful year, Alan’s annual trip for 2016 saw us all travelling to the Isles of Scilly. We were so lucky with the weather that week and managed to achieve near enough everything we wanted to. Lighthouses were visited, island high points were bagged and on one particular day I ended up staying in the small tender with another of the ladies on the trip as the side of the main boat was so high I knew I would struggle to get back into it from the tender. The skipper said that Gladys and I could stay in the tender and be dragged along until we reached an island where he could get the main boat in to pick us up. It was such a fun ride along. There was minor panic (probably more major panic in the main boat though) when a wave caught the boat and sent Gladys falling backwards into the middle of the tender. She was absolutely fine and we had a good laugh about it.

On board our little chariot in the Isles of Scilly

2017 didn’t start so well with an awful bout of morning sickness, but by April I was ready to head out on a Douglas-organised trip and this time to Lady Isle. It was so good to be out in the real fresh air again and going to a lighthouse that was so unique too. We were accompanied on the boat by the skipper’s lively spaniel who wasted no time in jumping into the tender for a big old run around on Horse Island, which the group visited after Lady Isle. It was a really enjoyable day and the time spent on Lady Isle itself was really pleasant.

On Lady Isle with its very distinctive lighthouse

Then came the big bagging year: 2018. For three years between 2014 and 2017 we’d been to the Outer Hebrides, shipping in grandparents for childcare duties once the kids had come along. The big aim was always to get out to the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands, but we’d just never had good enough sea conditions to be able to do it. Then 2018 came around and our first two bagging days offered calm seas, calm enough to allow us to reach both of these places, the Flannans on the Monday and Monachs on the Tuesday. Those were both such special trips and to have waited for so long to get there made me appreciate them all the more. I was also delighted to land at Haskeir after the Monachs which allowed me to see the little light there too.

The two lighthouses on Shillay, one of the Monach Islands

Later that year Mervyn planned a trip to Barra with a number of boat trips organised including one to Berneray, home to Barra Head lighthouse. That was a superb day and not only for the lighthouse. Some of the highlights of trips I have been on have actually been on islands with no lighthouse in sight. On this particular trip one such moment was on a beach on Pabbay where I walked along the beach and at one point spent about 10 minutes watching a ball of foam spinning around in one of the little streams leading down the sea.

The beautiful beach on Pabbay

During these few years there were many other lighthouse adventures with Bob, and then with our son, and from 2017 our daughter too – all of which have been included in posts on this site. I am delighted to report that the kids are well and truly into this lighthouse bagging malarkey, and can even be encouraged to do a small hill here and there if there is the promise of Smarties at the top. The little one even demands to be let into every lighthouse we see. She will go far, that one!

I am super grateful to all of those who organised the trips mentioned here as well as the other adventures not included in this write-up. I am also hugely thankful to the baggers who really supported my book and bought their own copies – to Douglas who suggested the inclusion of the listing on haroldstreet.org.uk and then to Alex and Rob who supported the case for it to be added to the site which usually only features hill lists and walking routes. Charlie and Mervyn were among the handful of people I knew at the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in September 2019, and the Relative Hills Society were keen to feature my book in their regular newsletter as a members’ publication.

I have a lot to thank so many of the baggers for. Although my interests didn’t start out being the same as theirs (and they really are “collectors of all things” as a skipper once described it) they welcomed me, helped me and – probably because they love a good list anyway – embraced the opportunity to visit lighthouses too, even enjoying bagging the flat-pack types more than most other lighthouse enthusiasts I know. I have a real fondness for them and what they do. They are amazing to watch when you’re out and about with them, they just seem to keep going and going. They will be out on a boat doing island after island and it gets to the afternoon lull period at 2.30/3pm and they are still going and you know it’s because it is what they love to do, and for some it is even more than that – it is what they live to do. 🙂

Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: an introduction to the islands

In this third part of my series of posts about my lighthouse journey I will be covering the period from mid-2012 to mid-2014 when I began to visit places I never imagined I would get to.

When I first planned this Reflections series, I’d not considered this rather important couple of years as separate from the years that followed, but it very much is. As a result, this will now become a five-part series.

Holy Isle Outer, or Pillar Rock, lighthouse on the small island of Holy Isle just off Arran

As mentioned at the end of my previous post, I returned from my lighthouse tour with no plans for future lighthouse visits. That changed completely with the introduction of Bob. Many of my longer-term followers, friends and family will know the story of how we met, but for those who don’t, the best way to catch up on that is by reading this post. It’s quite an interesting one to read back for myself. It reminds me that 9 years ago I was filled with excitement and enthusiasm for visiting these places; the kind of feelings you get when you have discovered a new pastime that you enjoy so much. That’s not to say, of course, that I no longer have the same feelings, but it was a more innocent, carefree enjoyment then. I will say more on how that has changed in the final post of this series.

On my first visit to Loch Eriboll lighthouse in 2012

Those two years were a time of massive change – the biggest of my life so far. Within that period I’d gone from living in London and having no plans at all to settle down, to then moving to the north coast of Scotland, getting married and getting pregnant. Looking back now it was a whirlwind and I don’t think I even had time to take it in as it was happening. During the first year I would work full time during the week and spend weekends away visiting amazing places. While Bob was away for over two months for his attempt to climb Everest from March to May 2013, I filled my spare time with wedding planning and packing ready for my move. Once I’d moved it was only two months until we were married and then another couple of months before I fell pregnant. Life then was very much ‘don’t think, just do’ and I enjoyed the ride as all of these life-changing events were taking place.

The lighthouse on the stunning tidal island of Davaar

There were two very important changes that happened during this time in relation to my appreciation of lighthouses. Firstly, lighthouses on islands suddenly went from being in the ‘not likely to ever reach’ domain to ‘I could actually go there’. I’d recognised the need for more time and money being required for visiting islands, both of which were not something I had been able to afford previously, hence my focus on the mainland with the original tour. However, when you have a successful first date on Arran, as described in the post linked to above, you know islands are likely to become a more regular occurrence.

Lundy North lighthouse, one of three on the idyllic Lundy Island

Secondly, I gained access to a range of new resources that gave me a much clearer picture of where lighthouses were. It was from looking at mapping software that I became aware of many more lights that I wasn’t aware of. One of these was Loch Eriboll lighthouse, which I wrote about recently after a revisit. Since discovering this one I’ve grown more and more fond of these very modern structures. A short time after visiting the first at Loch Eriboll I encountered the second at Hoxa Head in Orkney, which is the same standard flat-pack type tower. Even in those early days I recognised the glorious surroundings you witnessed when visiting these small, and often overlooked, towers as well as the more challenging off piste walking required to reach them. The discovery of these was the start of being propelled onto a new level of fanaticism. It turned out I wasn’t just your average lighthouse bagger (if there is such a thing) who is only interested in a tall tower with a lantern, gallery and coloured bands as a bonus. My lighthouse adventures started to become more about going to new places and not solely about just getting to see the lights.

Sorry about the wonky picture – it was taken from a boat and, I think, adds character. This was my first encounter with both Bell Rock lighthouse and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos

It was sometime during the second half of 2012 that I came across the book The Relative Hills of Britain by Alan Dawson. Bob’s well-thumbed copy had set up home in his car’s passenger side pocket so it was only natural that I would take a closer look at some point. I was fascinated by it as only a list person could be. It featured, among other chapters, maps of the U.K. split into sections followed by a listing of all hills with a prominence of at least 150 metres within that section. I knew my lighthouse list at that time was not comprehensive and I longed for a lighthouse equivalent list of Alan Dawson’s hill listing. Bob, the bright spark, suggested I should do it myself and this was the first ever mention of the idea behind my book The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. Rather optimistically Bob’s suggestion was to get it published in my maiden name before we got married. That turned out to be an unrealistic timescale as it rather quickly became apparent that there would be more to it than just scouring maps and making a list. Key to the development of a list was having a definition and it took me quite some time to finalise that, based on what I already knew of the lighthouses I’d visited and those I had yet to see. It turned out I needed a few more years’ bagging experience before I felt able to establish a definition I was happy with.

Europa Point lighthouse in Gibraltar

In the meantime there were plenty of trips to be had. While I was still in London many long weekends were spent away in such places as Cornwall, Gibraltar (for the romantics among you who don’t know this bit, here’s the post from that trip), Orkney, South Wales, Davaar and the Mull of Kintyre, North Wales, the Isle of May and Bell Rock lighthouse. After moving north there were further destinations across the country including Pentland Skerries, Northern Ireland (another link for those romantically-inclined) and Colonsay. There are so many memories packed into those sentences and looking back now it feels like it all happened a long time ago. I very quickly went from doing a lot of my adventures alone to sharing the experience with someone else and along with that came more challenging walks to lighthouses, more access issues, and more pushing the boundaries in order to reach a goal. I suppose to summarise the change that occurred in my outlook during that period was the development of the bagging mentality – and it turned out I was going to need that very thing in the coming years.

My first Northern Irish light, Donaghadee

Up until this point any boat trips to islands or offshore lights were undertaken using scheduled ferries or on routine tourist boat trips – but boy, was that about to change… 🙂

The grand finale in South Wales

Yesterday’s post was all about the excitement of visiting Flatholm last Sunday morning. This post is a continuation of the day, and the conclusion of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) AGM weekend.

Leaving Cardiff Barrage behind we had a few hours to spare before we needed to be at Nash Point, so we thought Porthcawl would be a suitable place for lunch and a visit to the lighthouse on the end of the breakwater. We’d been warned that there was an Elvis convention in Porthcawl that weekend, but we had no problems getting around and sadly didn’t see any Elvis impersonators during our time there.

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Porthcawl lighthouse

Porthcawl lighthouse, like so many others, has taken a fair old battering in its time. The reason I mention this specifically for this lighthouse is that almost all of the pictures you see online of Porthcawl lighthouse have a big wave smashing against the breakwater. There are just some lighthouses that become well-known for being wave-washed. I suppose it’s harder to get pictures of Skerryvore, Bishop Rock or any of the other rock lighthouses in a storm!

The lighthouse is in a poor state, considering it is still operational. One of the glass pains in the lantern is half gone – probably due to those big waves – and local “artists” have been carving their artwork (well, their names mostly) into the black section towards the bottom. It has also, rather oddly, had white instructions telling people to take their rubbish home with them painted onto this lower black section. I suppose it makes the message noticeable if nothing else. It is a shame as it has a lot of history, including only being converted to electricity in 1997.

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Nash Point lighthouse

Our final lighthouse visit of the weekend was Nash Point. I have a rather amusing picture of myself at Nash Point from a previous visit when the lighthouse was closed and I am looking sad next to the ‘lighthouse closed’ sign. This time we knew we’d definitely be getting in though as tours had been organised for us as members of the ALK. Half of our group were a bit rebellious and went off ahead while a few of us waited for the tour to start, and I’m glad I did. We started at a map showing the local area and our tour guide, whose name I failed to catch, explained the hazards of the sand bar to the west of Nash Point. As we arrived the tide was dropping so we were able to see the sandbar clearly. He also explained how the shifting sands in the area from north to south meant that over time the warning effect of the two lighthouses as range lights (including the tower now without its lantern a short distance away) was no longer working. With the lights in line it was no longer giving the necessary warning in the right place, hence why the second light was discontinued.

We left the ground floor and started to make our way up the tower. We stopped at each level including the wedding room and overflow wedding room! The most fascinating room on our way up, though, was the room that now houses the old optic. It was great to see the inside of the optic without having to peer through it. There were three bulbs inside, including the back-up light and a smaller bulb used in the event of power failure so the light then required less electricity. One member of our party had actually been in the lighthouse when they had moved the optic down from the lantern. She said it was amazing to watch.

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The light inside Nash Point

Literally the high point was inside the lantern, although it was definitely less inspiring than that of Flatholm as obviously the optic had been removed. In its place was an octagonal mechanism with rectangular optic-esque panels on six of the eight sides, as well as an emergency light on top. The views out of the windows were great and on a clear day, or that morning, you could see quite clearly across to Somerset and North Devon, including Foreland Point lighthouse.

We were left in the lamp room to make our way down in our own time. Once we got back to the bottom we met up with our tour guide again who offered us an opportunity to go inside the old foghorn station. By this point our party had dwindled to just three. As the tour guide said, since the foghorn was taken out of service very few people go into the station and, as a result, it is not as well-maintained as the lighthouse. The equipment is very much still there though, aside from a few very minor items that actually play a major role – the foghorn cannot function without them. The removal of them was all part of the closure of the station.

The need to get to Scotland that night had obviously not been at the forefront of our minds as we were among the last to leave Nash Point. But leave we did, eventually, and what a weekend it had been! I met so many people who share my interest in lighthouses – most people think it is odd, although friends and family definitely notice them a lot more now than they used to. But to spend time with people who have the same level of appreciation was wonderful. Of course, I will be attending again in the future, mostly because I am now part of their events team, but also because it makes for a thoroughly good weekend. Chatting away to someone about lighthouses without them only half-listening or looking at you a bit strangely is brilliant. And if you have any interest at all in lighthouses, beacons, lights on sticks, flat pack lighthouses, etc. then you should absolutely join the ALK. You will not regret it! 🙂

Top speed to Flatholm!

Not wanting to spend the final day of our Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) AGM weekend relaxing or preparing for a long drive back to Scotland, we threw ourselves head first into more lighthouse bagging last Sunday. The weekend had already been a success (see my previous posts for more details of that), but the highlight – perhaps nestled happily alongside Caldey Island in first place – was going to be a trip to Flatholm. The trip had been organised by the ALK and a lot of hard work had gone into planning it.

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The light on Cardiff Bay Barrage

We were to head out on Bay Island Voyages RIBs from Cardiff Bay Barrage. We arrived in plenty of time, which meant we were able to watch the barrage in action. The barrage was opened in 1999 and was developed as a measure to deal with the extreme tidal range. It’s been fantastic for the area. For me though, it was the green structure on the end of the pier to the north of the entrance to the barrage that grabbed my attention. There appears to be very little information available about it. It obviously pales in comparison with the lighthouse we were about to see, but I’m glad we spotted it and took a closer look after we returned to the barrage that day.

Anyway, back to Flatholm. Once we had all settled onto the boats we were off. Although I say that, it was actually a fairly slow process getting out of the bay with having to go through the barrage, but it was significantly quicker than it would have been if the barrage wasn’t there and we needed to wait for tides to change! Once we were out the other side though our skipper wasted no time in getting us over to the island.

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Flatholm lighthouse – and an old gun

Fortunately we were the first boatload to arrive so we were sent on our way to the lighthouse with our guide, Peter – the key holder! We immediately headed inside and had a wander about the old bedrooms and the battery room. Obviously having not been used for many years, since the lighthouse was automated in 1988, it has a disheveled look about it. Peter then led the way up the tower with us in tow. The lamp room is stunning, as they always are when fitted with a “proper” lens. What was equally stunning though were the views from the tower – particularly the landscape of the island. Aside from having a very beautiful lighthouse, Flatholm is filled with remnants and relics of times gone by. From the sea there looks to be very little there, but it hides a great deal. There is far too much history to cover here, more details can be found on the Cardiff Harbour Authority website. I found the old gun batteries, in particular, fascinating and the old guns can still be found laying about on the island.

After leaving the lighthouse (and bagging the island high point), we paid a short visit to the old foghorn building. We weren’t able to get inside as the roof on the main building is unsafe, but we were informed that there were plans to replace the roof and allow access in future. In fact, just yesterday it was announced that funding has been secured that will preserve and improve what’s there (including the foghorn station) while bringing more visitors across the short stretch of water from Cardiff. Great news for Flatholm, although I much prefer a tourist-free island personally!

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The foghorn station on Flatholm

We had hoped to get a bit closer to Monkstone lighthouse on the return journey back to Cardiff, but unfortunately we needed to make sure we were back in time for our barrage slot, so that’ll keep for another time. What will also keep for another time (the next day or so, hopefully) is the rest of our lighthouse bagging antics that day.

It was a great morning on Flatholm. The landscape is very different from Caldey, which is one of things I most enjoy about bagging lighthouses. The variety of places it takes you to, and often in short spaces of time, is wondrous. If you’ve not already taken up the hobby then it comes highly recommended! 🙂

 

Dashing about on calming Caldey

Those who have been following my blog over the last few days will know that we spent the weekend in South Wales at the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) AGM in Cardiff. During the planning for the weekend I was aware that Saturday morning was free and, feeling ambitious, I proposed heading over to Caldey Island for the morning, and Bob agreed – not entirely knowing at the time just how long it takes to get from Cardiff to the boat at Tenby. I looked at the timings and then considered them again numerous times. Would we really have enough time?! The difficulty was that it didn’t seem possible to find out what time the first boat left Tenby in advance. A couple of days before I called the number I found online and the recorded message said that the boats would run from 10am. We would be fine, I thought.

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Saundersfoot lighthouse

We got up super early on Saturday morning to allow plenty of time to get across to Tenby. Our journey was going well so we stopped off in Saundersfoot briefly to visit the lighthouse on the end of the pier. It’s not the most inspiring, and I actually preferred the “pretend” lighthouse inside the harbour, but we’ve been there now and you never really know what to expect until you’ve been there.

Arriving in Tenby there appeared to be little in the way of activity. It was then that we were informed that the boat wouldn’t be leaving until 10.30am (I probably could have found that out if I’d phoned the number again that morning), eating even further into the precious time we had to bag the lighthouse (and the island high point for Bob).

However, the coastline at Tenby is actually quite interesting to wander around, with the tidal St Catherine’s island just off of the beach, the old Tenby Castle and the very modern Lifeboat Station. While we waited for the boat a couple of ladies waiting behind us informed us that the boats had been cancelled the day before and it became very clear as time went by that a number of people must have been waiting to get over to the island, as they just kept on coming!

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The old Priory on Caldey Island

We were the first passengers on the boat and it was a very pleasant ride across to the island. The sun and blue skies were out in preparation for some wonderful picture opportunities. Once we were on the island we hurtled off ahead, stopping occasionally to take pictures. The island is stunning, not in the rugged way that most of the islands we visit are (partly because they are in Scotland), but in the same way as the Isles of Scilly (Tresco to be more precise). The island seemed very quiet and peaceful as we walked up the main road that took us to the lighthouse. Aside from a man in a van giving a lady a lift into the village we saw nobody else on the way there. The village is perfectly picturesque with the monastery sitting above it. A little further on there is the old Priory, possibly the most beautiful view on the island (excluding the coastline and the lighthouse, of course). There is a large pond bordered by trees in front of the Priory, and it would be easy to forget at this point that you are in Carmarthen Bay just off of the Bristol Channel. If someone passed you there and greeted you in Italian or Spanish it wouldn’t seem at all odd. There’s something quite Mediterranean about the island.

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Caldey Island lighthouse

Not long after passing the Priory I spotted the top of the lighthouse appearing. As the lamp room came into view the optic sparkled as the sunlight shone through it. It is one of those towers that looks amazing from every angle – or at least it does when the sun is shining! The lighthouse is still in operation, and has been under the control of Trinity House since it was built in 1829. It was rather late to the old electricity game, being the last of Trinity House’s lighthouses to begin using mains electricity when it was converted in 1997. It’s a great tower, made even better by its location. If we hadn’t been so short on time then I would have happily wandered around the area enjoying the isolation and tranquility. But the need to get back to the boat was there in the back of our minds, so Bob ran off to the island high point (contrary to what it reported online, the actual high point is not where the lighthouse is located) while I started the journey back down the road.

Upon returning to the village it seemed like an entirely different place to the one I had passed through only a short time before. Everything was open, people were milling around and it suddenly felt more like the tourist destination that it is during Summer days (excluding Sundays when the boats don’t run). There were too many people about in my opinion (again, I’m used to smaller Scottish islands on my lighthouse bagging trips) and I had a deadline. Arriving back at the pier just as the boat was leaving I waited around in the sunshine and a short time later Bob turned up. We were privileged to have the boat to ourselves on the way back – although there were still plenty of people heading in the other direction.

I am pleased to report that we did indeed make it back in time for the start of the ALK AGM and even managed to fit in a cup of tea and chats with a number of people before the meeting started. We had about 1 hour on the island in total. A very enjoyable day, and Caldey is certainly somewhere I would like to re-visit at some point to explore a bit more. I made it to the lighthouse though and that was the aim this time so all is well 🙂

Back to the Usks and Barry

As covered in my last post, I was at the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) AGM in south Wales this weekend. The AGM is not just a meeting, it is actually a three or four day event with a number of associated lighthouse visits. For us, the event began on Friday with our first stop being East Usk. We’d visited this lighthouse, as well as West Usk, a few years ago. This time would be different though. Not only were we going to visit with a number of other lighthouse baggers, but we were also to be given a tour.

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East Usk lighthouse

Our tour of East Usk began with a presentation by a very knowledgeable man called Jeremy who works/volunteers for the RSPB Newport Wetlands. Jeremy is the kind of person I plan on being when I am older and have more time on my hands – researching topics in great detail. Fortunately his chosen subject recently has been East Usk lighthouse so he was perfectly placed to deliver a presentation to us! His presentation began with the reason the lighthouse had been built, which was the first of many mentions of the huge tidal range along that part of the coastline over the weekend.

The lighthouse was first lit in 1893 following ongoing demand over a number of years to reduce the number of shipwrecks in the area. Interestingly the lighthouse was attended by a local man who would keep an eye on the light and make sure it came on, restarting it when required. Perhaps the most fascinating “factoid”, as Jeremy referred to it, was that the lower section of the lighthouse is now buried so it is actually taller than it looks. The ash from the power station was disposed of in the area, increasing the ground level around the lighthouse. You can see it as you walk through the Wetlands. That’s the sort of information you would be unlikely to know without actually going there. Another rather interesting, and rather amusing (to me anyway) fact was that the area surrounding the Wetlands features the widest variety of pylons in the country, which makes it particularly appealing to pylon baggers – yes, pylon baggers really do exist – we even met one on Saturday! Brilliant!

During Jeremy’s presentation he showed pictures of the lights in the surrounding area, including a small structure in Goldcliff. I had previously heard about it and the name rang a bell, so our priority after finishing at East Usk was to quickly swing by Goldcliff to check it out. We were a little short on time so had to run a bit, but it was easy enough to find by parking up and dashing along a private road. The lighthouse is in a pretty sorry state, but it’s a nice place and (if you have more time than we did) there’s always a cup of tea at the nearby cafe!

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West Usk lighthouse

The reason we were in a hurry was because a visit to West Usk beckoned! We were pleased to learn that this time we would have a much more dignified approach and actually be able to park outside rather than walk across the boggy land to the west to reach it which we did last time (I am reliably informed that the Ramblers have now put a path in across the bog land). West Usk lighthouse is no longer operational and is privately owned and run as a B&B. What can I say about the lighthouse, apart from it is absolutely stunning! From the picturesque views of it as you approach to the fascinating decor inside, it was astounding. I’ve already decided that I absolutely must stay there one day. The bedrooms are beautiful and the work they have done on the lamp room has turned it into the kind of room that you would be happy to spend hour after hour in. Everywhere you look inside and outside there are tiny little touches that make you feel like you are on some sort of adventure while there. All of this topped off with a very friendly and welcoming owner who seemed happy to chat to us all, considering he was hosting a wedding the following day. Just need to book my stay now!

We had been informed by another ALK member that the best place to view Monkstone lighthouse, a few miles off of the south Wales coast, from was Penarth so that was our stop for lunch. We saw Monkstone a few times over the weekend, but never managed to get particularly close to it. We will need to organise a boat to get us out there sometime.

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Barry breakwater lighthouse

Our final lighthouse re-visit of the day was to the light on the end of Barry breakwater. We’d previously seen it from just above the beach, but the ALK had arranged for the gate to the breakwater to be opened for us. It’s a good walk along the breakwater and the lighthouse is much more substantial close up than it looks from the beach. There are old railway sleepers running to the end of the breakwater and we wondered what their purpose had been. Since returning home I found this interesting post with more information on the history of the railway.

So, that was the first day of the ALK AGM weekend. Plenty more still to come though with a couple of very exciting islands – regular readers will know how much I love an island! 🙂

My first ALK event

At the weekend I finally made use of my Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) membership, which I have had for 5 years, and attended their AGM and associated lighthouse visits in South Wales.

Earlier in the year I received an email to say that the ALK required a new team to organise their events and I had expressed an interest in joining the team. After meeting their Secretary/Events Coordinator, I was still keen to be involved so I spoke to their Chair, Neil Hargreaves (a former lighthouse keeper for Trinity House), and Trustee Lin Sunderland, who is also joining the events team and is on the committee for the St Mary’s Lighthouse Group and a volunteer at Spurn lighthouse.

Of course, to organise any events for the ALK I needed to attend at least one of them, and the AGM in Cardiff seemed like the perfect one – particularly as the members would be approving the new events team at the meeting. Going along to the AGM would also mean I’d get to see Ian Duff again (see my earlier post on Skerryvore for more information about Ian), as well as Stephen Pickles from Bidston lighthouse who I’d met a few years ago on our visit there. Prior to the event I had also been in contact with another ALK Trustee, John Best, who shares my enjoyment of lighthouses of all shapes and sizes (including the Northern Lighthouse Board’s “flat-pack/IKEA” type). John has been a massive help recently in my attempt to pull together some form of a list of lighthouses. So the AGM would also be an opportunity to meet him.

So Bob and I went along and were immediately welcomed by the record number of ALK members attending the AGM. I shall prepare separate posts about our lighthouse visits over the weekend, which included East and West Usk, Caldey Island, Flatholm and Nash Point. We met a number of them during the day on Friday and had some good first in-person chats with Lin, John and Neil.

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The particularly impressive ramparts at St Donat’s Castle

On the Saturday afternoon we arrived at the amazing AGM venue, Atlantic College at St Donat’s Castle. It really is a hidden gem with some incredible buildings and a fantastic little beach and slipway where the early lifeboats/RIBs used to be launched. The room we had dinner in reminded me of a smaller-scale version of the hall in Harry Potter, and I don’t even know where to begin with describing the toilets…

The AGM went well and the new events team proposal was approved, so I am now officially involved with the ALK. As well as Lin, I also met Laura who is the third member of the team and has embarked on her own lighthouse tour this year. She had come across this blog while preparing for her tour, and it was nice to hear that it was useful to her. The three of us had some good laughs over the weekend, so I am sure we will get on well as a team. The AGM was concluded with a fascinating presentation on foghorns delivered by a lady who is doing a PhD on the human aspects of the topic!

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The view from the slipway at Atlantic College, St Donat’s Castle, where the first RIBs were launched

As well as meeting Neil Hargreaves, I was also privileged to meet another former keeper, Gerry Douglas-Sherwood. Gerry was one of the three founding members of the ALK alongside Neil and the recently departed Graham Fearn. Gerry served at the Needles lighthouse and wrote the first issues of the ALK journal, Lamp, on a typewriter during his time in the lighthouse. Getting a chance to speak with both Gerry and Neil, as well as Ian again, was a real honour for me. To date I have found no other profession that people are more proud of than lighthouse keeping. It is incredibly refreshing in a time when work is so frequently seen as a chore. The former keepers also seem very grateful to the rest of the ALK membership for their appreciation of the structures they lived and worked in. They all seem so modest and humble. Such a wonderful experience to speak to them.

Among the others I met at the AGM and dinner were Chris Nicholson whose book Rock Lighthouse of Britain was one of my first ever books on the topic. Also, Roy Thompson who appears to know boatmen all over the country and will, I’m sure, be a huge help in putting us in touch with the right people. There were a number of very well-connected people there who were happy to help anyone looking to visit a particular lighthouse. There were also a number of people wishing me “good luck” with taking on the events! I’m not sure if I should be scared by this or not. I guess only time will tell!

While this hasn’t been my standard sort of blog post, I felt it was important to share and to give some more details on the ALK. As stated on their website:

“The Association of Lighthouse Keepers provides a forum for everyone interested
in lighthouses, lightships and aids to navigation. We have a number of serving and former keepers amongst our members, although being a lighthouse keeper is not a requirement for joining the Association.

Membership is open to everyone!”

There may be some regular visitors to my blog who aren’t aware of the ALK, but if you are interested in lighthouses anywhere in the world (they have members from a number of countries) then do check our their website. Annual membership is only £18 per year, £24 for joint membership or £35 for family membership. I would highly recommend it already and I’ve only just become an active member. Why I left it so long, I don’t know!

More to follow soon on the lighthouses we visited over the weekend 🙂

Returning to Amlwch

Following on from our Bardsey trip, I had just one lighthouse left in North Wales left to bag. While there last week it seemed like the perfect opportunity to resolve this.

I had visited Amlwch on my original lighthouse tour back in 2012, but had failed to spot the lighthouse while there. I also recall from my first visit discovering how Amlwch is pronounced. I had called ahead to the campsite I was planning on stopping at that night. The lady asked what time I would be arriving and I said that I wasn’t sure. When she asked where I was coming from I decided the safest option was to spell out the place name rather than attempt to pronounce it (surely incorrectly). She then informed me it was pronounced “Am-look”, which makes sense when you realise that “w” tends to sound like “u” in Welsh pronunciation. Handy to know!

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The view of the lighthouse building from the inner harbour

Anyway, having done some more research since my first visit I had discovered that the reason I’d probably not seen the lighthouse was because from a couple of angles it doesn’t have a very “lighthouse look” about it, just a square building at the end of one of the piers.

Equipped with this additional knowledge we decided to spend a day on Anglesey. Of course a trip to Anglesey would not be complete without a visit to South Stack. We’ve been a few times now, but my parents hadn’t and it was a chance for my dad and our son to get inside and climb to the top. I’ve covered South Stack in previous posts (first visit in 2012, later visit in 2012 and 2015). so won’t go into detail again here.

Finding the lighthouse in Amlwch was straightforward in the end. It sits happily at the end of a very accessible pier. The tower was constructed in 1853 with the lantern added later. This tower is believed to have replaced one dating back to 1817.

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Amlwch lighthouse from the end of the pier

Amlwch was a busy harbour back in the day with large amounts of copper being exported from the nearby mines. Local “hobblers” (retired seafarers) were charged with looking out from the watchtower and towing in any ships coming into the harbour.  So there was an obvious need for an aid to navigation in Amlwch.

The lighthouse tower is now home to GeoMôn, a museum centred on the geological history of the area. Amlwch might not be the most exciting of places to visit, but it was good to finally see the lighthouse.

We also made the most of our visit to the area by stopping off to walk around the old copper mine. It’s a very impressive place and, although man-made, makes for some wonderful pictures. I certainly can’t complain too much about anything man-made. I couldn’t get away with having such an appreciation of lighthouses if I did! 🙂

When in Wales… head to Bardsey!

There aren’t too many Welsh islands with lighthouses left for us to visit. One of those that we’d never been in the right area for previously was Bardsey Island. We had booked a holiday in north Wales and we saw the opportunity to finally attempt to make it there.

A number of weeks ago I contacted Colin who operates the boat to Bardsey and enquired about booking. He was very quick to respond and seemed to understand that if we weren’t able to get out there on our first full day in Wales that we would like to attempt the following day and so on until we had got there. Colin’s boat departs from the end of the Llyn peninsula, which isn’t really an area you’d find yourself passing through!

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Colin’s boat preparing to be pulled up the slipway

Colin said we were to call the evening before to check if the boat would be going so we called on the Friday evening a couple of weeks ago and, thanks to the amazing weather we have been having, conditions were 100% in our favour for the Saturday. We arrived in plenty of time and took the wander down to the small harbour. The harbour is very picturesque and after enjoying the views for a while we saw Colin’s yellow boat heading in. He has a great little set-up in place for pulling the boat onto a trailer and then dragging the trailer up the short slipway before passengers embark up a ladder onto the back of the boat. So we hopped on and then Colin reversed us back into the sea and off we went.

It was a fairly short crossing over to Bardsey. It’s a really interesting looking island from the sea, with the lighthouse sitting on the flat southern end of the island and the hill rising up from steep cliffs on the north east. The harbour was between the two so we could see exactly where we needed to go. Our son, who joined us on the trip along with my dad, decided we should head to the lighthouse first, so we followed the coast around to the distinctive red and white striped square building. On the way we were serenaded by the local seals who were in full voice!

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Bardsey lighthouse

There looks to be some work currently going on at the lighthouse, in particular on the chimneys on the buildings within the compound. We sat and had lunch overlooking the lighthouse. My husband often says, in his own sceptical little way, that every lighthouse seems to be able to claim to be the “first” something or other. Bardsey lighthouse holds the accolade of being the tallest square tower in the UK! It stands at 30 metres and was built in 1821. In 2014 the rotating optic inside the lamp room was replaced with an LED light as part of Trinity House’s efforts to move away from “continuous running diesel stations”. This effort has now also been adopted by the Northern Lighthouse Board with lighthouses across Scotland slowly switching over to the more modern technology. I find it a little sad, particularly as the science behind the rotating optic was so advanced in its day and, for me, is a large part of the make-up of a lighthouse. However, it’s always onwards and upwards in the technology stakes. When the optic was replaced, the LED installed also saw a change from white light to red.

There is some really interesting information on the Bardsey.org website about the history of the lighthouse. A couple of points of particular note were that the lighthouse keepers were initially restricted from leaving the lighthouse buildings in the early years. Over time though they would gradually become part of the island community. Also, the island is renowned for its bird populations and before the optic was removed from the lighthouse a number of incidents were reported of birds being attracted to the light and colliding with the building. This has since been resolved, initially by an area near the lighthouse being floodlit to attract the birds there instead, and then with the red LED installed. Thirdly, the lighthouse supply boat was lost on its way across the Bardsey Sound in November 1822.  Finally, the website has also informed me that one of Colin’s roles is maintenance of the lighthouse – if I’d known at the time…

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The view to the south from part way up the island’s highest point

After we left the lighthouse our next priority was getting to the island high point. To get there we wandered through the village, but didn’t spend a great deal of time exploring it. The route up to the high point was easy going and the views as we got higher and higher opened up and, by the time we reached the top, we had 360 degrees of beauty. Among the views, just before reaching the top, were of the lighthouse and we spotted a beautiful-looking beach to the west of the island as it narrowed on the way to the lighthouse. Due to the gradient of the land we hadn’t noticed it at all as we had walked past.

We followed a different route back down to the village, coming out at the little building full of locally-produced items and some very welcome refreshments with an honesty box. We sat and enjoyed our drinks in the company of a couple of dogs and a few friendly goats before heading back to the harbour.

What a wonderful island Bardsey is. You get a real sense of community while there and even on the boat crossing. We were the only people on the boat who didn’t speak Welsh, but everyone was very friendly and Colin was a big help in advance of the day and on the day itself. A lovely day out 🙂

Welsh offshore rock lights

Last weekend we spent a day in South West Wales in the hope of bagging two very exciting lighthouses! A good friend of ours, Adrian, had organised a boat trip with Venture Jet out from St David’s and the forecast for the weekend was looking good. So, being the committed lighthouse-baggers that we are, we made the day-long trip each way from home to South Wales.

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Smalls lighthouse and me – on the same piece of rock!

Due to the tide at the time, our first destination was to be a stunning piece of architecture that sits around 21 miles west of St David’s, Smalls lighthouse. On the journey out, the captain informed us that it may not be possible to land on the rock, so I wasn’t getting my hopes up. We were encouraged to sit on the tubes at each side of the boat and hold onto two handles (basically, clinging on for dear life!), which proved to make for a pretty bumpy ride. Very sensibly, everyone gradually realised that sitting in the centre of the boat was a much more pleasant experience.

As you would expect, we spotted the lighthouse from some way off and as we approached it was looking like a landing on the rock would be possible. In fact, it turned out to be a particularly dignified landing, just hopping off of the front of the boat onto some steps. The trouble came at the top where we encountered a wide area of flat rock covered in particularly slippery seal poo! Obviously that couldn’t dampen our spirits though for having got so close to such a majestic structure.

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The remains of two of the oak struts from the previous lighthouse at Smalls

The rock, in fact, turned out to be even more interesting as we discovered the remains of the bases on numerous oak struts, hidden within the rock. Having not done my research prior to our visit, I was informed while we were there by someone a little more forward thinking than me, that the tower that currently sits on the rock is actually the second lighthouse to have appeared on the rock. The previous being a timber lamp room and keeper’s house perched on top of these struts as well as some cast iron legs. This lighthouse was built in 1776, but didn’t last long until vital repairs were needed following storm damage. Between January and September 1778 the light was not in operation. After repairs had been made, it then guided mariners for over 80 years until it was replaced by the existing tower in 1861. There is more information about, and drawings of, the old lighthouse on the Trinity House blog and another blog from Heritage of Wales features a diagram showing the positions of all the old struts as well as an artist’s replica of the old lighthouse.

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The door to the lighthouse with some damage below

The old lighthouse was the setting for the story of the two lighthouse keepers, one of whom died during their stay on the rock and the other, in the process of trying to deal with his colleague’s passing, was driven mad. It is said that this incident, which is believed to have occurred around 1800, was the reason behind the introduction of the rule that three keepers had always to be present at any one time.

Now, to the existing tower – and what a tower it is – all 141ft of it! It was originally based on the design of Eddystone lighthouse and originally featured red and white stripes, which were sandblasted off in 1997. It is still possible to climb up to the the lighthouse door, which Bob did and tried knocking, but apparently no one was in! I think we were all in awe at how such a building was constructed on such a challenging piece of rock.

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One of the old storage rooms built into the rock at Smalls

The rock hid a number of other surprises too, like some old store rooms, which had been cut into the rock. I have also seen a picture that shows a separate building that was once located on the flat section of rock, which is no longer there. In short, the place is fascinating and I was pleased that all of the hill- and island-baggers that were on the trip seemed to enjoy the visit too.

Saying farewell to Smalls, we headed back towards the mainland. You may think that seeing Smalls was enough excitement for one day, but no, there was more! With the tide now at prime position, the landing on South Bishop was just as dignified as it had been on Smalls. We were greeted with a considerable number of steps, impressively crafted from the rock and pretty much all still in good working condition. The steps were worth the climb though when we reached the lighthouse at the top.

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South Bishop lighthouse

The lighthouse looks impressive from every possible angle from the sea and when on land has a fairly large compound. The lighthouse was first lit in 1839 and, in 1971 a helipad was constructed to allow easier access. However, the helipad was prone to flooding in bad weather and high tides. Both the old helipad and the newer one can still be seen on the island. Bob went off to explore the area surrounding the old helipad and happened upon a piece of concrete with a name engraved into it, ‘Cyril M’, followed by what looks like a date ’24 10′ and then an indecipherable year. Intriguing! (Update: I have since been reliably informed that this would have been engraved by Cyril Matthews, a Trinity House carpenter based out of Swansea). It was a great place to explore and I could have happily spent all day there (particularly as the sun came out for us).

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South Bishop lighthouse from the old, damaged helipad

On the way back to St David’s, our guides took us to see a small rock island called Daufraich, through which the tide bubbled up to the surface. He said he would quite like to dive there one day, but has concerns about being drowned by an influx of disturbed seals! We were also taken around the south end of Ramsey Island where there are cliffs up to 100 metres high. We also went through a sea cave where seals were chilling out before arriving back at St David’s.

Overall a fantastic bagging day, both for me with the lighthouses and for Bob who then went on to bag 5 Marilyns! A great day and well worth the journey! 🙂