You wouldn’t think it would be hard to count lighthouses would you?
Now that I am at the planning stage, I have been mapping out the lighthouse stopping points in an attempt to estimate how long I will need to complete my journey. What I hadn’t anticipated is how challenging it is to establish a definitive list of lighthouses to visit.
The first decision I needed to make is how to define ‘cycling around the coast’. I had always planned to set off from Kent at the beginning of May, and then circumnavigate the country clockwise. I want to visit every English and Welsh lighthouse, and so I will need to cross from the west coast, somewhere north of Carlisle, to the east coast, as close as possible to Berwick Upon Tweed. The Scottish lights will require a separate and longer expedition of their own, because including Scotland adds more than eighty lighthouses, and at least an extra 4,000 miles of coast to cycle.
Friends and family, concerned for my health, have been suggesting all sorts of ways that I could make the venture more manageable:
‘How about just doing Kent and Sussex this year, and then pick it up again next year when you have more time?’ they say, or ‘If you only visited the Trinity House lighthouses, you could be home by the end of the month.’
As anyone who has ever done something out of concern that it might be their last chance to do so will know, it isn’t about how to make it all ‘a bit more manageable’. For me, it’s about completing it while I still can, however long it might take.
Isles of Wight (4); Channel Islands (13); Lundy (3); The Isles of Scilly (4), Other offshore lights (17)
As a coastal cycle challenge, it would be a reasonable assumption that I visit onshore lighthouses only. But surely that depends on how one defines ‘onshore’? What about the Isle of Wight for example? Can I really cycle through Hampshire and pass it by, catching glimpses of at least two if its lights from the mainland, all for the sake of a 45-minute ferry costing £20 return? I know very well how much that would frustrate me, and I know that I couldn’t do it. So the Isle of Wight stays!
And if I include a diversion for The Isle of Wight, then what about the Scilly Isles, and Lundy? Well, they are both further away from the mainland, which might help to excuse them from the trip. Travel to and from the islands is more expensive, and takes a lot longer. Besides, I have previous history with the MS Oldenburg, the passenger ship that services Lundy. Back in 1998, I persuaded sixty-five guests to join me on the Oldenburg, on the last weekend in February, to travel to Lundy for my wedding. We crossed the Bristol Channel in a force nine gale, and at the final count our party had consumed more than a hundred sick bags between them. It was a pretty ugly scene, and several guests actually kissed the ground when they were finally able to disembark. Unsurprisingly, it is still the wedding they remember best, even after seventeen years.
So I have plenty of reason not to include Lundy, or Scilly, and to include them will only add time, complication and expense. Yet Lundy has a place in my heart. I spent my honeymoon in The Old Lighthouse for goodness sake! I’ve collected nearly every postage stamp that the island has ever issued. And as recently as 2010 the dried flower displays that we brought with us to adorn the church were still decorating the windowsills. So Lundy and its three lighthouses remain.
And the Scillies? Well the answer has to be the same. From family holidays, I know that from the campsite on Bryher, three lights complete the horizon on clear nights. I’ve always wanted to get up close to Bishop Rock, and if it means that I have to include the Scilly Isles in my expedition to do so then that is just fine by me.
That leaves The Channel Islands. Sure, I could leave them out without the trip appearing to be compromised. It would knock off several days of travel, and save a good deal of money at the same time. But it would leave me feeling uneasy, because the Channel Islands really deliver to lighthouse enthusiasts. Jersey has seven, and Guernsey three. In fact if you include harbour lights, then the Channel Islands boast thirteen lighthouses altogether, or roughly six per cent of my total haul, and this is just too much of a temptation for a lighthouse fanatic like me! So as with the other islands, The Channel Islands remain.
The Rocks (8)
Since I have failed to reduce my tally by so much as a single island light, surely I can save a bit of time and effort by missing out on the rock lighthouses? In terms of practicality, the answer would and should be yes. After all, bikes and water don’t mix, and pausing my cycle adventure to venture to a series of rocks sounds like insanity.
However, the fact is that our best known and most iconic lighthouses are offshore, protecting shipping from rocky outcrops. Their names suggest strength and solidity, like Bishop Rock, Wolf Rock and Longships. And how could I possibly claim to have completed any meaningful tour of British lighthouses, without having reached Eddystone? I have no idea how I will achieve it, but the rock lighthouses remain firmly on the list.
Disused and Forgotten
It would be straightforward to distinguish between working lighthouses and those that have been closed, replaced or made redundant. I could make a strong case for visiting only lighthouses that continue to show a light.
Yet as simple as it would be to argue, it holds no appeal for me. One of my aims is to find out what has changed to make certain lights redundant, when they were once considered essential to maritime safety? I will only be able to answer that by visiting the disused, redundant lighthouses and find out their story.
Besides, if I turn down the disused and redundant lights, then I will fail to visit some of the most interesting, remote and spectacular lighthouses around our coast, such as:
South Foreland, the first lighthouse many visitors to the UK see, perched precariously on the top of the white cliffs above Dover.
Belle Tout, the former lighthouse near Beachy Head, that received much news coverage when its owners undertook to move it back from the eroding coastline.
Whitford Point, the haunting and rusting iron shell of a light on The Gower, in South Wales.
Once again, my attempt to make the list of lights to visit more manageable has failed. The redundant and disused lighthouses are saved, and I will attempt to visit them all.
Port, Harbour and Pier Lights (69)
Now I have nothing against harbour lights, but they do present a real problem for me. I guess I have just never got that excited by them, and in my mind I have never really considered them to be ‘proper’ lighthouses. In many cases, they are simply beacons on turrets that bear little resemblance to my childhood view of what a lighthouse should look like. Take Whitby’s harbour extension, for example. A pair of wooden shelters, one red and the other green, raised up on platforms by wooden pyramidal supports.
The mistake I have made, though, is to assume that all harbour lights are so. In fact, the majority of harbour lights are solid, conventionally built lighthouses in their own right. Take Roker Pier Lighthouse at Sunderland Harbour, for example. Its classical design is every bit as elegant as Smeaton’s Eddystone light, now on Plymouth Hoe.
My challenge is starting to seem like the person who knows he needs to de-clutter, yet who is unable to part with a single possession. It is clear that I will need to include the harbour lights after all.
So what does that leave? Well I am indebted to Derrick Jackson, author of Lighthouses of England & Wales, published in 1975. Also to Tony Denton and Nicholas Leach, who wrote a single complete guide to Lighthouses of England and Wales, as well as a series of regional guidebooks.
Comparing these two seminal works, I reckon that I have 202 lighthouses to visit. Just to add one more element of complication, it’s worth pointing out that this refers to 202 lighthouse locations, rather than individual lighthouses. Dungeness, for example, counts as one lighthouse on my list, although there are two lighthouses there (one working and one disused) as well as the base of the earlier 1792 light, now a private home.
I am sure that lighthouse fanatics will want to pour over my list and point out the errors, the missing lights and the duplicates. If you are one, then all I ask is that you do so before May 4th!