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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 6: Around the Isle of Wight

by | Jun 14, 2022

St Catherines Lighthouse

Several false starts

With Chris’s help the following morning, I devised a perfect route for the day. I would return to Sandown via the coastal route I had taken the day before, then follow another section of the Red Squirrel trail to Newport right in the middle of the island. From there, I would follow a series of minor roads heading due west, through Carisbrooke, Calbourne and Freshwater to reach The Needles viewpoint by lunchtime. If time allowed, I would take a boat trip around The Needles point, and then cycle back along the main southerly coast road to reach St Catherine’s at 4pm, where Chris would then give me a private tour of the lighthouse. I’d then return to Hayes Barton for supper via St Catherine’s Oratory, the original light above St Catherine’s, which dates to 1328.

Very little of the day went according to plan. I decided I could fit in a quick visit to the local launderette, having accumulated five days’ worth of dirty cycling gear, but I hadn’t appreciated how long the wash would take, or how many 20p coins would be required to dry everything. So I was already an hour behind the clock by the time I eventually set off.

That was just the beginning. It started to pour with rain within twenty minutes of leaving, and I realised that I had left all my wet weather gear back at the guest house. So I retraced my steps once more. Setting out for a third time, I was confident in my ability to speed up and get back on track. Like the day before, the Red Squirrel trail was fabulous, this time following the route of a disused railway line. Three miles short of Newport, however, I suffered my first puncture of the expedition, only to discover that my tools, repair kit and inner tubes were all in my bedroom at Hayes Barton. My only option was to push the bike, lifting it up at the back a little to prevent the wheel from buckling. Those three miles took me an hour and a half, and when I found the Wight Mountain cycle shop, I must have looked a sorry sight.

Wight Mountain

Wight Mountain

Every one of the Wight Mountain team was brilliant. I have never really been a cyclist, or felt part of the cycling community, so when I turned up on their doorstep with nothing more serious than a puncture, I felt a bit of an idiot. I needn’t have worried. Naturally I explained that a puncture was something I would have fixed myself routinely. Whether they accepted me as one of their own or not, I never discovered. But they directed me to a decent cafe, and less than an hour later they had replaced the inner tube, serviced the brakes, adjusted my chain and given my bike some oil. They had seen some coverage of my lighthouse adventure in a monthly cycling magazine that had just been published. They declined to charge me anything, and wished me a safe onward journey. Wight Mountain, I salute you!

Setting off again from Newport it was only a mile or two before I realised that I was never going to make it to The Needles and then get back in time for Chris’s tour of St Catherine’s. In fact, even if I turned around straight away, I was probably not going to reach St Catherine’s until after four. It was now past two o’clock, and other than a pannier full of clean kit, I had accomplished very little. So I turned back to Newport and headed south to St Catherine’s, putting in turns of speed whenever I found the energy. As I freewheeled the last half mile down to the lighthouse, I was struck by how quickly the sloping green lowlands give way to crumbling, white rock landslips, and by the commanding views in all directions out into the English Channel.

If Chris was irritated about being kept waiting, he certainly didn’t show it. My private thirty-minute tour became an hour and a half, and it was only a call from his wife Joan, to say that dinner would be served in less than an hour, that brought it to an end.

St Catherine’s Lighthouse

St Catherine’s Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1838 to guide shipping in the Channel as well as vessels approaching the Solent. It is constructed of white stone, in three tiered, octagonal plinths. Originally nearly 130 feet high, the tower was reduced by more than forty feet in 1875 because the light was often shrouded in mist and fog.

When cliff erosion caused the fog signal house, located near the cliff edge, to crack, it was mounted on a lower tower connected to the front of the lighthouse tower. The two towers together are affectionately referred to by local inhabitants as the Cow and the Calf.

It has a range of twenty-five nautical miles and is the third-most powerful of all the lights maintained by Trinity House. The fog signal was discontinued in 1987, and the light itself was automated in 1997. Today, the lighthouse plays an important role as an automatic weather reporting station, as well as a GPS correction beacon.

My cycle back to the guest house involved several steep climbs, and as I reached the front door, dinner was being served. Like the previous evening, I was seated next to a charming retired couple, Roy and Jean. They were Isle of Wight veterans, and had been staying with Chris and Joan for the same week each year for more than a decade. They told me about the places they visited each time they came, and the people they caught up with. This year they almost didn’t come. Jean’s father had died the previous month, and they hadn’t felt that a holiday was appropriate at a time like this. Roy was keen to tell me more about his late father in law:

‘Kind man. Engineer. Good with children. Could work out the tension of a spring, you know!’

However well meant, this touching epitaph left me feeling suddenly overwhelmed with sadness. That the life of such an evidently good man could be summarised in fewer than twenty words, and with four glib, detached phrases, brought a tear to my eye. I wondered what my own epitaph might be?

‘Pleasant chap. Family man. Could identify any lighthouse off the UK coast, you know!’

A little later I fell into bed, tired, and irritated that I’d only managed to ‘bag’ one lighthouse today. I felt lonely for the first time, and questioned what this undertaking, and my life, was all about.

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