Finding renewed strength
After travelling back to Exeter the next day, and spending another night at the Harris household, I felt renewed and ready to give the expedition another go. Typically, Penny had washed all my clothes while I’d been in Bournemouth, so I wouldn’t need to look for a launderette for almost a week.
The first twelve miles out of Exeter followed the Exe Estuary Trail, alongside the River Exe, and were the most beautiful of my journey so far. I felt ashamed at my inability to identify any of the birdlife I encountered, but these tranquil off-road lanes and tracks made the two day-long coach journeys of the previous days seem a distant memory.
I was a bit early for a pint, or lunch, at the Turf Hotel, a glorious pub on the Exe at Starcross that’s only really accessible by ferry, bike or on foot. As a family we have holidayed in South Devon many times, and the bike trip to The Turf for lunch has always been a popular option.
Despite being heavily laden, I was averaging more than fifteen miles an hour for the first time since leaving home, and by mid-morning I was on the seafront at Dawlish Warren – or ‘Cornish Sporran’, as my brother Will had called it on a family summer holiday when we were both very young.
On the esplanade at Teignmouth I pulled in at a splendid cafe, the Beachcomber, where a lovely, elderly lady offered to mind the bike while I went in to order some food. I wasn’t convinced that she’d be able to provide the heft required to defend it in case of theft, but I accepted her kind offer nonetheless.
At the far end of the Esplanade, Teignmouth’s lovely little lighthouse is a popular local landmark. As I stopped to take photos I met Brian, a chatty, bearded man in his seventies from Bristol. He told me that he drove down in his camper van every year at this time, always parked next to the lighthouse, and always sat in front of it with his lunch and a book. There was no nicer place on earth, apparently.
The entrance to Teignmouth Harbour has always been treacherous, with a number of dangerous currents, rocks and shifting sands. A small, limestone lighthouse was built in the mid 1840s, lit by three gas burners, and showing a fixed red light, with a range of seven miles, to guide ships into the mouth of the harbour.
The lighthouse has long since been electrified, but still operates to this day. It is currently maintained and operated by Teignmouth’s harbour master, and now shows a fixed red light visible for three miles. It is paired with a second leading light, a few hundred feet behind the lighthouse. But this is much less impressive, comprising a tall pole with a red polycarbonate navigational lamp fixed on the top. When lined up, the two lights provide a safe passage across the sand bars at the mouth of the river Teign.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 23, 2015
As well as the two leading lights, Tony Denton and Nicholas Leach’s excellent guidebook mentions a couple of other lights and beacons that mark the harbour entrance. I couldn’t see a fixed green beacon, up on the headland, as well as a few other fixed lights on poles, but they didn’t really interest me. If I had to count every lamp on a pole as a lighthouse, I’d need to go back to the beginning and start again.
However, I did find the Lucette Beacon, near Marine Parade in Shaldon, on the opposite side of the harbour. It’s not really a lighthouse, I suppose. Just a beacon on top of a white metal column. But it clearly has some age, and I was only too glad to count it, photograph it from several angles, and pose in front of it for a selfie. Beyond Teignmouth, I was in familiar territory. I cycled past the entrance to Babbacombe Model Village, where I have spent many hours over the years searching for superheroes, Daleks and cartoon characters, all hidden in plain sight among the most fantastically realistic recreation of a fictitious British town in miniature. In Torquay, I remembered a one-night stopover on our way to the Scilly Isles, when Emily and I, together with the three children and our Labrador Willow, all crammed into a tiny room in a cheap hotel high up on the hill above the town. We must have been close to Fawlty Towers, because the view looked pretty similar to the one the deaf lady complained to Basil about, while demanding a discount on her room rate. In Paignton, I passed the theatre on the seafront where we had taken the kids to a variety show a decade earlier, having suffered four consecutive days of rain in a leaking family tent. The show promised a ‘sensational summer experience’, which was quite a claim, but the children seemed to enjoy it. Sadly the venue was only half full, and the master of ceremonies had to shout ‘Yes!’ very loudly, and start clapping, to let the audience know when each act had come to an end.
From the harbour at Paignton I took the small ferry across the bay to Brixham, affording me a perfect view of the breakwater lighthouse on arrival. This small, white-painted, cast-iron tower was built in 1916, after the breakwater at Brixham was extended by more than 1,000 feet. It shows an occulting red light, visible for three miles, and is powered by electricity. As at Teignmouth, there are a couple more lights at Brixham, including a fixed green light mounted onto a tripod marking the entrance to the inner harbour.
I was making good progress, feeling fit, and keen to press on. I still reckoned on being able to reach two more lights before dark, and planned to find somewhere to stay in Dartmouth. On the headland beyond Brixham lies Berry Head Nature Reserve, a stunning headland, surrounded by water on three sides. It’s an area of some renown, being a Special Area of Conservation, National Nature Reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest and Scheduled Ancient Monument! It’s home to a substantial colony of guillemots, a Napoleonic fort and, most importantly, a splendid lighthouse.
Berry Head Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1906 under the supervision of Sir Thomas Matthews, then engineer-in-chief of Trinity House. It comprises a small, squat tower, with a range of small buildings behind.
The lighthouse was converted to unwatched acetylene operation in 1921 and was eventually electrified in 1994. The squat tower is just 15 feet tall, and one of the smallest in the British Isles. But at 190 feet above mean high-water level, the headland itself provides all the elevation necessary.
These days it flashes a white light, twice every fifteen seconds, which is visible for nineteen miles.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 23, 2015
My last lighthouse of the day was at Kingswear, a small, pretty village on the bank of the River Dart, directly opposite Dartmouth itself. The eight miles from Berry Head were a bit of a slog, involving several steep hills, as well as narrow lanes where I held up lines of cars for several miles. I hate holding up cars behind me, and I have still not learned the correct etiquette. I try keeping as close to the verge as I can, which often means that I have to swerve into the road periodically to avoid a pothole or drainage cover. I try waving cars past me the moment I see that nothing is coming in the opposite direction. I pull in at entrances to driveways, lanes, tracks and even footpaths. But on this long, narrow and winding road, none of these were possible.
Finally descending into Kingswear I found Beacon Road, running alongside the river, which sounded promising. I could see the lighthouse marked on my map, accessible via a footpath leading down to the shore from this road. But as a result of erosion, a long stretch of the coast path has collapsed, and forbidding signs warned me that both the beach and lighthouse below were inaccessible.
I found an elegant hilltop house, whose garden clearly overlooked the very section of beach I was heading for. An iron side gate was hanging temptingly open, and I thought about sneaking in for a quick photo. I was barely off my bike when a pair of dogs starting barking very angrily, so I made a hasty retreat. Instead, I started along one of the footpaths, but it became unmanageable after just a few yards.
I was just wondering whether the best I could achieve would be a long-lens shot from the bank opposite, beyond Dartmouth, when a group of teenagers asked me what I was doing. When I explained my predicament, they smiled and confessed that they had just been down to the beach themselves. They showed me a path that I would never have found on my own, and within minutes I was on the beach, taking a selfie in front of a very odd little conical-shaped lighthouse.
Although there have been a number of lights at Kingswear, the current light was built as late as 1981 by the Dart Harbour and Navigation Board. It is built from glass-reinforced plastic apparently, although it seemed as sturdy a structure as any stone light I had visited. It has quite a complicated light pattern, showing an isophase white light over the safe channel, visible for eleven miles, as well as a red sector to the left and a green sector to the right through tiny little windows set into the lantern.
It had involved quite a lot of effort to reach such a modest light, but I was proud of my achievement and joined the Lower Ferry crossing over to Dartmouth satisfied with my day’s work. On arrival, Dartmouth was packed and every pub, bed and breakfast and hotel was full. I found sanctuary at the Stoke Lodge Hotel, a few miles out of town, and by seven o’clock I was showered and sitting outside with a pint of Tribute and a food menu considerably beyond my budget and pay grade.
There are times when you’ve just got to do something, and worry about the consequences later. This evening was just such an occasion. Money wasn’t tight yet, but nor was it in plentiful supply. But with few budget items on the menu, I threw caution to the wind. I ordered Crab & Butternut Squash Risotto, followed by Pan Fried Sea Bass Fillet With Crayfish Veloute, washed down with a bottle of house white. I staggered up to bed £60 lighter, but with an enormous grin on my face.