Condor ferry to Jersey via Casquets
The Condor ferry to the Channel Islands was late to arrive, and late to depart. The company had recently upgraded its fleet and I learned that the new ferries were suffering regular teething problems. The new fleet had already resulted in the closure of the service from Weymouth because the new, larger ferries are unable to berth there.
The service was expensive enough at £120 for the return crossing, but an additional £15 secured me a seat at the bow, with panoramic views through pillar-less glass windows. It enabled me to get a good long-shot photo of Casquets lighthouse, on a dangerous rocky outcrop called Les Casquets, eight miles north-west of Alderney. I hoped to find a boat trip that might get me closer to Casquets, although I had been warned that this was unlikely and that the ferry would probably be as close as I got.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 13, 2015
Casquets was one of the lighthouses that I pictured whenever I thought about this expedition, because of its three separate towers, as well as the working light’s distinctive narrow red and white painted stripes.
The first lighthouses on Les Casquets comprised three separate stone towers, each displaying a coal fire light, which began operation in October 1724. They were named St Peter, St Thomas and The Dungeon, and their formation was designed to avoid confusion with other French lights close by.
Originally built under license, they reverted to Trinity House ownership in 1785 and were converted first to oil lamps with metal reflectors in 1790, and then to a rotating mechanism in 1818. Various improvements followed throughout the nineteenth century until 1877, when the north-west tower was raised to 75ft and the lights in the other two towers were decommissioned.
The lighthouse was converted to an electric light in 1952, with a range of twenty-four miles. All three of the original towers still stand and are in use. While the north-west tower alone provides a light, the south-west tower is now used as a helipad, and the east tower houses the original foghorn and other equipment.
The lighthouse was automated in 1990.
The St Helier service stops first at St Peter Port, Guernsey’s principal harbour and ferry port. As we entered the harbour I was able to get close up to and photograph the lovely Castle Breakwater Light, a circular tapered granite tower, forty feet tall, its sea-facing side painted white to act as a daymark.
At the end of White Rock Pier on the north side of the entrance to St Peter Port there is a second light, a round cylindrical stone tower with lantern and gallery. The tower itself is built pleasingly into the face of the pier wall. There were other lights around the harbour, but I would be returning to Guernsey properly a couple of days later, so I felt satisfied enough to have ‘bagged’ these two lights ahead of schedule.
The ferry takes another hour on to St Helier, where I was met by Gil Blackwood, an impossibly fit, retired psychiatrist, who had been persuaded by his daughter to partition off a wing of the condo he shares with his wife Christine and offer overnight stays using Airbnb. Although not yet officially open, he had kindly responded to a plea on the Airbnb forum for help and had agreed to put me up. Better still, he is a keen cyclist and also offered to act as my guide around the Jersey coast.
When I think of the word ‘condo’ I picture a modest apartment, perhaps with balcony, in a large sprawling Victorian sea front building. Gil and Christine’s condo was nothing of the sort. Upper King’s Mount is an exclusive part of town, on a steep hill, offering panoramic views across green pasture back to the harbour and sea front. Each room is elegantly proportioned, and the hallway alone was as large as a cricket square, with room for a medium pacer’s run-up as well.
Gil showed me to a suite of rooms for my use, which were utterly splendid. After travelling for most of the day, I would have been happy to sink into a bath and then see out the day on the bench on my balcony with a book. But Gil had other ideas. No sooner had I dropped off my panniers, he appeared at my door in full cycling kit, keen to get cracking.
In a glorious four-hour cycle around the west coast, we covered nearly twenty-five miles, pausing at four lighthouses. Gil’s speed and stamina put me to shame and while he pedalled with ease up every hill, I followed a good half a mile behind, almost invariably on foot.
Our first stop was Noirmont Point, a rocky headland to the east of St Aubin’s Bay. The black and white striped, squat 32ft tower here was originally built between 1810 and 1814 to defend the island from Napoleon. It was not until 1915 that a lantern was fitted to the roof of the tower, which has since been replaced with a polycarbonate lamp on a mast. It has a range of thirteen miles, and is now solar powered. I had read that the brave could clamber over the rocks to reach the tower, but Gil and I were more than happy to look down to it from the relative safety of the cliff above.
A brisk twenty-minute ride from Noirmont Point took us to La Corbière, a reef extending half a mile into the sea close to St Brelade’s Bay on the south-west tip of the island. The lighthouse is built on an outcrop of rocks, connected to the mainland by a causeway that is accessible at low tide. The stunning location makes it one of Jersey’s most famous landmarks, and it has always been high up on my shortlist of ‘must see’ lighthouses.
Gil and I stopped to take in the dramatic view, and I photographed the lighthouse from every conceivable angle. The tide was in, and the causeway hidden, so I wasn’t able to reach the rocks themselves. But I was close enough to say that I had been.
The rocks at La Corbière are passed by all marine traffic heading to St Helier, and have always proved a danger to shipping. There are records of wrecks dating as far back as 1309, but it was not until after the mail steamer Express hit the reef and sank in 1859 that a lighthouse here was proposed.
Designed by Sir John Coode, La Corbière was Britain’s first reinforced concrete lighthouse and was completed in 1874. It has a white-painted tapering tower, sixty-two feet tall, and was originally fitted with a paraffin oil lamp.
The island was occupied by the Germans from June 1940, and the light was largely extinguished until liberation in 1945, lit only when needed to guide German ships around the treacherous rocks. The lighthouse was relit permanently on 19 May 1945. It was converted to electricity in 1970 and automated in 1976.
La Corbiere, Jersey. I've been outpaced all afternoon by Gil, my brilliant Jersey tour guide and guest house owner! pic.twitter.com/5qAePemJBv
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 13, 2015
Cycling to the lighthouse at Grosnez Point was glorious, as we followed the sea along the arrow- straight and flat Grande Route des Mielles for almost eight miles. Gil was still setting the pace but on roads like this I could keep up with him for much of the way. I remember from family holidays that Jersey has some wonderful, gravelled cycle tracks, but with roads like this one they seemed unnecessary.
Once we got beyond L’Etacq the terrain changed dramatically as we headed up a steep valley with crops of potatoes and vegetables on each side of a quiet narrow lane. For a couple of miles I didn’t see Gil at all and by the time we reached a road junction at the brow of the hill, I was ready for a decent break, while he was rested up and itching to move on.
After La Corbière, Grosnez Lighthouse, at the north-west tip of Jersey, is a little disappointing. The current light is modern, constructed in the 1990s, and comprises a white metal column, nine feet tall, with a small polycarbonate lantern on top. It plays an important role, however, because its red sector marks the dangerous Paternoster Reef to the north-east. The current light’s predecessor was also a modest affair, built in 1948 as a cylindrical lantern on top of a small, white-painted concrete hut.
Up until now Gil seemed enthusiastic about my adventure, and I was confident of winning him over to the fraternity of lighthouse enthusiasts. But staring dubiously at this small white column, not much larger than a pillar box, he looked distinctly unimpressed.
Our final target for the day was to be Sorel Point, at Jersey’s most northerly headland, a further eight miles by road. We ventured inland a little and followed tree-lined lanes offering welcome shelter, passing a number of substantial manor houses and a couple of large country hotels. This was clearly where the wealthy and successful made their homes.
We got to the lighthouse at around five o’clock, by which time I was ready to drop. It’s a desolate spot, flanked on one side by the Ronez Quarry, and the lighthouse itself is a strange, squat concrete tower, just ten feet tall and shaped like a pillbox. It was built in 1938 by Jersey Harbour Authority, and was originally painted in a black and white chequerboard pattern, serving also as a daymark. When the light was renovated and converted to solar power in 2009 it was repainted entirely white, along with the adjacent rocks.
The ride back to Gil’s condo followed an almost straight line north to south across the island, and neither of us spoke at all until St Helier came into view. I joined Gil and Christine for dinner, over which I learned about their life on Jersey and Gil’s new role as an Airbnb host. He had been a Consultant Psychiatrist on the island for fifteen years and had shown great bravery, having raised publicly very serious concerns about the integrity of a former Minister of Health, his deputy and the Health Service CEO.
As night fell I retreated to my balcony with a mug of tea, unwilling to let the day end.