The Avon, Severn and into Wales
My original plan for the day was to cross the Avonmouth Bridge, using the dedicated cycle track that runs alongside the M5 motorway, and then head down to the docks to track down the North and South Pierhead Lights. But when I started to research where I needed to head to for the best chance of seeing them, I made an unwelcome discovery. There are more than thirty navigation lights, beacons and masts listed along the tidal River Avon, between Avonmouth docks and the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, permanent home of the ss Great Britain, Brunel’s famous passenger steamship.
The challenge was that I had no easy way of determining how many of the thirty were lighthouses in the true sense of the word. I had already seen more than my fair share of lights attached to poles, and the majority of the River Avon lights might well fall into this category. Should I even be bothering with river lights at all? Where exactly should I draw the line?
I was able to rule out a pair of lights on Avonmouth Bridge straight away, having established that they comprised nothing more than lamps bolted onto the structure of the bridge. But I needed a set of rules, or some sort of logic, to decide on the remainder. I started by discounting the eight or so beacons inland of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The function of these seemed to be more about managing maritime traffic than warning of dangers or hazardous water.
What next? I was helped by a website I hadn’t known about until now, which appeared to be the work of a lighthouse fanatic from Germany. Covering most of the world, this website lists and plots on a map every lighthouse, light and beacon, no matter how small. Each one plotted is linked to a photograph, which enabled me to take a quick look at each one before committing to visiting it. It was enormously helpful, and I was able to rule out at least a dozen lights attached to bridges, buildings and other structures.
This left me with fourteen beacons. The photographs suggested that they all took the form of a small lamp of some sort, mounted on a white metal pole. I cycled to Ham Green, where I chained up my bike on a busy business trading estate, and set off on foot along the path on the westerly bank of the River Avon. The lights at Custom House and Adam and Eve were all but identical, although the latter was mounted on a white, gated, castellated building that had once served as a water gate to an isolation hospital that treated tropical and infectious diseases. A few hundred yards further inland, the beacon at Chapel Pill followed exactly the same design as the others.
I found the Upper and Lower Horseshoe beacons, on the opposite bank, nestled beneath a lay-by on a dual-carriageway section of the A4. These were also painted white, but had lamps installed in small boxes mounted on their metal poles. The beacon at Fir Tree was very similar.
By now, my patience was running a little thin. These were no one’s idea of a lighthouse – they were holding me up and I wanted to get going. I persevered for a while longer, ticking off Sea Mills beacon, the pair of lights at Miles Dock, another pair at Leigh Woods and then a final three at Black Rock, Nightingale Valley and Round Point. They were all remarkably similar, and instantly forgettable. I’ve no doubt I missed a couple, but looking back at the photographs I had just taken, I was already unable to distinguish one from another. It felt as though I had wasted a couple of hours, and it was time to move on.
I knew the North and South Pierhead Lights at Avonmouth Docks were both traditional, ‘proper’ lighthouses, but I also knew they would be difficult to access. I arrived at the headquarters of the Bristol Port Company to request permission to see them, but didn’t rate my chances. I’d met several lighthouse enthusiasts in the past who had also tried in vain. Everyone I spoke to was polite, and sympathetic to my cause, but it was clear that access would be denied.
I weaved my way around various stretches of the Avonmouth waterfront, which yielded a handful of adequate photographs of each light, taken from a number of different angles.
Trinity House first built a lighthouse at the entrance to the River Avon, where it met the Bristol Channel, in 1839. It survived until 1902, when it was demolished to accommodate the construction of the new docks. When these were completed, two new lighthouses were constructed, one on each of the new piers marking the entrance to the docks. Both are built from Norwegian granite, with the North Pier Light standing at 52 feet tall, and the South Pier Light at 30 feet tall. Both have tapered towers with white-painted domed lanterns, each with railings surrounding them.
In 1991, the Bristol Port Company took over responsibility for the lights from Trinity House. The South Pierhead Light has an occulting light, visible for ten miles. It also shows red and green sector lights. The North Pierhead Light flashes a white light, visible for eighteen miles.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 16, 2015
Although the lights along the River Avon had slowed my day’s progress, there was more to come. Having left Avonmouth, I was itching to cross the River Severn into Wales, but there was the small matter of a series of lights along the river itself, between here and Gloucester. For the second time that day, I consulted the obsessively detailed German website. To my dismay, there were forty-seven lights listed along the River Severn, of one sort or another. Of these, nineteen were attached to, or very close to, one or other of the two river crossings, a further seventeen were on or close to the English bank of the river, and a final eleven on the Welsh bank.
I sat outside Down’s Cafe in Severn Beach with a mug of tea, and attempted to define a new set of rules for what I would count as a lighthouse along the river. I started by rejecting the lamps attached to the bridges themselves, which knocked fifteen off the list straight away. I was able to strike off another thirteen which really were nothing more than lamps mounted on poles – I couldn’t face any more of these. That left nineteen, ten on the English side, which I would tackle this afternoon, and nine on the Welsh side, which I would hunt out tomorrow.
None of these lights were what I’d call proper lighthouses, but from the images I found online, their shapes and designs varied sufficiently to make them worthy of a visit, and reassured me that I wasn’t somehow failing in my quest to see all the lighthouses in England and Wales.
My first target was Shepperdine, twelve miles up-shore along entirely flat, quiet country lanes. This was floodplain territory and, although a little windy, it was fast and easy-going cycling. There are a pair of lights here, although neither proved very promising. The Front Range was built in 1996, and resembles a small portacabin mounted on a circular concrete base, with a radar on top and a lamp that looked like those purple fly screens you see in cafes. The Rear Range, which I only counted because I was there already, had a similar light mounted to a tall metal pole.
I walked along the shore for half a mile or so, towards the decommissioned nuclear power station at Oldbury. I passed a substantial boarded-up building, right on the river, which had clearly been a pub at one time. With no more than a handful of houses visible in any direction, I wondered who had frequented this pub, and how they knew it was here.
Pair of modern lights on River Severn near Shepperdine. Not really my scene, but here for completeness! pic.twitter.com/ry5DOxHos9
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 16, 2015
From the riverbank I was able to take a decent photograph of the tall, yellow-painted lattice-framed Counts Beacon. Once again, it might not have made the cut had I not been close by. Walking back to the bike, I took a call from my brother Matthew, who invited me to join him at The Great House Hotel in Laleston, the following Saturday night. It would mean having to plan the next few days more carefully than I had done so far, but it was a splendid offer that I accepted without hesitation.At Fishing House, there have been several navigation beacons over the years. The current Front Range was constructed in 1985, comprising a thirteen-foot conical tower made from glass fibre, with vertical strip lighting at the top, and a daymark in the form of a large ‘X’ whose tips have been painted with fluorescent red paint. Like Shepperdine, the Rear Range would not have qualified for my shortlist had I not been there already – vertical strip lighting mounted on a tall metal pole. I also took the opportunity to photograph the metal lattice frame and light at Haywards Rock, although it hadn’t officially made my list.
As I cycled on towards Gloucester, I passed the two lights on metal poles at Conigre, but declined to stop. I considered that once you set rules, it was important to stick to them.
I pushed on to Hamfields, where the closest I could get to the river on a bike was the large car park of a deserted leisure centre. Two HGVs were parked together in one corner, and I got chatting to Steve and Alf, who regularly drove through Europe in convoy for a German haulage company. They offered to look after the bike while I strode out to the river to see the two lights at Berkeley Pill. They had white circular lanterns that looked like they belonged on a lighthouse tower, although in fact they were each mounted on black lattice steel framework. They had some age, too, with the lanterns dating from 1906. Originally oil powered, they were converted to gas in 1926, and to mains electricity in 1964.While I was here, I also managed a long-lens photo of the beacon at Bulls Rock out in the river – another steel lattice tower that would not have justified its inclusion had I not been close by. I retrieved my bike and bade farewell to Steve and Alf, but not before Steve had thrust a tenner into my charity box. That was eight down, and two to go.
Huge thanks to Steve and Alf, two lorry drivers from RKS in Germany, who guarded my bike while I hunted for lighthouses and then donated £10 — Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 17, 2015
On the final stretch into Sharpness, I diverted back to the river to see a glass fibre tower painted bright yellow, just fifteen foot tall, with vertical fluorescent strip lighting. Known as Panthurst Pill, it was built as recently as 1987, although it replaced a much earlier, 1912 light.
There are two lights marking the harbour entrance at Sharpness, but as they are simply mounted on poles, they hadn’t made my shortlist. However, in one corner of a park alongside the tidal basin in Sharpness I found a small white-painted lantern set into the ground, looking a bit sorry for itself, which once guided traffic into the harbour.
I sat in the park, debating whether to press on as far as Gloucester and cross the river there, or head back to the Severn Bridge, which provides cyclists with a dedicated lane set back from the main M48 carriageways. Locating a decently priced hotel in Chepstow sealed the deal, and I headed back the way I had come. I paused at The Salutation Arms, where their Tiley’s Ordinary Bitter was very much to my taste, and was brewed on the premises. I reflected on the fact that since leaving Portishead this morning I had seen twenty-six lighthouses, only two of which would be universally described as such – the only two of which I had failed to see close up. It was not a day I would look back on with fondness, but I ended it in a new country, Wales, which felt like a major milestone.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 16, 2015