River Severn and army rifles
I woke up early in Chepstow with two questions on my mind: ‘How quickly could I knock off the remaining River Severn lights?’ and ‘How long would it be before I saw a proper lighthouse again?’ This second question was easier to answer, because if my guidebooks were right, it looked as though the two lighthouses at East and West Usk were the nearest ones to get excited about, and I should reach those at some point tomorrow.
As for the first question, there was only one way to find out. The good news was that the furthest on my list was less than three miles outside Chepstow, albeit along the main A48. In less than half an hour, I hid the bike behind a fence at livery stables near Severndale, and followed a track leading to the river at Pillhouse Rocks. There are a pair of lights at Inward Rocks nearby, first established in 1886. However, the current Front Range is made of glass fibre, looks positively futuristic and was built in 1985. Like many of the lights on the opposite bank, its light comes from vertical fluorescent strip lighting, rising from the top of the conical tower. Less than a hundred metres further inland lies the Rear Range, a strip light mounted on a tall glass fibre pole.
At Beachley, I discovered that the Rear Range on Slime Road is built on land that forms part of the army barracks there, and whose entrance gates are patrolled by a pair of armed guards. I explained why I was there, but was told by a humourless soldier from the 1st Battalion, The Rifles, that I would be arrested if I attempted to visit the light, or even to take a photograph of it from the gate. This was a new problem for me. Until now, there had been a few lights where close access had been denied, such as at Avonmouth Docks. But at Slime Road, I had a perfectly decent view of the light, but was being prevented from taking a picture of it. I decided to take the law into my own hands and, crossing to the other side of the road, I took a series of hastily composed photos and then pedalled away as quickly as a heavily laden, overweight cyclist can.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 17, 2015
When I reckoned that I was safe, I laughed out loud at one of my pictures, which had a clear view of the light, but which also included a part of my left arm and hand, clenched into a perfect V sign gesture that I had aimed at the soldier in question. For the record, the light looked similar to the ones at Berkely Pill that I had seen the previous day – a tall black lattice tower with a white circular lantern and gallery.
After a few minutes I realised that I had to return to see the Front Range, and was sure there would already be an arrest warrant out for me. So I chained the bike up by the entrance to a housing estate and returned, cautiously, on foot. I found the Front Range easily enough, but wondered why I had bothered. It is an unusual structure, painted white, and set into the hillside, sporting a series of blue-tinted fluorescent strip lights. It reminded me of a portable heater we have at home that we sometimes use before the central heating kicks in as the children return home from school.
The light at Lyde Rock, below Beachley, was equally unpromising. I had included it because of its age (it was built in 1896) and because the light from its iron-framed tower guides vessels past the Hen and Chickens Rock, which sounded intriguing. At least I hadn’t made a significant detour to get here.
Further around the point, the light at Chapel Rock was a worthier contender. It may only have been another metal lattice-framed structure, but it nestled among the walled ruins of an old chapel. It serves to guide vessels clear of the rocks at the point where the Wye and Severn channels diverge. Getting to the main light, Redcliffe, involved leaving the bike at St Tewdric’s Church in Mathern and taking a long walk across a popular golf course. My guidebook suggested that it was a public footpath, but on three occasions I noticed golfers having to wait for me to negotiate a green before taking their swing. If it was a public footpath, then it was definitely one only for the brave or foolhardy.
The light itself is another white, circular lantern mounted on a tall lattice steel tower. It was originally the rear of a pair of leading lights that indicate a safe passage through a narrow channel offshore, called the Shoots. The tower and lantern were built in 1910, but these days the light itself is provided by eight, bluish fluorescent strip lights, dating from the 1980s, of a type so prevalent along both banks of the River Severn. I found the current rear light about a hundred metres behind. Like many others, it comprised more strip lights attached to a tall, white pole. I had just one River Severn light remaining, at Charston Rock, which also serves to guide vessels through the Shoots channel. I cycled on to Portskewett, where I turned onto a quiet lane leading to a picnic site by the river. It’s a splendid spot, with dramatic views of both bridges across the river.
The light itself is modern, mounted on a small, white-painted stone tower built on the rocks here in 1886. It looks like the white ‘castle’ or ’rook’ on a traditional chess board, and was much the loveliest structure I had seen all day. It once served as the front of a pair of leading lights, in conjunction with the main tower at Redcliffe. Its modern light flashes white, and is visible for eight miles.
While sitting on the rocks alongside an elderly couple enjoying a picnic, I took the opportunity to take long-range pictures of some of the lights in the water on either side of the second Severn Crossing. They weren’t on my list, but it seemed churlish to ignore them while I was here. They may not have been exciting, but they were painted in bright reds or yellows, and had fantastic names like Lady Bench, Old Man’s Head, North Mixoms and Lower Shoots.
I chatted to the picnicking couple for a while. Ray was a retired civil engineer and had worked on the construction of the Second Severn Crossing himself, before it opened in 1996. It was his last project before retirement. His wife, Val, had been a teacher in Cardiff. They visited this picnic area regularly, Val to enjoy the birdlife and Ray to marvel at his work. When I explained what I was doing, and why I was here, they seemed puzzled. ‘But there aren’t any lighthouses anywhere near here’, Val offered.
I must say that I tended to agree with her.
Before setting off, I basked in the knowledge that the River Severn lights were now behind me, and that ahead of me were at least a dozen that even Val would define as lighthouses. I decided to try and see a strange little light near the village of Goldcliff, find a B&B before nightfall, and then head to the lights at East and West Usk tomorrow.
The twelve miles to Goldcliff were flat and very quick, and followed National Cycle Route 4, which runs from London to Fishguard. I recalled earlier on my journey, feeling worried whenever I had ten or more miles to ride before a stop, but I was finding my stride now and I reached Goldcliff in comfortably less than an hour.
It was now late in the day, and despite the village being tiny, I just couldn’t find the light. It was also a bit of a ghost village. The pub showed no sign of life, and I wondered whether it had closed permanently, or just hadn’t opened that day. The Main Street was deserted. My guidebook talked about ‘turning right to park and then making a short walk west along the embankment’. The only right turn I found seemed to go on for a distance, and I found no embankment.
I was tired, and for the first time considered cheating. I reckoned I might take a picture of the light from the guidebook, or finding one online and claiming I had seen it. Who would ever know? I’d made it to the right village, so I must have got close. In any event, what I needed now was a bed for the night.
There was a sign on the gate of the Manor House that advertised a B&B, so I knocked on the door. I heard a baby crying inside, and I feared that I had interrupted her feed, because it took nearly five minutes before her rather flustered mother answered the door. Strangely, the house had not been a B&B for more than four years, but they hadn’t yet bothered to remove the sign. Evidently this village doesn’t get many visitors.
With no phone signal and the pub shut, my only option was to cycle on another ten miles to Newport, where I was bound to have a choice of places to stay.
I may have had a choice, but I made the wrong one. I’d already learned once on this trip that if you find an en-suite room in a city centre hotel for £25 a night, there’s usually a reason why. I probably should have backed out the moment I reached the reception desk, which was positioned behind a heavy-duty set of security fortifications. What sort of clientele did this hotel attract?