I hadn’t realised that by reaching Dale the previous evening, I was only a couple of miles from the lighthouse at St Ann’s Head. After a short climb out of the village, the lane onto the headland was largely straight, flat and surprisingly wide for one with so little traffic. There are glorious, unspoilt views over Mill Bay towards Milford Haven to the east, and it is easy to see why St Ann’s Head is the ideal location for a lighthouse.
The moment I saw the former rear light at a distance, I was reminded of a New Year holiday we’d had nearby with our friends Katie and Chris. I’d been given a GPS device for Christmas, new and innovative technology at the time, and much coveted by walkers and hikers alike. I plotted out an eight-mile, circular walk that began and ended at the lighthouse, and we set off, with the GPS sounding a loud alarm each time we neared one of the pre-set milestones I had plotted along the route. Keen to show off, I suggested leaving the perfectly serviceable footpath at one point, announcing that our cars were parked 750 metres due east. My revised route involved a boggy field and a heavily chained, wobbly five bar gate, and on attempting to climb over it, Katie had a tantrum that I have not let her forget to this day.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 25, 2015
I cycled past the very gate and grinned broadly, although it served to remind me yet again how much I was missing home.
I pulled up by the old lighthouse to take in the view. It’s an impressive building, but after it was decommissioned in 1910, the lantern on top of its tower was replaced with a rectangular observation room, which does nothing for the building’s architectural beauty. The tower was also painted black, and the overall effect is a little menacing. I noticed a ‘For Sale’ sign, and quickly looked up the building online. Whatever my feelings about the building itself, its interior is utterly spectacular, with wood panelled walls, an elegant staircase and panoramic views over the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, the headland and estuary entrance.
Just a few hundred yards further towards the tip of the headland lies the current lighthouse, painted in the more familiar white and green Trinity House livery. It’s an altogether more beautiful affair, and the moment I established that the former keepers’ accommodation can be rented for holidays, I made a note to come back next summer with the family.
Various guidebooks mentioned a rock lighthouse off St Ann’s Head marking Mid Channel Rock. I found it, with the help of my camera’s zoom lens, although it is nothing really of merit. It is a steel pole, with a cylindrical platform on top resembling the drum of a washing machine.
I didn’t rate my chances of finding a tourist boat trip to get me any closer to this one.
St Ann’s Head
Although Milford Haven is regarded as one of Britain’s finest deep-water harbours, its approach is via Crow Rock and the Toes, a range of dangerous underwater rocks about 700 metres off Linney Head. They have claimed many vessels over the years, and a coal-fired light was installed at nearby St Ann’s Head as early as 1662. For many years, this was the only lighthouse on the west coast, but after its owners were found to be collecting payments from shipping illegally, it was forcibly closed in 1668.
After a gap of more than forty years, a patent was granted to Trinity House in 1713 to build a new lighthouse at St Ann’s Head. In turn, Trinity House leased the patent to the owner of the land on which it was to be built, Joseph Allen. He built a pair of lighthouses, collecting dues at Milford Haven set at one penny per ton of cargo on British vessels, and two pence per ton on foreign vessels.
Originally coal fired, Trinity House installed Argand oil lamps and lanterns to both lights in 1800. When cliff erosion endangered the front or lower light, a new octagonal, forty-two-foot tower was built to replace it, with lantern and gallery, and keepers’ accommodation, in 1841. This is the current, operational light that remains today. It was converted to mains electricity in 1958, and fully automated in 1998, at which time the keepers were withdrawn.
The rear light was discontinued in 1910. After the outbreak of war in 1939, its lantern was removed and replaced with a glass-fronted observation room. Its tower was painted black at the same time. It provided luxury bed and breakfast accommodation for a period, and was on the market for £975,000 when I visited.
The current lighthouse flashes white and red lights, every five seconds, with the white light visible for eighteen miles, and the red seventeen. The former keepers’ accommodation is now available for holiday lets.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 25, 2015
There was still the matter of the other, modern lights around Milford Haven that I’d had neither energy nor motivation for yesterday afternoon. The first three were nowhere near where I thought they were, and cycling back towards Dale, I found a sign towards Blockhouse Point, which I knew was close by. I cycled along a narrow track for about a mile, and when West Blockhouse Fort came into view, the three, tall octagonal concrete towers were easy to spot. They stand, side by side, varying in height between thirty and fifty feet, with each one supporting a sealed beam lighting unit at the top. Although I understand why the site is ideally suited for a light, I fail to understand why three separate lights are required, so close to each other. The middle of the three towers shows a white flashing light, visible for thirteen miles, and it acts as the front range of a pair of lights, which together mark the Haven approach.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 25, 2015
The rear range light is also a fairly modern, concrete tower at Watwick Point, which I made for next. Although of the same era as the other three, this is a more elegant, tapered structure and, at 160 feet, considerably taller. Its white flashing light is visible for fifteen miles.
I’d seen six lighthouses already, and it was only just past ten o’clock. My next two were on the opposite bank of the Haven at Great Castle Head, beyond the village of St Ishmaels. I set off, regretting having missed them out yesterday. It felt frustrating to be retracing my steps, but more frustrating still was that I couldn’t find the track leading to them. I was looking for a right turn on the road leading out of St Ishmaels, but I was soon in the village of Sandy Haven having seen nothing.
Retracing my route, I remembered my crude GPS device from all those Christmases ago, and wished I had it with me. Even if it had taken me across boggy fields, it could have pointed me in the right direction. Ironically, I found a five-bar gate, and I hid the bike behind a tree and clambered over it. I crossed a field, heading straight for the cliff edge, and even though I was clearly not where I hoped to be, I found the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, which I knew passed close by the lighthouse.
The lighthouse I was looking for is actually the front of a pair of range lights. I saw a familiar single-storey, white-painted building in the distance, and headed straight for it. A small, square tower in front houses the light itself, right on the cliff edge. It was built for Trinity House by James Douglass in 1870, although it was subsequently handed over to the care of the Milford Haven Conservancy Board, now known as the Milford Haven Port Authority. The tower has no lantern, and these days there are two sealed beam light units mounted on to the roof, one showing a flashing white light, the other a white, red or green light, dependant on direction. Both are visible for fourteen miles.
The rear range light was once built into the ramparts of an old iron-age fort nearby, but this was replaced in 1970 by a new, elegant, tapered tower at East Little Castle Head. Eighty-five feet tall, it houses a bank of sealed beam light units on a gallery at the top of the tower. It emits an occulting white light, visible for fifteen miles which, in conjunction with the light at Great Castle Head, marks the safe passage between St Ann’s Head and the Mid Channel Rock.
Reunited with my bike, I spent a few minutes consulting the obsessive German directory of lighthouses that had served me well along the banks of the rivers Avon and Severn. It showed several more lights in and around the entrance to Milford Haven itself, but none comprised anything more than lights on poles or on modest, lattice towers.
My work in Milford Haven was done, but there was still one more lighthouse to reach today. I had found a two-hour RIB ride, called the Skomer and Skokholm Sea Safari, which departed from Martins Haven at four o’clock. That gave me around 45 minutes to cover nine miles, a tough ask at the sort of speeds I was most comfortable at, but I was in with a chance. I cycled through Dale for the third time that day, picking up a bag of crisps and a cake at the cafe on my way through. I made it on to the RIB with a few minutes to spare.
Keen as I was to see the lighthouse on Skokholm, what pleased me most is that this was nothing at all like the RIB ride out of Cardiff Bay, which had felt like the Nemesis rollercoaster at Alton Towers. This trip felt more like the teacups ride that all three of my children adored as toddlers on the seafront at Dymchurch.
Less than a mile offshore lies Skomer, a small island renowned for its marine life. As well as the largest Manx shearwater colony in the world, there are thousands of puffins, as well as Atlantic grey seals, razorbills and gannets. The boat’s log also reported several sightings of dolphins and harbour porpoises. We circled the island leisurely, with passengers asking to stop at every sighting of a puffin. Over the course of several boat trips, I’ve learned that puffins are always the star attraction.
Leaving Skomer, we cruised a further couple of miles on to Skokholm, around a third of the size of Skomer. Day-trip passengers, which is what we were, are not allowed to land on the island, but birdwatching stays of three or four days can be organised. Again, we circled the island slowly, counting seals, puffins, razorbills, guillemots and fulmars.
The coastline around Skokholm is more dramatic than Skomer, with cliffs up to 100 feet tall rising vertically from the sea. My attention was captured for a while by the comical sight of dozens of puffins taking flight, and by seals sprawled out on rocks in the same ungainly fashion as Woody, my black Labrador, lies on the hearth rug at home. Inevitably, my focus changed once the lighthouse came into view.
It could have done with a fresh lick of paint, but otherwise it was a beautiful sight. The building was bought by the Welsh Wildlife Trust in 2012, although the light itself is still maintained by Trinity House. There was a fundraising effort underway to renovate the site and open it for tours to island visitors. The wildlife wardens on the island now call the lighthouse their home, and I am extremely envious.
At the south-west point of Skokholm island, Sir Thomas Matthews, Engineer in Chief of Trinity House in the first quarter of the twentieth century, designed a lighthouse that was built in 1915, and lit for the first time the following year.
It has a white-painted hexagonal tower, fifty-eight feet high, with two-storey keepers’ accommodation surrounding it. Before construction began, a jetty had to be built so that building materials could be landed safely.
The role of the lighthouse was to provide one corner of a triangle of lights, in conjunction with South Bishop and the Smalls, that together would guide shipping clear of the particularly treacherous coastline into Milford Haven. It is noted for being the last traditional stone-built lighthouse erected by Trinity House.
It flashes a red or white light, dependant on the direction headed, which was originally designed to be visible for twenty miles. These days the light can be seen up to eight nautical miles away. The lighthouse was automated in 1983.
Skokholm Island light via boat trip from Martin's Haven. The island is host to more than 20,000 puffins this year! pic.twitter.com/XMXEpYwA2A
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 25, 2015
We were back at Martins Haven at 5.30pm, and I should probably have booked another night in Dale. But to stand a chance of getting a boat trip out to see Smalls, the furthest offshore of all the England and Wales lights, I needed to be at St Justinians Lifeboat Station, just outside St David’s, by nine o’clock the following morning.
Puffins from yesterday afternoon's boat trip to Skokholm. There are more than 20,000 of them here this year. pic.twitter.com/WyVneSN0Gq
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 26, 2015
Voyages of Discovery, the company running the boat trip, helped me to find the last room left in St David’s. However, it still left me with another 25 miles to cycle that evening. I vowed to ride as though I were part of a race, chalking up each mile without looking anywhere other than straight ahead. But in Pembrokeshire, that’s not an easy thing to do, and I found myself hugging the coast, passing a succession of glorious coves and beaches, seemingly empty, lit by the last of the evening’s sunshine. I would gladly have stopped for a pint at the Druidstone Hotel. I could easily have whiled away a few hours with my book on the little beach at Norton Haven. The views of the bay from the Pebbles Cafe, outside Newgale, demanded that I stop. The tranquil little harbour at Solva made the perfect image for a holiday jigsaw puzzle. How typical that the one time I made a firm and binding decision to reach a specific destination, I was presented with so many temptations.
I reached the guest house in St David’s at around nine o’clock. Greg and Elin were new to the hospitality trade, and they had only opened Ty Heleg for the first time the previous week. I was one of their first guests, which explained why I had managed to find a room there at all. The room rate blew my daily accommodation budget by some distance, but I quickly discovered that it was also the cheapest room in town. Greg and Elin turned out to be perfect hosts, and despite feeling exhausted I found myself sitting in their kitchen within minutes, sharing a couple of bottles of wine. Normally, even a review of a guest house that mentioned ‘friendly and welcoming hosts’ would give me reason enough to look elsewhere. This evening, however, my continuing low mood and anxiety made it a Godsend.