The moment I woke up, I phoned Voyages of Discovery, and a pre-recorded message announced that the afternoon boat trip was on. The manager of The Monachty agreed to store my bike in the pub’s beer cellar for a day or two, and not long after breakfast I was leaving Aberaeron on a bus bound for Fishguard.
We took almost exactly the same route that I had cycled, and I winced each time we overtook a cyclist, causing the wind to buffet around their wheels. The day before, that had been me.
It was slow going, and the bus made prolonged stops in each town we passed through. It gave me a chance to phone ahead repeatedly, to confirm that the weather was still clear and the trip was still happening. They answered each call very patiently, but I don’t think they appreciated just how important this excursion was for me.
In Fishguard I was about to change on to the St David’s bus when I saw Elin waiting for me in her car. A typically kind gesture. She took me straight down to St Justinians, where the boat trips depart from alongside the lifeboat station. There were about ten of us, all adults, unsurprising given that this was a Monday afternoon in school term time.
Daf, our skipper, greeted us warmly, and asked which one of us was Ed. He had heard about what I was doing, and wanted to find out more. He said that he’d certainly get me good and close to the lighthouse at South Bishop, but that there was ‘plenty of swell’ around Smalls, and he didn’t rate his chances of getting very close. Disappointed, I resigned myself to a long-lens photo.
This was billed as the boat trip for seeing dolphins and whales, which partly explained why we were heading twenty miles out to sea. But while we saw gannets, puffins, oyster catchers and hundreds of seals, the stars of the show failed to appear. Luckily for me, the ‘plenty of swell’ failed to materialise too, and Daf had got his RIB within touching distance of Smalls. In the shadow of the tower, alongside the rocks, I felt a sense of tranquillity and peace that had eluded me these past weeks. And other than sound of lapping water, it was almost totally silent. It felt a lonely and remote place, as I sat in a small, low RIB twenty miles offshore. It would have made a bleak posting, being sent out here for two months. But it has a beauty and power that I found hard to put into words.
The Smalls are a group of rocks lying in the entrance to St George’s Channel, around twenty-one miles off the Pembrokeshire coast. They are particularly dangerous to shipping because they are never more than twelve feet above the water at high tides. When the sea is especially rough, which is often, the rocks are submerged completely.
The first lighthouse here was lit in 1776, and built to the design of Henry Whiteside, a musical instrument maker from Liverpool. It had an octagonal oak tower, fifteen feet in diameter, supported on nine cast-iron piles around a central oak pillar. Sixty-five feet tall, its light came from oil lamps, and it had a single living room with lightroom and lantern above it.
Substantial repairs were required after heavy storms the following winter, which were undertaken in 1778 by Trinity House, who then took over the maintenance and collection of dues. Despite the lighthouse being described as in a shocking state in 1801, it stood until 1861.
Its replacement, the current lighthouse, was designed by Chief Engineer Sir James Douglass, to a design based on Smeaton’s lighthouse at Eddystone.
Built of granite, the stones were prepared on shore, and construction took five years. It was first lit in 1861, with a white light, flashing three times every fifteen seconds, which is visible for twenty-five miles.
A helicopter landing deck was added above the lantern in 1978, and the lighthouse was automated in 1987. Originally, the tower was painted in red and white stripes, but when these were considered no longer necessary, it was sandblasted back to natural granite in 1997.
Before making back, Daf told us of a tragedy that occurred at the lighthouse during the particularly savage winter of 1800/01. Back then, Smalls lighthouse was being maintained by a team of two keepers, which was the custom at the time. They were called Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith, and it was apparently well known that they disliked each other intensely.
The storms over this particular winter were so severe that the two keepers were cut off, and unable to land the relief ships for more than four months. Griffith died in a freak accident and Howell, fearing that he’d be accused of his murder, put his body in a makeshift coffin and dragged it out onto the balcony surrounding the lamphouse. By the time the relief crew were finally able to land after a few months, they found that Howell had been driven to madness. These events changed the way lighthouses were crewed, and thereafter three keepers were always appointed to lighthouse teams.
Before I had set off in May, I had talked about Smalls to my good friend Neil Hargreaves, who was stationed there for a while. I remember him telling me the story of Howell and Griffith. I asked him whether it had put him off taking up the posting. His answer made me wonder whether this lighthouse was jinxed in some way, because during his tour of duty there he had got on so badly with his Principal Keeper that he had written to Trinity House demanding to be transferred!
Heading back to shore, we made a detour to South Bishop island, where the lighthouse is perched right on top of the rock. Since 1971 there has been a helipad next to the lighthouse complex, enabling helicopters to deliver relief crews and supplies. But before then, keepers and maintenance crews had to climb up to the lighthouse using steps cut into the sheer rock face. These are still clearly visible, and my legs weakened just looking at them. Despite childhood dreams, perhaps I wouldn’t have made a great lighthouse keeper after all.
South Bishop is a tall rocky outcrop, just under five miles south-west of St David’s. After petitions from shipping navigating through the Bristol and St George’s Channels, James Walker was commissioned to design a lighthouse here, which was built and first lit in 1839.
Its role was to guide vessels along the Pembrokeshire coastline and to assist them navigating around the Bishops and Clerks rocks. It has a white-painted brick tower, thirty-six feet tall, with lantern and gallery. There are a pair of adjoining two-storey keepers’ cottages. Its white light flashes every five seconds, with a range of nineteen miles.
The lighthouse was built in the path of migrating birds, and many thousands lost their lives after flying into the glass panels of the lantern. As a result, Trinity House worked in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to build special bird perches around the lantern for use during the migrating season, reducing the mortality rate considerably.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1959, and a helipad was added in 1971. It was converted to solar power and fully automated in 1983.
After landing back at St Justinians, I spent a while in quiet reflection, grateful for what I had just experienced. This was week nine, I had travelled about 1,600 miles, and I was yet to miss a lighthouse. Missing out on Smalls had been a real possibility, and although seeing it involved abandoning my bike sixty miles up the coast, I could now cross it off my list.
I returned to Greg and Elin at Ty Helyg for a third night. There was no chance of a bus back to Aberaeron tonight. But I felt more content than I had for several days, sensing that if I could make it out to Smalls, then no lighthouse would be unreachable.