A lucky break
I was up early, and followed the Wales Coast Path to a slipway about a mile beyond the village. There was a boat trip bound for Bardsey Island scheduled for 9.30, and I had the last ticket. As well as having a splendid lighthouse, it’s a popular destination for daytrips and for tranquil getaways staying in one of a range of historical and traditional buildings, boasting neither electricity nor bathrooms. You can take a mobile phone, but you won’t be able to charge it, and you might only be able to pick up a signal from the Irish coast.
Reaching the cove where I was told to meet, all was quiet. I had a number to call for last-minute information about weather cancellations, but no signal to reach it. I was almost back in the village before a voicemail message advised that the boat trip was off, and unlikely to run again before Tuesday, so shocking was the forecast over the next few days.
Back at the guest house, a series of communication channels were opened. My host, Jan, phoned her husband, Steve, who worked at the village shop. Steve, in turn, phoned Colin, the boat’s skipper. He established that although all day trips were off, Colin planned to make a crossing this afternoon to collect several families returning from a week’s holiday on the island. There wouldn’t be time to explore the island, and the crossing would be rough, but he’d be happy for me to tag along and take pictures of the lighthouse from the boat.
It was clearly the best offer on the table, and one that I wasn’t going to turn down. Back at the cove for a second time, I met a couple from Denmark, brother and sister, who were off to Bardsey to meet up with their cousin, who had worked on the island for more than a year. I also met Colin himself, who was clearly delighted to meet three people so excited to be bound for an island that he obviously adored.
The approach is from the south, where a steep rock dominates the skyline and obscures the view of the lighthouse. But as we sought shelter in its shadow, and rounded the island in calmer waters, the tower came gloriously into view. When we reached the quay, the plan was to turn passengers and baggage around in less than ten minutes. The forecast was for even choppier seas, and Colin wasn’t keen to hang about.
The Bardsey workforce, I discovered, is a family affair and while bags were being loaded, Colin introduced me to Ernest, his father. They had both been wardens of the lighthouse for a while, and Ernest in particular seemed delighted that I was taking such an interest in it. After a brief chat with his son, he told me to jump into his Land Rover, and insisted on giving me a quick lighthouse tour, as long as I promised to return to Bardsey for a proper visit one day.
Ernest seemed sad, almost apologetic, that the lighthouse was in need of a bit of maintenance and a few coats of paint. But he assured me that Trinity House were scheduled for a maintenance visit before the end of the summer, and that it would be looking its best by the autumn.
Back at the quay I promised to return, although it was only later that I discovered that the island has no electricity, and that the cottages are without bathrooms. It’s a wild, remote and very beautiful place to stay, no doubt, but I’d rate a mobile phone signal, a charging point and a flushing lavatory fairly high up on my list of holiday requirements. What a heathen I must be!
Known as the legendary ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’, Bardsey is located a couple of miles offshore. A pilgrimage to the island was once considered the equivalent of one to Rome. Renowned for hazardous winds and tides, the island is also surrounded by outcrops of dangerous rocks.
Bardsey Lighthouse was built for Trinity House in 1821 by Joseph Nelson, known as ‘the most eminent builder of lighthouses of the day’. Its role was to guide vessels passing through St George’s Channel and the Irish Sea. It stands on the flat, southern tip of the island, and is notable for being the tallest square-tower lighthouse in the UK.
The tower itself is nearly 100 feet tall, and painted in broad red and white horizontal stripes. Originally, it gave a white light in a cluster of five flashes every fifteen seconds, visible for up to twenty-six nautical miles. In 2014, a red LED lantern replaced the existing rotating optic, whose flashes are visible for eighteen miles. The lighthouse was converted to solar power at the same time. It has been automated since 1987.
Bardsey Island Lighthouse. Big thanks to Colin for getting me here despite the weather, and to Ernest for the tour! pic.twitter.com/OAVYB9bvdi
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) July 4, 2015
My final challenge of the day was to secure an evening meal. A power cut in Aberdaron hadn’t prevented the pub, fish and chip shop and general stores from trading, but it had effectively shut off the means of paying for anything they served. The pub was accepting cash only. The general stores had a cashpoint, but this, too, was powered by electricity. The fish and chip shop offered to cash me a cheque, but I hadn’t considered bringing a cheque book on this trip. I was bloody hungry, and starting to panic.
Salvation came from Ruth, a fit, plucky pensioner and fellow guest at the B&B. She was visiting from County Durham for the annual festival celebrating the poetry of RS Thomas and the art of ME Eldridge. RS Thomas was the vicar of St Hywyn’s Church in the village between 1967 and 1978. Ruth handed me a tenner, and I suddenly felt like a kid who’d just been given his weekly allocation of pocket money. Fish and chips have never tasted so good.