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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 66: Holyhead and remaining Anglesey Lighthouses

by | Jan 20, 2023

South Stack

Searching for Skerries

A number of Anglesey operators offer RIB rides and scheduled boat trips out to the various islands off the Anglesey coast, and I had hoped to book one that ventured out to The Skerries, a small group of islets around seven miles from Holyhead. The weather was not on my side, however, and not a single boat trip was likely to run for the next few days.

My best alternative was to see The Skerries lighthouse from the shore, and it looked as though a footpath at Carmel Head represented my best shot. I crossed the Menai Bridge for the third successive day, and followed National Cycle Route 8 towards Holyhead. Short of the port itself, I diverted north-east and discovered a landscape of narrow tracks, bracken, heather and bright yellow gorse bushes that reminded me of sections of the north Devon coast. At various points I caught glimpses of The Skerries, but it was clear that if I wanted the best view I’d need to jettison the bike. I did my best to hide it behind the stone wall that lined one of the narrower lanes, and struck out towards the coast. When eventually I reached the coast path, alongside a deserted shingle beach, the lighthouse on The Skerries appeared directly ahead, and seemed only a few hundred metres away. The sun was shining, and I felt irritated that the boat trip might have been cancelled unnecessarily, but when a wave crashed over the rocks on the beach and drenched me, I acknowledged that I was safer here than on a boat.


The first lighthouse on The Skerries dates to 1717, when William Trench, who held the lease of the islands, was granted a patent by Queen Anne for the building of a light. It was a coal-fired light, built at the highest point on the islands, but was not a financial success. When traders evaded payment of dues, Trench fell into debt, and he died in 1729 a ruined man.

The Skerries

The Skerries

The tower was rebuilt in 1759, creating a fifty-eight-foot tall tower with coal brazier on top. It was modified in 1804, when an iron balcony and oil-burning lantern and lantern room were installed. By 1840, it was the only private lighthouse operating in the British Isles.

A year later, in 1841, Trinity House was able to purchase the remaining lease, and the lighthouse was extensively remodelled by engineer James Walker a few years later. A keepers’ cottage was added, the gallery rebuilt in castellated stone, and a new cast-iron lantern installed. The tower is painted white, with a broad red band.

In 1903, a second circular tower was constructed to carry a sectional light at ground level. The light was converted to electricity in 1927, and flashes a white light, twice every ten seconds, which is visible for twenty-two miles.

The lighthouse was fully automated in 1987, at which time a helicopter landing pad was added.

Heading into Holyhead for the first time, I made straight for the port and harbour. Holyhead is a substantial port, handling freight and passenger traffic bound for Ireland. The main harbour construction began in 1821, and the Admiralty Pier was built out from Salt Island, where the ships from Ireland berthed. The pier’s lighthouse was built by renowned civil engineer John Rennie in 1821. It’s a tapered stone tower, forty-eight feet tall, with lantern and gallery on top.

Holyhead Admiralty Pier

Holyhead Admiralty Pier

The pier and lighthouse form part of the Stena Line complex, and access is off limits. I could see the lighthouse clearly enough through a forbidding metal grid fence, and took a handful of pictures. It is believed to be the second-oldest lighthouse in Wales, after Point of Ayre, and I was disappointed to see that it looked in need of some care and attention. The domed roof and gallery were rusty, several panes of glass missing from the lantern and scaffolding, machine parts and fuel drums stacked around the base of the tower. It’s a working port, but it is also a notable, listed building that deserves to be treated with respect.

When work on the outer harbour and breakwater were completed in 1873, the new breakwater light became the principal lighthouse at Holyhead, reducing the significance of the Admiralty Pier lighthouse. These days it displays only a simple fixed red or white light to indicate whether the inner harbour is open or closed.

Holyhead Breakwater

Holyhead Breakwater

The 1873 breakwater is, at 1.87 miles long, the longest in the United Kingdom. Construction took nearly thirty years, consuming seven million tons of Anglesey limestone, and employing 1,300 workers. The lighthouse was the last building to be constructed on the breakwater, and is thought to be the work of Victorian civil engineer John Hawkshaw.

It’s a three-storey, square tower, sixty-three feet tall, painted white with a broad black band. It has a circular lantern mounted on the wide, square gallery, which displays a group of white flashing lights every fifteen seconds, visible for fourteen miles. It was automated in 1961, and is now maintained by Stena Line.

The breakwater is open to the public, but only accessible in good weather. Today, the waves were crashing straight over the top of the breakwater walls, making it strictly off limits. When I reached the start of the breakwater, I found no formal indication that it was closed, but I knew that it wasn’t for me. I took several respectable pictures with my phone, and some great long-lens shots with my main camera as well.

My Anglesey adventure was almost complete, but I had arguably the most beautiful lighthouse on the island still to see. It’s at South Stack, a tiny rocky islet set apart from Holy Island on the north-west coast of Anglesey. Barely three miles north west of Holyhead, the whole area is a nature reserve, popular with walkers, bird watchers and countryside lovers alike.

All but the final mile are relatively flat, and I reached the nature reserve quickly. It was incredibly busy, and the car park, RSPB building and cafe were all full. Taking in the clifftop scenery from one of any number of vantage points, it wasn’t hard to see why. I queued up for a mug of coffee, found one of the slightly quieter patches of rocks to sit on, and looked down onto the rocks below me. It was a strange experience because despite the lighthouse tower being nearly a hundred feet tall, I was looking down onto it from the safety of the cliffs opposite.

South Stack

South Stack

South Stack

The stretch of coastline north west of Holyhead is made of large granite cliffs rising sheer from the sea, and the islet at South Stack poses a particular danger to shipping. A lighthouse was first proposed here as early as 1665, but it was not until nearly 150 years later, in 1809, when a lighthouse was designed by Trinity House surveyor Daniel Alexander, and built by Joseph Nelson.

South Stack

South Stack

Before construction could begin, Trinity House engineers had to cut 400 steps into the cliff face before they could reach rock level, and then build a rope bridge and cable to bridge the gap between the mainland and the islet itself. The rope bridge was replaced by an iron suspension bridge in 1828.

The lighthouse has a white-painted stone tower, ninety-two feet tall, with a single-storey accommodation building for keepers attached, along with a subsidiary service building. It flashes a white light, every ten seconds, visible for twenty-four miles. It was originally fitted with Argand oil lamps and reflectors, but these were replaced with paraffin lamps in the mid 1870s. An early form of incandescent light was installed in 1909, which itself was modernised in 1927. The lighthouse was electrified in 1938, automated in 1984.

I didn’t make it back to Bangor until early evening. I had arranged to meet my lovely friends Paul and Marian for dinner, and had promised that I would have surveyed and shortlisted the crop of the restaurants by the time we met.

I had first met Paul more than a decade earlier, when he undertook some market research and consultancy for Letts, the publisher I worked for at the time. We hit it off straight away, and I was slightly in awe of how calmly and carefully he seemed able to navigate through whatever challenges, obstacles or disputes came our way. After Letts, we both worked on a number of educational assignments for Jason, the person who had tried to persuade me to visit just a handful of lighthouses, driving to each one in a borrowed Aston Martin. Paul and I both managed to fall out with Jason periodically, but where I took it all very personally and held a grudge for some time afterwards, Paul was able simply to brush himself down and move on. Together, Paul and Marian are people who I would choose to work with, regardless of what the work entails. We’ve devised various businesses and initiatives that have brought us closer together over the years, but nothing has quite stuck. But it was typical that they’d be happy to drive hundreds of miles to meet me here, in Bangor, tonight.

We were nearly enticed into a curry restaurant on a side street, when I noticed its single-star food hygiene rating. Searching online, I established that it had committed ‘serious breaches of food hygiene, with a complete disregard for record keeping and safe food storage’. The Chinese restaurant next door was empty, but very good.

We caught up on half a decade’s news over the following three hours. Paul hadn’t changed a bit, and was the same upbeat, entertaining and honourable friend I remembered. When we finally emerged close to midnight, I felt guilty that Paul and Marian had a 200-mile journey back to Bristol. I had a ten-minute walk back to the university halls. I hoped they would find a Travelodge with vacancies along their route.


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