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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Point of Ayr

A hangover I deserved

I awoke in Rhyl with the headache I deserved, but I was grateful that at breakfast there was no evidence I had caused lasting offence to my host as a result of the Derek Acorah comparison.

I left the town a day ahead of the Madness concert, and tried to imagine what the promenade might look like without its temporary enclosures. I was heading to the headland beyond Talacre, where Point of Ayr lighthouse was my last in Wales. The first ten miles were a delight, with National Cycle Route Network 5 hugging the seafront along tarmacked tracks the whole way, with the coast road and its tourist traffic far inland.

I passed in front of the Pontins Holiday Park in Prestatyn, and was immediately reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem Sunny Prestatyn. I saw no hotel with palms, but no tuberous cock and balls either. I felt a little disappointed, not because I expected either seaside grandeur or a run down, neglected seafront, but because it was all rather nondescript. There seemed to be very little to make the town noteworthy at all.

Looking at the map, I had imagined that the route into Talacre would be a single-track settlement with a handful of houses. In reality, it clearly benefits from Prestatyn’s notoriety as a holiday destination, and is a city of bungalows, mobile homes and static caravans, punctuated every few hundred yards by food stores and ice cream parlours.

I could no longer see the sea, because of the banks of elevated sand dunes lining the paths to my left. So I had to estimate when to dismount and climb up onto the dune to get the best view of the Point of Ayr lighthouse. I miscalculated on my first attempt, when the lighthouse was still some distance away. But on my second attempt, I looked straight down onto the beach with the lighthouse in front of me. The tide was out, and the tower itself was still some distance away. Despite being sorely in need a several coats of paint, it was still a beautiful and haunting sight.

Point of Ayr

Point of Ayr

Point of Ayr

The Point of Ayr lighthouse was built in 1777 to mark the entrance to the River Dee, at a time when Chester was an important port. It was built by local architect and builder Henry Turner, modelled on the existing Liverpool Docks Board light at Hoylake.

Its tower is sixty-five feet high, and was originally painted in red and white stripes, with a red-painted lantern. It showed a fixed white light, seaward towards Great Ormes Head, near Llandudno, as well as a lower, fixed red light towards the Dee estuary and Dawpool, in Cheshire. Both were visible for nine miles. The tower was supported on piles that were screwed into the seabed. There are three floors, as well as a basement and coal store.

Responsibility for the lighthouse passed to Trinity House in 1819, after which the lighthouse was renovated, with a new lantern fitted. Several sources suggest that the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1883, when the Dee lightship was called into service. But one of my guidebooks suggest that the light was discontinued when another screw-pile lighthouse, designed by James Walker, was built in 1844. No trace of the 1844 lighthouse exists today.

The lighthouse at Point of Ayr is now in private ownership.

Having reached the last lighthouse in Wales, another significant milestone, I would now cross the River Dee near Queensferry and then the official border back into England shortly before Chester. I was making for Ellesmere Port, site of a tall, brick-built former lighthouse that now forms part of the National Waterways Museum complex.

The first twenty miles from Talacre, staying close to the shore of the River Dee, were especially hard going. For a couple of hours, I switched regularly between the main A548 road, which was fast but dangerous, and any other quieter option.

I crossed the river on the Chester Millennium Greenway, following an old railway line around the outskirts of the city, and then a series of paths, cycle tracks and bridleways close to the Shropshire Union Canal. The lighthouse I was making for, Whitby Lighthouse at Ellesmere Port, is part of a dock complex on the south side of the River Mersey. It’s easy to find, because these days it is part of the National Waterways Museum, and there are signs to it at every road intersection.

Ellesmere Port

Ellesmere Port

Ellesmere Port

The docks at Whitby were built by Thomas Telford in 1796, at the junction between the Shropshire Union Canal and the River Mersey. The lighthouse, constructed from red brick, is much later, and was designed to guide ships into the Shropshire Union Canal’s dock complex from the River Mersey.

It was built in 1880, and is a tall, red-brick, octagonal tower, thirty-six feet high, with an unusual bell-shaped roof. Its light was visible for nineteen miles. When the Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894, ships entered the docks from a new canal entrance at Eastham Locks, three miles downstream. As a result, the lighthouse at Ellesmere Port became redundant.

In 1971, the Boat Museum Society took over part of the docks, and when it became part of the National Waterways Museum, the lighthouse tower and adjoining buildings were renovated and restored.

I still needed to get to Birkenhead to see the lighthouse at the Woodside Ferry Terminal. It’s where the stone jetty was built for the Liverpool-Birkenhead ferry, the crossing made famous in the Gerry Marsden’s song Ferry Cross the Mersey.

It was ten miles of main roads with two, three and sometimes four carriageways, but there was an excellent dedicated cycle lane the whole way, and I reached the terminal in around forty minutes.

Woodside Ferry Terminal

Woodside Ferry

Woodside Ferry

When the jetty was built in around 1840, a white lantern, mounted on a short, white-painted conical stone tower was installed. The lantern had a window pointing across the river, through which a light was displayed. The terminal and jetty were modified not long afterwards, so the light was only active for about fifteen years.

However, the tower survived, without its lantern, right up to the mid 1980s, when it was refurbished and moved to the newly built landing stage. At the same time the lantern, which during the intervening years had been mounted on a metal lattice bell tower on the river’s edge, was reunited with the tower and painted an attractive dark red.

The current tower has never operated as a lighthouse, as such, although it is comforting to know that the tower and lantern were considered to be a sufficiently important landmark to be restored.

With the Birkenhead light conquered, my day was done. For only the second time, however, I found myself double booked. Through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, I had received two generous offers of accommodation for my time on the Wirral, and without realising how close together they were, I had accepted both. I felt awful having to choose one and let the other down, all the more so because both had been in touch to say how much they were looking forward to meeting me.

I made contact with both, and arranged to stay with Stephen and Mandy in Bidston, and to drop by John and Diane, in Wallasey, for morning coffee the following day. I don’t think the arrangement left either party feeling offended, both recognising that it was simply down to my own incompetence. It meant that I had a treat ahead of me, or at least, a treat for a lover of lighthouses. John and Mandy owned the lighthouse on Bidston Hill, and tonight I would be staying in one wing of the keepers’ accommodation.

It was an easy three-mile ride through Birkenhead Park and a network of leafy residential streets. When I reached the foot of the hill itself, Stephen was walking down the drive to greet me, having been following my progress in real time on my live website map.

Stephen and Mandy were the most genial of hosts. They had bought the tower and principal cottage in 2011, and had spent considerable time and money on a careful and sympathetic restoration. A few months before my arrival they had managed to purchase the remaining cottage, with a plan to reunify the entire complex over time to create one substantial home.

It was easy to warm to Stephen and Mandy. If I’m honest, sleeping in other people’s houses doesn’t come naturally to me. Give me a choice between the finest privately owned castle, or the last room on the ground floor of a Travelodge next to the motorway, and it’s the Travelodge every time. And before you ask, no, Travelodge did not sponsor this expedition! Other roadside hotel chains, just as comfortable, would suit me equally well. But Stephen and Mandy were my sort of people, refreshingly down to earth, clearly as excited to be renovating their lighthouse as I was to be staying in it.

They had invited some friends, Steve and Jackie, to join us for supper. When they arrived, Stephen and Steve gave me the grand tour.

Bidston Hill

The first lighthouse on Bidston Hill was built by Liverpool’s dockmaster William Hutchinson in 1771, and was designed to work in conjunction with the Mockbeggar Light at Leasowe, forming a pair of leading lights that guided ships around the sandbanks in the Liverpool channel. The lighthouse itself is unusual, in that it is two miles inland. In fact, it is the farthest inland of any lighthouse around the UK coast.

Bidson Hill

Bidson Hill

When this first lighthouse was damaged by fire in 1865, it was demolished and replaced in 1873 with the current stone tower, sixty-nine feet tall, with adjacent cottages that provided ample accommodation for three keepers. It also housed a signal station, and its prominent position high up enabled semaphore signals to be used to relay information about the movement of shipping in Liverpool Bay to the merchants of Liverpool. It was a kind of forerunner to the electric telegraph, and it is said that messages could be sent between Holyhead and Liverpool in less than eight minutes, with the signal station on Bidston Hill playing a pivotal role.

As the sand banks gradually shifted, the safe line of approach through the channel altered, rendering the leading lights at Leasowe and Bidston Hill ineffective. As a result, Bidston Hill lighthouse was decommissioned in October 1913.

Following a range of alternative uses for the site throughout the twentieth century, the lighthouse and surrounding buildings were awarded listed building status in 1989, and were eventually put up for sale in 2010. Bidston Lighthouse C.I.C. was formed in 2015. It is a not-for-profit, community-interest company dedicated to preserving Bidston Lighthouse and celebrating its important role in the development of telecommunications, lighthouse optics and the Port of Liverpool.

Back downstairs, dinner was ready. I felt in good company, having established that all five of us shared broad consensus on our political views and the results of the recent general election. More than that, anyone who is willing to serve a bottle of 2008 Fronsac to someone they only met for the first time that afternoon is either very generous, or completely insane. I’d wager it was the former.

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