Barrow-in-Furness may only be separated from Walney Island by the narrowest of channels, but it’s hard to think of two places less alike. I’m not suggesting that Barrow is an unattractive town, just that it is a working, industrial and noisy port. By contrast, the single road leading to Biggar on Walney Island seemed silent and desolate, and the cranes and buildings along the Barrow side of the water were replaced by tall trees on the opposite bank.
Walney Island’s lighthouse is at the southern end, within one of the island’s two nature reserves. Despite the well-maintained track running the length of the reserve, no vehicles or cycles are permitted, so I left my bike in one of the warden’s huts.
The lighthouse is still a working light, although the former keepers’ cottages and outbuildings are in private ownership. I couldn’t have been the first tourist with a camera to stand at the entrance taking photographs, but if I lived here I think I would find it pretty tedious after a while, so I did my best to be discrete, and didn’t linger.
The first lighthouse on Walney Island was a wooden structure, built by the Lancaster Quay Commissioners in 1790 to guide ships safely into the docks at Glasson. It was destroyed by fire in 1803.
A year later, the current lighthouse and attached cottages were built to the design of Whitehaven engineer, E Dawson. It was constructed from local stone, shipped across Morecambe Bay from Overton, and has an octagonal tower, seventy feet tall.
The original light was an Argand oil burner, which flashed a white light once every minute. This was replaced by an acetylene gas system in 1909, and changed to electric operation in 1953. The light pattern was revised to a white flashing light every fifteen seconds, visible for eighteen miles.
When the lighthouse was automated in 2003, it was the last manned lighthouse in England. Today the lighthouse is owned and operated by the Lancaster Port Commission.
This is Walney Island lighthouse. No bikes allowed in nature reserve, so a blustery walk to get there this morning pic.twitter.com/tP1bTuV8JR
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) July 15, 2015
Before making my way back to the nature reserve site, I walked to the very tip of the island, where there is a pair of pile lights at Haws Point, similar to those I had seen on the mainland the day before. Like all of the modern pile structures along the Walney Channel, they are not objects of beauty, and lack the majesty of the ‘needle’ towers that once stood in their place. So I was grateful that one of the original brick needle range lights has survived.
Before leaving Barrow, I remembered that I needed to replace the handful of inner tubes I had destroyed on the seafront near Rhyl, in a single incompetent attempt to fix a puncture. I found a bike shop and bought four spares, figuring that even by my standards, that would be enough to fix a couple more punctures at least.
I had twenty-five miles of A roads ahead of me, through a series of workmanlike but unmemorable towns surrounding the Duddon Estuary. I avoided the steep moorland roads to my right, choosing traffic and speed over solitude and hills. After Foxfield, however, I found a five-mile track that followed a railway line to Millom, and saw no one at all along its length.
At Haverigg I found the outer wall, or breakwater, that once enclosed the Hodbarrow iron mine. It’s all part of a nature reserve nowadays, and the breakwater encloses a substantial lake on one side and the water of Duddon Sands on the other. With water on all sides, cycling the length of the breakwater is an adventure in itself, with the sweet little lighthouse almost exactly halfway. The earlier, disused light is just a few hundred yards further on.
Hodbarrow was home to one of the largest and best known of the West Cumbrian iron mines. It was in operation between 1848 and 1968, and over that period it produced about 25 million tons of hematite ore.
In 1866, the Hodbarrow Mining Company built a lighthouse at the edge of the mine to guide ships into dock so they could load up with iron ore. Known as Hodbarrow Beacon, it was built in stone and includes a circular tower, thirty-five feet tall, built on a stepped stone plinth. It has a circular window on the west side of the tower, through which its light was displayed, with a cast-iron balcony just below window level.
As mining progressed, a succession of barriers had to be constructed to protect the workings of the mine, which had extended under the riverbed of the Duddon estuary. In 1900, the Hodbarrow Mining Company started building the third such barrier, the Hodbarrow Outer Barrier sea wall. This breakwater was completed in 1905, at which point the Hodbarrow Beacon was decommissioned, replaced by a new lighthouse built by Messrs Cochrane & Co.
The new light, called Hodbarrow Lighthouse (also known as Haverigg Lighthouse), was built of cast iron, and is thirty feet tall, with gallery and dome-roofed lantern. Powered by paraffin throughout its life, it displayed a white occulting light that was visible for ten miles.
By 1949 the output of the mine was in decline. The mine itself was closed, and the lighthouse was decommissioned. The mine shafts were allowed to flood once the pumps were switched off, while the lighthouse gradually fell into disrepair.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) July 15, 2015
I discovered that this isn’t quite where the story ended. The flooding allowed the RSPB to create a nature reserve from the coastal lagoon and grasslands that resulted. Today this tranquil landscape bears little resemblance to its industrial past, and now supports breeding terns, ringed plovers, redshanks and oystercatchers. There have also been sightings of great crested grebes, a protected species once hunted almost to extinction in the UK.
Meanwhile, the plaque alongside the lighthouse also had good news to impart. In 2003, a local group secured Heritage Lottery Fund money to restore the cast-iron lighthouse, and while the lantern and galley would have benefited from fresh paint, it was otherwise in good condition.
Back in Haverigg, a quick search online secured a B&B in the tiny village of Kirksanton, about four miles away. The entrance to the village was marked by a sleepy, unpromising looking pub, which I soon discovered represented my only option for food that evening. It was not yet six o’clock, but I thought I’d stop for a pint and then return later for a meal.
I couldn’t have misjudged a place more. Inside, it was absolutely heaving, and if I wanted to eat, I needed to do so straight away, because every table was booked. Where on earth did all these people come from, on a late Wednesday afternoon? If anyone ever tells you that rural pubs are no longer viable, send them to the King William IV in Kirksanton.