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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 74: Kirksanton to Maryport via St Bees and Whitehaven

by | Jan 24, 2023


The cyclist is poorly served heading north from Kirksanton, with the busy, unyielding A595 offering the only viable route. Beyond the wonderfully tranquil coastal village and harbour at Ravenglass, however, everything changes. The rest of the ride to St Bees weaved through sixteen miles of minor roads, bridleways and dedicated cycle paths, roughly following the dramatic route of the Cumbrian Coast railway line.

Seascale has a quaint and delightfully unspoiled seafront, seemingly at odds with its close neighbour, the Sellafield nuclear processing plant, and formerly the first nuclear power station to generate electricity on a commercial scale. Braystones, with its period beachfront bungalows, chalets and huts is equally untouched, although it narrowly avoided selection as the site of a new nuclear facility a few years ago.

St Bees village is extraordinary, with the dunes and rough grassland of the Cumbrian Coast replaced with the bowling-green flat, perfectly mown lawns and playing fields of St Bees school. The private school was founded in the sixteenth century, but my arrival coincided with a local war that was being waged between the residents of the village and the trustees and principal stakeholders of the school.

Without any warning, the school governors had announced that due to falling pupil numbers, the school would close at the end of the Summer term, just two weeks from now. Placards in windows served to protest against the closure, with local residents calling foul play. A local paper dedicated a double page spread to a story accusing the Head Teacher of double standards, claiming that he publicly reassured the villagers that he was doing all he could to keep the school open, while simultaneously being part of a consortium that would benefit from the sale of its property and land.

It was all rather undignified. Despite having had a private education myself, I have no affection for the system, and whether or not St Bees endured as a seat of learning was of no concern to me. However, the thought that these lawns, these playing fields and campus would be uprooted, developed and built upon was too ghastly to contemplate. Search online for aerial views of St Bees School, and you’ll see what I mean.

Beyond the village itself, the lanes and footpaths climb to St Bees Head and follow the top of the red sandstone cliffs. Unlike a couple of days before, today the skies were completely clear and from the headland I could make out the Isle of Man, thirty miles to the south-west.

A lane leading to the lighthouse beyond a farmhouse is marked private, but as the alternative involved a walk of several miles along the coastal footpath, I took it anyway. Pausing in front of the lighthouse, looking out towards the Isle of Man, there was nowhere that I’d rather than have been at that moment.

St Bees Head

About a mile beyond the village of St Bees is North Head, a clifftop promontory which proved dangerous to shipping trading between the ports of Wales and those of Maryport, Workington, Whitehaven and Silloth along the Solway Firth.

The first lighthouse here was built in 1718, a circular stone tower that was coal fired. The light was much criticised, with winds on the headland often shrouding it in thick smoke. It remained in operation until 1822, when it was destroyed by fire, killing the keeper’s wife and five children.

Trinity House built its replacement in the same year, an oil-fired, circular brick tower light, to a design by engineer Joseph Nelson.

St Bees

St Bees

In 1866, Nelson’s light was replaced by a taller tower, along with attached accommodation, which was built under the supervision of James Douglas. This is the lighthouse that stands today. The tower is fifty-six feet tall, and the light itself is 335 feet above sea level. It displays a white flashing light, which is visible for twenty miles. The current lighthouse was automated in 1987.

The harbour town of Whitehaven is five miles north of the lighthouse at St Bees, and I was able to remain on cycle tracks and minor roads the whole way. Better still, they were almost entirely downhill, and my final descent took me straight to the marina and harbour.

For the budding lighthouse bagger, Whitehaven is the equivalent of the child who kickstarts their stamp collection by buying a job lot of stamps at a jumble sale or boot fair. Here you can tick three lighthouses off your list, on foot, in around a quarter of an hour.

Whitehaven was a relatively modest fishing village until 1630, when Sir Christopher Lowther purchased local land and decided to use the town as a port for exporting coal from the Cumbrian coalfields. Over time, Whitehaven was transformed into the third-largest trading port in the UK, exporting coal worldwide. In addition to coal, over subsequent centuries the port was developed and adapted to export iron ore and chemicals, as well as to serve a significant shipbuilding industry.

Whitehaven Watchtower

Whitehaven Watchtower

The port has undergone several periods of expansion and development. The first quay, the Old Quay, was built in 1633 for the export of salt and coal. At one end, close to what is now the entrance to the marina, there is a tall stone tower that is often mistaken for an early lighthouse. In fact, a plaque alongside it indicates that it was a watchtower, built in around 1730, and used for general surveillance of sailing vessels in the harbour.

Whitehaven Old New Quay

Whitehaven Old New Quay

Whitehaven’s oldest lighthouse was built later, in 1742, on a smaller, dogleg pier somewhat confusingly called the Old New Quay. It has a circular stone tower, forty-six feet tall, with a cast-iron gallery. Its oil-fired light was displayed through a window. There is a stone building alongside the tower, which is believed to be associated with the lighthouse. This lighthouse was converted to gas in 1841, but was decommissioned soon afterwards, when two new outer harbour lights were built following expansion of the port.

Whitehaven North Pier

Whitehaven North Pier

In the nineteenth century, the port of Whitehaven continued to prosper largely because of coal exports. Two additional, outer piers were constructed – the West Pier, in 1838, and the North pier, in 1841. There is a lighthouse on each pier.

On the North Pier, there is a circular, castellated brick tower, around twenty feet tall, with gallery and window. It’s dated 1841 and painted white, with bands of red at its base and around the gallery. Originally, a fixed red light was displayed through the window, which was visible for nine miles. Nowadays, a pair of lights are displayed from a mast mounted on the tower’s roof.

Whitehaven West Pier

Whitehaven West Pier

On the West Pier, there is a taller, tapered brick lighthouse, dating to the same period. It is around fifty feet tall, with lantern and gallery room. It, too, is painted white, with bands of red at its base and around the gallery. It displays a green flashing light, visible for thirteen miles.

My journey up the west coast was coming to an end. I had only the pairs of lighthouses at Maryport and Silloth left to see. From Silloth, I planned to head to Carlisle where I would meet up with Allan again and drive to Berwick on the east coast. The remainder of my route up the west coast followed National Cycle Route 72, which apart from in Workington joined together several dedicated cycle tracks that follow the Cumbrian Coastal railway.

Maryport is a smaller and more genteel town than I imagined, and I was delighted to discover that the hotel I had found online overlooked the harbour and former lighthouse. I wandered down to the harbour, these days better known for its marina sheltering yachts and small fishing boats, and walked to the head of the pier to take a look at both lights.

Maryport was established as a town as far back as 122, and a Roman fort here suggests that the region was an important command and supply base for the coastal defences at the western extremity of Hadrian’s Wall.

As a port, the town thrived from the mid-eighteenth century, when a local landowner, Humphrey Senhouse, began the development of the town as a port, and named it Maryport, after his wife Mary.

Mayport Old

Mayport Old

Both shipbuilding and coal industries prospered, and an oil-fired light was established on the South Pier in around 1796. When the pier was extended, in 1846, it was replaced by an elegant octagonal cast-iron column, mounted on a circular stone base, with lantern on top. For many years it was a tidal light, and lit only at night when the tide was high enough for boats to enter the harbour. Originally gas powered, it had a range of six miles. In 1858, new optics were installed that doubled its range to twelve miles.

I had read that this is said to be the UKs oldest cast-iron lighthouse, although remembering that the same claim is made of the Whiteford Point lighthouse on the Gower, I was somewhat dubious.

Maryport South Pier

Maryport South Pier

By 1946, the light had been converted to acetylene, and in 1961, responsibility for the light transferred to Trinity House. In 1996 Trinity House replaced it with a small aluminium tower at the far end of the pier extension, lit by mains electricity. It displays a white flashing light, visible for six miles. In 2010 Trinity House transferred responsibility for the new light to the Maryport Harbour Authority.

Looking out to sea, I saw a series of headlands, and two flashing lights that I didn’t recognise. I checked a couple of guidebooks to make sure that I hadn’t missed out any lighthouses in my plans. The whole shape of the coastline seemed different from my mental picture, and I was sure that even if I could see my final lights at Silloth from this point, they should be much further east. It was only when I took out my roadmap that I realised that for the first time, I was looking at another country. The coastline I was looking at was Scotland.

Back in the town centre, the Golden Lion Hotel turned out to be an excellent choice, and I was following several esteemed travellers before me. William Wordsworth stayed here in 1829, George Stephenson in 1836, as well as both Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens in 1857. Tonight, about 160 years later, a lighthouse bagging adventurer stayed here too.


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