A late start
The plan was to set off at ten o’clock and cycle the five miles from home to the lighthouse and cafe at Dungeness, where my family and a few friends would raise a toast and send me on my way. But at nine I was still working on a piece of copywriting for a client, so when Allan asked whether I was excited, the only emotion I felt was anxiety about the work that was still to be done, and the email inbox that needed to be emptied.
At a quarter to ten, I put my laptop away for good. It was barely in my desk drawer before it had been claimed by Zoe, my teenage daughter, who promised that she would look after it.
It dawned on me that I hadn’t even started to pack. In fact, I had no idea whether what I proposed to pack would even fit into my panniers. I remembered watching a YouTube video that illustrated how to pack panniers evenly, and what items to pack where. So I did a quick search and watched it again.
Allan and I worked in tandem. I filled a rear pannier with clothes and shoes, then passed it to Allan for weighing. Then I filled the other rear pannier with technology – my camera, camcorder, tablet, kindle – together with a handful of books, notepads and pens. Allan duly weighed it, only to highlight the massive imbalance. With a fair amount of swapping around, we got the weight roughly balanced between the two. So now it was the turn of the front panniers. In one went my first aid box and my bicycle toolkit. In the other, a month’s worth of pre-filled syringes for treating my MS, and the handheld injector gun that delivers the daily dose. Once again, the weight was imbalanced. I halved the contents of the first aid kit. I also took a good look at the cycle tool kit and removed a couple of heavy-looking items whose function I could not determine.
I drank three mugs of coffee, skim read the instructions for my lights, mileage counter, camera and the GPS app on my phone. Like everything else in my life, this was all very last minute. I had the right kit but had not invested the time to get to know how it worked or what it could do. When someone came up with the phrase, ‘all the gear and no idea’, they were referring to me.
I have never been able to travel light, and looking down at the four heavily laden panniers in front of me, this expedition was clearly to be no exception. I had asked cycling friends for advice about what to take with me, and I’d also sought recommendations on a few cycling forums. But almost all of the advice I was given had irritated me. One cycling pro suggested that there was no need to pack any trousers, because a single pair of waterproof over-trousers could double up as evening wear at the pub each night! In the end I compromised a little, rejecting a second casual sweater, as well as a third pair of jeans. I reckoned that if it all proved too much, I could always mail some clothes and other unnecessary kit home.
— UK lighthouse tour (@uklighthouses) May 4, 2015
When I finally set off, I took the flat, straight road to Dungeness very gently indeed. This was not a race, I kept reminding myself, and I wanted to arrive at the cafe looking calm and full of energy. I had expected half a dozen to be waiting by the Old Lighthouse at Dungeness, but it turned out to be more like forty. I arrived to cheers, bunting, posters wishing me well and a huge homemade cake. My neighbour’s youngest daughter asked me how many sleeps I would be away for, and when I told her it would be about a hundred she burst into tears. My eldest daughter took on the role of chief photographer, while my youngest proudly held up one end of a Good Luck banner. My son Tom seemed content enough, though a bit bemused by all the fuss. Typically, my parents held back, reluctant to be in the spotlight.
I stayed chatting too long, and it was past lunchtime before I bade everyone farewell and set off. I got my camera out to take my first lighthouse picture of the journey, and as I did so I heard my friend Dinny say: ‘It’s got to be a selfie, surely?’
It hadn’t crossed my mind, but I realised immediately that he was right. A series of selfies, however indulgent, was the perfect way to record my journey. So I took the first one in front of the Old Lighthouse, then cycled the few hundred yards to the current lighthouse to take my second. As I posted them online, I recognised that there was no going back, and so the expedition began.
First selfie. Lighthouse number one! 202 to go! pic.twitter.com/ZtYwxyYSJ2
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 4, 2015
Dungeness is one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, and is officially classified as a desert by the Met Office. There have been several lighthouses here, the first built nearly 500 years ago.
The receding shoreline left the original 1635 light stranded by the sea after more than a century of use, and it was eventually replaced with a new and more up-to-date structure by the architect Samuel Wyatt in 1792.
The shifting tides over the following century left this tower more than 500 metres from the sea, and a new lighthouse (now known as the old one!) was built in 1904 by Messrs, Pattrick & Co of London. The 1792 tower was demolished at the same time, but the lighthouse keepers’ accommodation, built in a circle around the base of the tower, still stands.
As the shingle continued to shift, and after the construction of the nuclear power station in the sixties, another new lighthouse was needed. Built in 1961, this is the lighthouse that operates today. It is also the lighthouse that flashed into my bedroom window as a child, and which inspired this cycling expedition. It has a tall concrete tower, about 130 feet tall, with lantern and gallery above. Nowadays it flashes a white light, once every ten seconds, which is visible for twenty-one miles. Like almost all Trinity House lighthouses, it is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.
The 1904 tower still stands, and is one of the region’s most popular visitor attractions.
And the second! I'll be finished in no time … pic.twitter.com/ACLxbDUVG8
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 4, 2015
My journey proper began along the main road to Lydd, the most southerly village in Kent, and then joined the dedicated cycle path towards Camber. A few miles outside Lydd I passed a caravan and camping site, directly opposite an army firing range, and next to a vast, industrial cement works. The fixed caravans and mobile homes were neatly arranged around the base of a huge electricity pylon, which was humming and throbbing loudly. At the entrance were elaborate gothic pillars and a large, somewhat optimistic sign that read: Do you want the quiet life?
My first stop was the medieval town of Rye, just over the county border into East Sussex. During my initial research, I had read about a number of navigation lights in and around Rye through the ages. The entrance to Rye’s port had been marked with a light at the south-west corner of the church at one time, supplemented by another on the south-east side of the town’s Ypres Tower. There had also been lights at nearby Fairlight and at Camber Castle. All of these are long gone, however, and no traces remain.
I was heading to Rye Harbour, a popular village and nature reserve about two miles beyond the medieval town centre, at the mouth of the River Rother. As I approached the harbour office, I thought it odd that I couldn’t picture the lighthouse at Rye Harbour in my mind, despite having been a frequent visitor over the years. I soon discovered why.
Having dismounted and opened my guidebook, I read that the hexagonal forty-foot concrete tower had been demolished in around 1970, and replaced with a white and green light mounted on a red-painted wooden tripod.
On the east pier opposite, a second light is mounted on a rusty green square rigging platform.
This was not the start I had anticipated for so long, but it served as a reminder of how unprepared I was for this adventure, both physically and in terms of where I was actually heading. If I had known that the lights at Rye Harbour were just beacons, would I still have come here? Should I even count harbour lights as lighthouses? These and many other questions ran through my mind, barely three hours after setting off.
I took photographs of the two lights, and retired to the excellent Bosun’s Bite cafe for a cheeseburger and chips. A lean, weathered man in his sixties pointed at my bike and told me that I had made the right choice. He had been riding Thorn bikes for thirty years, and he and his wife toured regularly on a Thorn tandem. Looking at my four heavily laden panniers, he asked me where I was heading, so I told him about my adventure.
‘Wow!’ he replied, ‘You look exhausted! How much further have you got to go?’
I stammered a hasty, non-committal reply, and decided it was time to get going. My next target was Hastings. As I discovered later that day, there is a stunning, flat and traffic-free cycle route that follows the seashore linking Rye Harbour with Winchelsea Beach. Instead, I chose to follow my nose, and found myself on the main A259 trunk road, packed with Bank Holiday Monday cars, coaches and motorbikes. At one point I was holding up at least thirty vehicles, and so was relieved to be able to turn off the main road at Winchelsea to head towards Fairlight.
The steep hill through Fairlight village was torture, and I was quickly off the bike and pushing. Progress was painfully slow, and at one point I suffered the indignity of being overtaken by an elderly lady walking her dog. I pretended to have stopped to look at the view, but I don’t think she was taken in for a minute. She told me that I was nearly halfway up, which only served to dampen my mood further.
I took a break at the top of the hill, in a country park with breath-taking views across the Fire Hills, named apparently because of the high number of gorse fires in summer months. From Fairlight the going got much easier, and I dropped down into Hastings at speed.
There are two lights in Hastings, both operated and maintained by the council, guiding the local fishing fleet back to the shingle beach from which they launch. I made my way to the higher light (known as the rear light) positioned on the cliffs above the shore at West Hill. Normally a sleepy, genteel part of town, today the crowds had descended to enjoy the May Day parade. The freshly mown parkland was strewn with thousands of beer cans and bottles, and hundreds of revellers, many drunk, were singing, shouting, arguing and starting fights. When I approached two female police officers to ask where I might find the local lighthouse, they seemed genuinely pleased that I was sober and unlikely to cause trouble. They weren’t locals themselves, however, and so couldn’t help.
In one corner of the park I saw what I was looking for: a pentagonal, wooden weather-boarded structure, looking more like a small oast house than a lighthouse. This is the rear range (range lights are pairs of lights which, when aligned, mark the safe passage). With its elevated position, it emits a fixed red light with a range of four miles. It wasn’t what you’d call a lighthouse, but it seemed a lot closer than the lamps on posts that I had seen at Rye Harbour.
With so much holiday traffic about, I chose to push my bike down the cliff footpaths to the seafront, rather than risk the main road. So by the time I found the front range light at the water’s edge, it was approaching dusk. This light, too, stretched my definition of a lighthouse, being a fixed red light mounted on a short metal pole.
With photographic evidence of my visit to both lights secured, I set off for Eastbourne, where I was due to stay the night with an old publishing friend. I had been worried about this stretch of the route because I had driven from Hastings to Eastbourne many times, and I remembered it as a fast, busy and dangerous stretch of road. But I needn’t have worried. The National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 2 stayed off road, hugging the seafront, all the way from St Leonards to beyond Pevensey.
After Pevensey Bay the route returned to the main A259, but by now the traffic had died down and the road was much quieter. Besides, there was a dedicated cycle lane along much of its length.
At Sovereign Harbour I stopped to locate a beacon mounted on top of the Martello tower, one of a number of small defensive forts built along this section of coast to protect against possible invasion from France in Napoleonic times. For the third time that day, I found myself taking a selfie in front of a structure that bore little resemblance to a lighthouse, and I was conscious of the need to establish a meaningful definition of what counted, and what should not.
While at Sovereign Harbour I also took a long-lens photo of the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, built by Trinity House in 1971 to replace the lightvessel which had marked the shoal since 1875. I was due to visit Royal Sovereign properly on a boat trip booked for later in the summer.
It is an extraordinary structure, closely resembling an oil rig, with a rectangular platform containing living accommodation perched on top of a concrete pillar, with a short red and white banded light tower and helipad above. It may not be the archetypal lighthouse of children’s drawings, but there is something special about Royal Sovereign. It is one of the last lighthouses Trinity House built, for a start. And it plays an important role in guiding shipping away from the many shoals and sandbanks so prevalent off this stretch of coast. Nowadays, it displays a flashing white light, which is visible for twelve miles.
By the time I reached Eastbourne’s elegant Victorian seafront and was less than a mile from my friend Adrian’s house, it was getting dark. Despite arriving two hours later than expected, Adrian and his partner Samina were enormously welcoming and great company. Adrian is an illustrator, and we have worked together on countless publishing projects over the years. We reminisced about the characters we had worked with over a wonderful homemade goulash, a couple of pints of bitter brewed in the Lake District, and an excellent bottle of Rioja. Unsurprisingly, I slept very well indeed.