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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 39: Hartland to Ilfracombe

by | Aug 14, 2022

Bull Point

A second professional commitment

When I had set out from home more than a month ago, I only had two commitments in my diary. The first was the Bournemouth University publishing awards presentation in mid-May, which I had safely accomplished. The other was an all-day meeting with the Commonwealth Education Trust in Clevedon, near Bristol, scheduled for the following morning. My problem was that Clevedon was ninety miles north, and even if I made rapid progress I was bound to end the day at least forty miles short.

It was time for a rescue plan involving Allan, my friend from Oxford. I would cycle as far as Ilfracombe, where Allan would meet me with his car. We would stay overnight with Allan’s brother and family in Taunton, and then he would drive me to my meeting in Clevedon in the morning. After a second night in Taunton we would return to Ilfracombe, where I would resume the ride, but not before a day trip to Lundy, where we would ‘bag’ the island’s three lighthouses.

After a short stretch of the A39, which must rate as one of the least cycle-friendly roads in the south-west, I descended into Bideford where I bought two day-trip tickets to Lundy for the day after next. Bideford lies on the west bank of the River Torridge, a mile or so inland from Appledore, famous for its shipbuilding heritage. The Lundy ferry leaves either from here or from Ilfracombe, according to seasonal tides, and I have spent many hours on the quay at Bideford eagerly awaiting the arrival of MS Oldenburg.

With the day trip organised, I joined the brilliant Tarka Trail cycle route, named after the route travelled by Tarka the Otter in the famous novel by Henry Williamson. It runs for 180 miles in a figure of eight pattern, centred on Barnstaple, the largest town in North Devon. The stretch between Braunton and Meeth is a section of flat, tarmacked, unused railway providing thirty miles of traffic-free cycling – the longest stretch in the UK.

I realised that I had been here before, when we bought my daughter her first bike from a toy shop in Bideford and joined the Tarka Trail so that she could learn to ride it safely. I remember spending an entire day sitting outside a cafe, converted from a former railway station, while Zoe cycled up and down the station platform squealing with delight, knowing only too well that she was tormenting her baby brother, who badly wanted a turn himself.

Instow Front

Instow Front

Before I reached the cafe, I took a brief detour to Instow, where a pair of range lights mark the safe, narrow passage where the River Torridge and River Taw meet. They were built in 1964 to replace an earlier pair of lights and, while functional, they are certainly not attractive.

The front light comprises a metal lattice tower, nearly sixty feet high, with a sealed beam light that flashes a white light every six seconds. My guidebook says that it is visible for fifteen miles. Near the top of the tower is a white-painted screen, used as a daymark, giving the tower the appearance of a very tall cricket sight screen.

Instow Rear

Instow Rear

Further back on the hillside behind the village is the rear light, which although shorter is similar in appearance. It also has a sealed beam light, flashes a white light every ten seconds, also visible for fifteen miles.

Although Barnstaple is busy, the Tarka Trail avoids the town centre, and it wasn’t long before I was in Braunton, where I looked for the modern light at Crow Point. I had seen it from the river bank opposite, at Instow, but I discovered that access was relatively straightforward from Braunton Sands.

Crow Point BrauntonThe two former lights at Braunton, known as Braunton High and Braunton Low, were built in 1820 to guide ships over the Bideford Bar, a dangerous sand dune that can only be safely navigated at half-tide or above. They lasted until the 1950s, when they fell into disrepair and were eventually demolished in 1957. The single replacement light at Crow Point was brought into service in 1954, with a light that flashes every five seconds, either red or white, depending on direction. Like the pair of lights at Instow, it’s a white-painted metal tower, mounted on a square, concrete base.

After Braunton, the Tarka Trail joins up with National Cycle Route 27, which took me most of the way to Mortehoe. I was tempted to take a detour to Woolacombe, where the Woolacombe Bay Hotel used to offer dinner, bed and breakfast, out of season, for £45 for two people. Before we had children, it had become a regular haunt for long weekend breaks.

Remembering the steep hill out of Woolacombe towards Mortehoe, I changed my mind, and stuck to the relatively manageable cycle route. Mortehoe sits on the cliffs above Woolacombe and offers wonderful panoramic views out to sea towards Lundy. On the headland beyond the village lies Bull Point, where the relatively modern lighthouse forms one corner of a triangle of lights that include Hartland Point and the two lights on Lundy Island.

The track leading from the edge of the village to the lighthouse is much longer than I remember, and I began to wonder if I had either taken a wrong turn, or missed the lighthouse altogether. Eventually, I saw a traditional building sporting the familiar Trinity House green and white paintwork, with a range of modern buildings, and the lighthouse, beyond. Despite its remote location, there were plenty of signs of life, with several cars parked up and washing hanging from a number of improvised lines.

Bull Point

When the first lighthouse at Bull Point was built in 1879, it stood more than seventy feet from the cliff edge. It served for nearly a hundred years until much of the cliff edge surrounding the lighthouse fell into the sea in 1972, causing the fog signal station to collapse, and leaving the boundary walls with deep cracks. All but one of the original buildings and tower were subsequently demolished, and a temporary light was brought into service between 1972 and 1976.

Bull Point

Bull Point

Work started on a new lighthouse in 1974, using the generator and some of the equipment from the original light. It is functional, rather than pretty, with a grey squat, square tower with a matching rectangular service building joined to it. It was automated when built in 1975, and the fog signal was discontinued in 1988.

These days it displays a white flashing light, three times every ten seconds, which is visible for twenty miles.

The keepers’ houses have since been sold by Trinity House and are now available as holiday lets.

The long ascent back to Mortehoe took more than an hour, but this was more than compensated for by the leisurely descent into Ilfracombe along another section of former railway line. I had arranged to meet Allan at a large car park at the entrance to the town, but I arrived three hours early. I wandered over to a seafood restaurant in one corner and decided to wait for Allan with a glass of wine at a table outside. I found myself eavesdropping on a couple at the table next to me, who were in the middle of converting a pair of terraced town houses nearby into a boutique hotel. They disagreed about most things, including colours and fabrics, and it quickly became clear that they each had an entirely different vision for what their hotel would look like, as well as the class of clientele they should try to attract.

I attempted to diffuse the tension by making a joke about it, and was called upon straight away to adjudicate. They each outlined their plan, explaining why it was the more viable and profitable of the two. It was a role that required another glass of Sauvignon and so I ordered a bottle without hesitation. A couple of glasses in, and I ordered a seafood starter followed by Skate with a lemon caper butter sauce. The wine gave me the confidence that I was now a hospitality sector expert – I had once served behind the bar at our local at home, after all, and I delivered my judgement of the merits and pitfalls of each vision for the hotel. It had been two weeks since I spent time with the family at The Lizard, and I was loving the attention, and the opportunity to stop and chat.

By the time Allan pulled up in the car park, I was drunk and had consumed about £35 worth of delicately cooked seafood. Allan, meanwhile, has been sitting in stationery traffic on the M5 for nearly two hours, and had eaten a pasty and a bag of crisps.

How long have you been here?’ he asked.

Oh, not long,’ I replied.

I left it at that.

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