A few days of parenthood
Half-term week at The Lizard was very special. At Emma’s recommendation, we walked over the cliffs to Kynance Cove, where we spent a windy few hours on the beach, alternating between homemade pasties and flapjacks from the splendid beach cafe.
Lottie had brought her multicoloured pocket kite – designed to fly in all conditions, and with a no-knots-guarantee. We paused on the springy, gorse headland on the route back to give it a go, but it spent more time on the ground than in the air, and after one particularly aggressive tailspin, its ribbons became plaited – permanently – with the kite’s single string.
We discovered the beautiful sandy beach at Poldhu, owned by the National Trust, where we made the classic mistake of laying down our towels to claim our spot away from the crowds at low tide, and then having to move everything in a hurry – twice – as the tide came in.
We spent an almost perfect day meandering the gardens and beach at Trebah. But throughout, Tom was very quiet. Silent in fact. The bullying he had been suffering at school hadn’t stopped. The school was sympathetic, but said they could only intervene if Tom was prepared to put forward a name, something he steadfastly refused to do. He was certain that a formal complaint would only make matters worse, and so Tom was reduced to spending his days in solitude, silence and frequently in tears.
As a parent, there can be few more difficult or upsetting challenges to face. Emily and I had each tried to talk with him, but there was no question of him telling us who was involved. I spent a lot of half-term week just squeezing his hand, wishing it was all different. From my own perspective, I just didn’t feel I could wave the family off home and continue on my journey until or unless we were able to ease Tom’s suffering.
Like many dads, I just wanted the name of the nasty little brat who was causing my son such misery, so that I could turn the tables on him and make every day for the rest of his life utter hell. Emily wasn’t as convinced as I was that this was a constructive course of action to take.
My state of mind wasn’t being helped by an author whose book I had helped to publish a few months earlier. She turned out to be exceedingly high maintenance, emailing me several times a day with a series of petty requests, comments and suggestions from her readers. She texted me to say that she had sent out a promotional email to her mailing list, and needed to know the effect it was having on sales, twice daily, for the foreseeable future. While I was walking hand in hand with Tom, in silence, through the tropical gardens at Trebah, she texted to say that she had just forwarded an email of complaint from a reader that I needed to address and respond to straight away.
If this was all designed to test me, and to mess with my head, then it was proving very effective. As I read and replied to my author’s email, my phone fluctuated between one bar and no signal at all. The email failed to send. Several times. But on the fourth attempt, it suddenly felt as though I had emerged into the light. What on earth was I doing? Why was I allowing this paltry email, from this small-minded and ungrateful writer, affect me so badly? Ruining the short time I had with my family. All this, at a time when my family – my son – really needed me.
I vowed to myself, there and then, that I would email the author to inform her that she would need to find a new publisher and distributor for her book. Then I caught up with Tom, and sat him next to me on a bench while I gave him the speech of my life about the consequences of bullying, of allowing bullies to go unchallenged, of the others who would suffer at his hands if we didn’t take action. He listened, in complete silence, for a long time.
And then he gave me a name …
On Friday morning we packed our bags in silence. I shifted, seemingly without warning, between sadness that Emily and the children were about to say goodbye for what would be a couple of months at least, to exhaustion at the emotional toil that the week had taken, to excitement that the journey was about to restart.
Before setting off, Lottie and I took a tour of the Lizard Lighthouse, something we had spectacularly failed to do in the four days since we arrived. We learned that constructing a light here, at the most southerly point in Britain, had proved challenging, not least because of local opposition. There were healthy profits to be made from salvaging cargo from the numerous ships that wrecked or ran aground off the point.
There are two towers at the Lizard, with the keepers’ cottages – now holiday lets – running between them. Only the lantern on the easterly tower remains, although the tower at the westerly end still stands.
Despite local opposition, as well as fear that a lighthouse at Lizard would provide enemy vessels with safe passage, the first lighthouse there was completed by Cornish philanthropist Sir John Killigrew in 1619. Despite funding its construction, the maintenance and upkeep of the light was to be funded by the tolls collected from ships that passed the point. However, these were deemed to be voluntary, and as a result the lighthouse fell into disrepair. By 1630 it was derelict.
More than a hundred years later, in 1748, Trinity House supported a proposal by Thomas Fonnerau to construct a new light at Lizard. The original proposal was for four towers, although this was eventually scaled back to two. They were completed and first lit in August 1752.
The two octagonal towers stand sixty-two feet high, joined by a row of two-storey keepers’ cottages. The lanterns were originally coal fired, but were replaced with Argand lamps in 1812, and then electrified in 1878.
In 1903, a rotating optic with a high-powered carbon arc light was installed in the eastern tower, and the western tower’s lantern was decommissioned and removed. This carbon arc light was replaced with an electric filament lamp in 1936. These days the lighthouse displays a white flashing light, which is visible for twenty-six miles.
The Lizard Lighthouse was automated in 1998.
As we emerged from the tour of the lighthouse, I saw Emily’s car fully packed and ready to leave. I’m afraid I let my emotions get the better of me and sobbed uncontrollably. I couldn’t decide which would affect me more – wave them off first, and watch them head off into the distance? Or leave first, knowing that they would overtake me after just a few minutes? I opted for the former, and then sat on the white-painted stone steps in front of our cottage, and cried some more. For a while, not for the first time, I wanted to give up. By train, I could be home by nightfall. In fact, I could probably get back before the others. I could demand a meeting with Tom’s school on Monday morning, and fire off an email to the author who had become the bane of my life.
But what then? How would I feel tomorrow? Or the next day? Or the following week, having given up with less than a third of my adventure completed?
Determined to fight on, I needed to distract myself from the doubts and anxiety in my head. Before my MS diagnosis, I used to love hiking and long-distance walking. I could keep myself going for ages, just by repeating a count of one to eight in line with my steps. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. And then start back at the beginning. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
I found that I was able to do something similar with the rotation of my pedals. I counted eight rotations, and then I counted eight more. And then eight more. And then another eight. I covered the ten miles back to Helston in 45 minutes, and barely two hours after that, I was boarding a train back to Plymouth at Truro station.
I was in Plymouth by early afternoon, where I found a guest house close to the hotel by the harbour where I had stayed the previous week. I still had a handful of unexciting lights and beacons to see on the western side of Plymouth Sound, and I knew that if I didn’t force myself back out this afternoon, I probably wouldn’t bother with them at all. An afternoon with too much thinking time and I’d talk myself into heading home again.
There are two lights at Millbay Pier, less than a mile from the guest house. I found the first straight away, a red and white striped concrete tower, with a circular, caged metal platform at the top. The other proved elusive, until I eventually spotted what looked like a car headlamp, mounted onto a section of rusty, red latticed framework. For a moment, I was tempted not to bother even taking a photo.
While on the pier, I could see the light at Eastern King. Using a long lens, I observed that it comprises nothing more than a small, metal column just a few feet high. I settled for a long-lens photograph, and then cycled around the harbour to Devil’s Point, where I found a red and white striped navigation light that was at least worthy of a photograph.
It’s not in my guidebook, but a bit of research suggested that there is a light in Mount Edgecumbe Park, near Maker, opposite Devil’s Point. A glance at the map indicated that it was a ten-mile ride, crossing the River Tamar to Torpoint, and then following its bank around the bay. I was about to abandon the idea – I wasn’t entirely certain that the light even existed – when I discovered that there’s a ferry service straight across to Mount Edgecumbe Park from Mayflower Marina, just a few hundred yards from where I was standing.
The Cremyll Ferry, crossing the Tamar between Devon and Cornwall, has been run by Tamar Cruising since 1985. For £2, plus another £1 for my bike, I crossed in less than ten minutes. There’s a spectacular house and gardens at Edgecumbe, and I vowed to return one day, but it was now late afternoon and I was on a mission. I cycled past Edgecumbe’s folly, with spectacular views over the water to the city.
Alongside a narrow lane, after Picklecombe Fort, I saw a greying, concrete cone-shaped structure with a lamp on top of it. Its seaward-facing side was slightly more promising, and it was also a little taller than it appeared from the road. It must be about fifteen feet high, and is painted with red and white vertical stripes to serve as a daymark.
It’s fair to say that if I wasn’t looking for ways to occupy my thoughts, I probably wouldn’t have either learned about this light, nor bothered to track it down. But I was glad of the distraction, and keen not to think about Emily and the children, back at home without me. I retraced my steps and caught the ferry back to Admiral’s Hard in Plymouth.
That left just two of Plymouth’s peripheral lights, both beyond Mayflower Marina, neither of which looked promising.
The first is near Mayflower Marina, and I spent ages looking for it. No wonder I didn’t find it, despite stopping and asking several locals for directions. They had never heard of it, and one swore blind that I was making it up. It turned out to be a small, pyramidal tower mounted onto a corner of a multi-story complex of riverside apartments. This was a new low for me, and I vowed to assess again my definition of a lighthouse. If this light counted, then I should probably start including traffic lights and streetlights as well.
At least the other light, at Mount Wise Pier, had some age. Its fixed lights shine from a square, weather-boarded structure, a bit like an old-fashioned bus shelter. It also acts as a daymark, with the seaward face painted in red and white stripes. Few would consider it a lighthouse, but at least it has been designed and constructed with purpose and care.
Returning to the guest house near the harbour, I was overjoyed at the thought that there probably wouldn’t be so many small, trivial lights concentrated in one place until I got as far as the River Severn, at the mouth of the Bristol Channel. And that was still a couple of weeks away.
I had one more mission in Plymouth, and that was to see the most famous lighthouse of them all: Eddystone. For now, though, I just needed sleep. Since breakfast I had toured the Lizard Lighthouse, seen the family off, cycled to Truro, taken the train to Plymouth and then cycled another thirty or so miles. I had avoided giving mind space to any dark or sad thoughts all day. I was ready to phone home and find out how everyone was. But there was no answer at home. I phoned Emily’s mobile, only to discover that with Devon and Cornwall Bank Holiday weekend traffic, they had travelled barely seventy-five miles, and had spent the whole day in stationery traffic near Bristol.