Return to Ilfracombe
After a second night in Taunton, Allan returned me to Ilfracombe for the third time in the week. He needed to be back in Oxford by lunchtime, so it was still dark when we pulled into the car park alongside the seafood restaurant where he had picked me up three days earlier. He’d offered to drop me at the petrol station on the hilltop above the town, to save a bit of pedalling, but as I hadn’t had cause to cheat so far, I wasn’t minded to start now.
If I’m honest I was close to tears when Allan and Cameron drove away. In fact, why hide it? I was in tears. We’d had two enormously fun days, and I wasn’t sure when I’d get another opportunity to see either friends or family. The greater the distance from home, the more it felt as though the next time would be on my return to Dungeness in August.
For a while I sat on the roadside, with a feeling of weakness in my stomach from loneliness, sadness and a good deal of anxiety. Until now, I had just kept moving, and hadn’t really paused to take note of my mental health. Sure, my drenching near Falmouth a fortnight earlier caused me to doubt what I was doing, but it had been fairly easy to put my troubles behind me and start again (largely thanks to the washing machine and Aga at The Backpackers Hostel). This time, I felt ready to call it a day. I’d cycled more than a thousand miles, I’d been away from home for six weeks, and I felt that I’d demonstrated that having multiple sclerosis needn’t mean giving up on your dreams. I could cycle back to Barnstaple, take a fast train to London, and be back home in Kent by the end of the day. And everyone would still say how well I’d done.
I must have stayed at the roadside, deliberating, for an hour or more. What got me to my feet was the realisation that I had been in Ilfracombe three times already, and I still hadn’t seen the town’s own lighthouse at St Nicholas Chapel, on the hill above the harbour. Whatever decision I made, I might as well go and find it while I was here.
The chapel here was founded originally in 1321, and it has maintained a light to guide shipping into the harbour since the Middle Ages. It is said to be the oldest lighthouse in the country. It ceased to serve as a chapel after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1540, but its role as a lighthouse remains to this day.
The chapel and lighthouse were restored by Ilfracombe’s Rotarians in 1962, and it remains an iconic and much-loved landmark in the town, with its prominent position overlooking the harbour.
Whether the chapel offered divine inspiration I cannot say, but from its vantage point looking down onto the harbour, I decided to carry on. I could see the early arrivals for the day’s crossing to Lundy, and I was happy for them that there was no repeat of the mists and fog of the previous day.
I opted to follow the main A39 coast road to reach Lynmouth, which required such complete concentration that I was able to put everything else out of my mind for an hour or so. It was tough going until the last mile, when I was able to turn off onto a steep downhill plunge along a minor toll road.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 14, 2015
Lynmouth is a pretty village, set at the foot of a gorge, a few hundred metres below the neighbouring town of Lynton. The two are connected by a funicular Cliff Railway, which opened in 1890, and is believed to be the highest and steepest railway in the world powered entirely by water.
Lynmouth has an unfortunate record as the site of the worst river flood in English history. One day in August 1952, nine inches of rain fell in a matter of hours, resulting in floods that all but destroyed the village. More than 100 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged, and 38 cars were washed out to sea. In total, 34 people died, with a further 420 made homeless. In the following months, 114,000 tons of rubble was cleared from the village, and the village itself took six years to rebuild. There is a permanent flood memorial and exhibition close to the harbour, but I wasn’t surprised to discover that it wasn’t open at 9.30 on a Sunday morning.
At the harbour is a landmark known locally as the Rhenish Tower. It was built in around 1832 to store salt water for indoor baths. I couldn’t find it listed in any of my lighthouse resources and guidebooks, but it is said that at some point in its life it was fitted with an electric light for use as a beacon to guide shipping. The original tower was destroyed in the 1952 flood, but an exact replica was built in its place as part of the village’s reconstruction.
To my dismay, the road out of the village to the lighthouse at Lynmouth Foreland was the highest and the steepest of my journey so far. I took Countisbury Hill in short stages, pushing for five minutes, stopping for five minutes, and the crest of the hill still seemed some distance away after toiling for more than an hour. My eventual exhilaration from freewheeling down the other side was short lived. I turned onto a gravel track leading to the lighthouse, which started off tamely enough. But when I reached a second bend, the track plunged steeply downhill, and I realised that while I could easily be at the lighthouse in a few minutes, my only option would be to return the same way.
I couldn’t face the prospect of another hour of pushing the bike uphill, so I buried it in bracken leaves and decided to walk. The track was steeper and longer than I’d anticipated, and it was close to lunchtime before I eventually approached the lighthouse from behind. It’s another of the lighthouses that I had always wanted to see, with its row of keepers’ cottages set low down on the cliff edge. The cottages are available for holiday lets these days, but all I could think about was just how far you’d have to go if you needed a pint of milk. I was only three miles from Lynmouth village, but this felt like one of the most remote lighthouses I had yet seen.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 14, 2015
Lynmouth Foreland Lighthouse is located on Foreland Point, around three miles east of the village of Lynmouth. It was built in 1900 and was the third light built to guide vessels passing through the Bristol Channel, following Hartland Point and Bull Point.
Its white-painted, circular tower is set a third of the way up a steep north-facing cliff, 220 feet above the high tide. Although the tower with lantern is 49 feet tall, it appears shorter because it is set lower down the cliff edge than the row of keepers’ cottages behind it.
Originally powered by oil, it was converted to electricity in 1975, when diesel generators were installed. It shows a white flashing light, four times every fifteen seconds, which is visible for eighteen miles.
Lynmouth Foreland was never a popular positing for lighthouse keepers, largely because its north-facing position meant that it only sees the sun during high summer. It was fully automated in 1994.
Since my visit, Trinity House has announced plans to remove the original Fresnal lenses, and replace them with a pair of static LED lights.
I had made such a good job of hiding the bike among the bracken that, for a while, I couldn’t find it myself. When I did eventually unearth it, it occurred to me how absurd the thought that a thief would have found it on this particular hillside and stolen it anyway.
I had no alternative but to continue along the A39 coast road, although I did take a detour to follow the beautiful, quiet, leafy and utterly deserted toll road into Porlock. I stopped for a while on the seafront at Minehead, where I noticed that I had crossed the county border into Somerset, before pushing on towards Watchet via Blue Anchor Bay.
As I descended into the town of Watchet I realised that I had been here before. Many years earlier, we stayed with our extended family in a large house, a former hotel in fact, in a village called Waterrow, about ten miles inland from here. My father had suggested a fishing trip, and a group of us hired a boat from Watchet harbour for a day’s sea fishing. I caught a ling, which we ate for supper, as well as a couple of dozen mackerel, which we discovered were the easiest fish on the planet to catch.
I also remembered the handsome red-painted, hexagonal lighthouse at the end of the west breakwater. It was built in 1862, at a time when Watchet was a busy port, exporting iron ore to Ebbw Vale. When the harbour was damaged by a series of storms in 1900, the breakwater had to be rebuilt, and the lighthouse was removed and then rebuilt in 1905. It emits an occulting green light, every three seconds, which is visible for nine miles. I hadn’t remembered, nor did I much care about, a pair of red lights on a grey pole on the east breakwater, also dating from around 1900.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 14, 2015
I had hoped to find somewhere affordable to stay in Watchet, but it was a smaller town than I remembered, and what was still available at 7pm on a Sunday night was beyond my means. So I pushed on once more, having secured a room at a guest house in Bridgewater, another eighteen miles further along the A39. On my arrival, I was treated like a familiar friend, although it was because of the bike, rather than me. It turns out that the Admiral’s Rest is just a few hundred metres from the Thorn workshops where my bike was built, and the guest house is frequented almost exclusively by Thorn owners visiting the town either to buy or service their bike.