Making up for lost time
With so much left undone from the day before, I needed to be up and out early if I stood a chance of seeing the remaining three Isle of Wight lights and still catch a ferry across to Southampton before dark. After such attentive and warm hospitality, it was quite a wrench to thank Chris and Joan and leave Hayes Barton for the final time.
It was a steep climb back up towards St Catherine’s Oratory, the original 1328 light tower built high on the hilltop about three miles north-west of the current lighthouse. For the first time since I set off, it was a warm and calm day and when I reached the car park below the tower, I needed a couple of cans of lemonade and three plastic cups of strong tea before I was ready for the final ascent.
When I eventually reached the tower, the views were breathtaking, but it was easy to see why it had been so ineffective as a beacon. Even on a day like today, a handful of low-lying clouds were shrouding the tower in a fine mist, obscuring its view of the sea at frequent intervals.
St Catherine' Oratory, IOW. Once had a small monastery adjoining the tower, but this was destroyed in dissolution. pic.twitter.com/OZejfu7rxp
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 10, 2015
St Catherine’s Oratory
The tall medieval octagonal tower, standing on one of the highest parts of the Island, is all that remains of an oratory built in 1328 as a penance by a local landowner for stealing wine from a merchant ship that ran aground on the treacherous rocks of Atherfield Ledge.
The tower, affectionately known as the Pepperpot, is a four-storey octagonal structure of greensand stone, with a pitched roof of stone tiles. A coal-fired light was displayed through eight openings on the top floor, forming a lantern. It is the only medieval lighthouse surviving in England.
In the eighteenth century, four buttresses were added to the base of the tower to strengthen it, giving it the appearance of a medieval space rocket.
Despite the unsuitability of the hilltop location for a lighthouse, construction of a second tower was started by Trinity House in 1785, less than 200 feet from the Oratory tower, albeit a little closer to the sea. It was never completed, however, and the island’s southern stretch of coast remained treacherous and unprotected until the new St Catherine’s lighthouse was built in 1838. The base of this second hilltop tower can still be seen today.
From the Oratory tower I had a straight, fifteen-mile sprint to The Needles Headland at the south-western corner of the island. I elected to stay on the main road through Chale, Atherfield and Freshwater and although there was a fair bit of traffic, the road was wide enough to prevent me from slowing drivers down, even when I was pushing the bike up every one of the hillier sections.
The southern coast of the Isle of Wight seems calm and peaceful, and with a gentle breeze behind me, and dramatic sea views to my left, the steeper sections of road did not bother me. They were an opportunity to slow down, reflect and take in the landscape.
The Needles Headland, 400 feet above the jagged rocks where The Needles lighthouse protects the western approaches to the Isle of Wight, is managed by the National Trust. It boasts unmissable sea views, and air so fresh that it prompted Tennyson to declare that it is ‘worth sixpence a pint’.
This wasn’t quite my experience, however. After the solitude of the southern coast, I found myself entering a world of gift shops, teacup fair rides, carousels, games kiosks and hundreds and hundreds of athletes. I had arrived on the same day as the annual Isle of Wight Challenge, a gruelling 65-mile run which is held on the same May weekend each year. The Needles Headland represented the finishing line, and the crowds were out to cheer the runners home. They didn’t discriminate, however, and as I cycled along towards The Needles viewing platform, I was handed more bottles of water and energy bars than I had pack room for.
260 miles since setting off from home! #beaconbike
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 10, 2015
From the Alum Bay cliffs, a chairlift takes tourists down to the beach below, from where you can also take a boat trip for a close-up view of the dramatic Needles Rocks and Lighthouse. As I was expected in Southampton that evening, I had to settle for a view of the lighthouse from the wooden viewing platform at the cliff edge, and it didn’t disappoint. The red and white banded lighthouse, with a helipad on top of the lantern, is instantly recognisable from its frequent use as an ident between television programmes on BBC One. It is a dramatic sight, and was one of the dozen or so lighthouses that I had always wanted to see. There was no shortage of tourists willing to take a photo of the lighthouse with me in the foreground, and I also took about a hundred long-range photos of the cliffs and lighthouse from every conceivable angle. Thank goodness for digital cameras!
The Needles form a chalky peninsula to the west of the Isle of Wight, which rises from jagged chalk rocks to 400-foot-high cliffs. These rocks have always proved a hazard to shipping making its way up the Solent to Portsmouth and Southampton, and in 1785 a lighthouse was built up on the cliffs at Freshwater. This small twenty-two-foot circular brick tower, with lantern on top, had a dwelling attached for the keepers’, and was referred to as both Freshwater Lighthouse and the Needles Tower.
Like the tower at St Catherine’s Oratory, this first lighthouse proved of limited use because the tower was often obscured by mist and fog. In 1859 Trinity House commissioned a new lighthouse to be built at sea level, on the outermost of the chalk rocks. Comprising a 102-foot-tall circular granite tower, it was designed by James Walker and cost £20,000 to build. It is currently painted in broad red and white bands, and emits a range of five red, white and green lights in total, each one marking a separate hazard or safe channel. Its lights are visible for seventeen miles.
A helipad was added in 1987, and the lighthouse was fully automated in 1994.
Having established that no traces remain of the earlier Freshwater Lighthouse, my final target on the island was the strange-looking light at Egypt Point in Cowes, from where I planned to catch the ferry across the Solent to Southampton. Looking at the map on my phone, I was momentarily excited by what looked like a direct ferry route from Yarmouth, just four miles away, to Hurst Point, the lighthouse that I wasn’t due to reach until at least the following evening. If this was an option, then it looked as though I could reclaim all of the time I had lost the previous day and end the first week ahead of schedule.
Alas, it was not to be. Having removed my cycling gloves to zoom in on the ferry’s exact location, the route of the ferry on the map stayed put. It wasn’t a ferry route, after all, but a stray hair that had stuck to my screen!
I was heading for the 5.30pm ferry, and as I cycled up the west coast of the island towards Cowes, it always felt as though I was slightly behind the clock. I had no time to stop and explore Boldnor, Shalfleet or Porchfield, and by the time I reached West Cowes it was getting close to 4.30pm. I found the promenade easily enough, which was much longer than I had appreciated, but not the lighthouse. It was approaching five by the time I saw it in the distance. I managed a quick selfie and a few poorly framed photos without dismounting, and then pedalled for all I was worth to make the chain ferry across to East Cowes to meet the Red Funnel service to Southampton.
I was the last person on, and made it with less than a minute to spare.
Egypt Point and my work here on IOW is done! pic.twitter.com/Z0clyyYGfh
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 10, 2015
Egypt Point is the most northerly point of the Isle of Wight, and was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite places when she stayed at Osbourne House, her summer residence at East Cowes. The unusual lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1897, and comprises a lantern supported on a twenty-five-foot-high, red-painted metal column, rising from a small, white iron-framed structure at its base.
The original light and lantern were replaced with a modern polycarbonate navigation light in 1969, which was in use until the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1989 and sold to the Isle of Wight Council for use as a daymark. The original lantern is now on display at The Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) museum at Hurst Castle.
As I emerged from the Red Funnel ferry with my bike at dusk, I was met by Gavin Millar, a keen cyclist, avid sailor and partner to fellow lighthouse obsessive, Katherine. Gavin and Katherine had read about my adventure in the ALK quarterly journal, and had offered to put me up. I studied at Southampton University after I left school, so I was delighted to discover that Gavin and Katherine not only lived in a part of town that I knew very well, but also that their house was just a few doors down from a wonderful pub where I had worked during my student years, and briefly managed after I graduated.
Over a couple of pints of Palmers Copper Ale at The South Western Arms, I discovered that Gavin and I had plenty in common. Like me, he had spent childhood holidays visiting his grandparents on the coast, only for him they were near Bamburgh, in Northumberland, and it was the Longstone Lighthouse that flashed through his bedroom window.
In 2012, Gavin had launched into the water at the end of his garden in a Solway Dory sailing canoe, and set sail on a voyage that took him 1,000 miles around the British coast. He had several narrow escapes, in particular along a stretch of the north Norfolk coast, and I began to hope that the locals were as willing to come to the aid of cyclists as they evidently were of canoeists.
We returned to home to a fabulous homemade fish pie that Katherine appeared to have conjured up from nowhere. They made me feel so welcome and entirely at home, and I went up to bed questioning why I had chosen to leave Southampton after university at all.
Sleep did not come quickly, as I reflected back over my first full week of cycling. However good it felt to have racked up twenty-five lighthouses, it was really my physical health that gave me the most satisfaction. So far, it seemed, cycling nearly 260 miles had not provoked any new MS symptoms, and any tiredness I felt seemed entirely natural and manageable. A long way to go. But an encouraging beginning.