At eight o’clock in the morning I was back at the harbour in a long queue waiting to board the Scillonian III, the ferry that has made the crossing between Penzance and St Mary’s, on the Isles of Scilly, for more than forty years. I discovered that most of the private schools were still on holiday this week, so the orderly line mainly comprised well-intentioned but stressed and fussing, middle-class families.
I felt conflicted, because I could so easily have been in this very queue with my own family. But there is something about congregations of middle-class families that I find almost unbearable. For a start, none of the adults talk to or acknowledge you, or each other, apart from to establish where your children go to school. There’s evidently an unwritten pecking order, which provides a basis for establishing another child’s suitability as a playmate for their own.
The rest of the time, conversations between adults are invariably conducted exclusively through their children. A frantic mother had a question for the official at the information window, but I happened to be standing in front of it. A simple ‘excuse me’ would have been fine, but instead she spoke very loudly to her daughter: ‘I’m sure the nice man won’t mind if we slide in front of him!’
That’ll be me, then. Middle-class parents also leave absolutely nothing to chance, and don’t allow a single moment for spontaneity. A succession of assertive mothers approached the poor chap assigned to help us all out to ask any number of inconsequential, banal questions:
Will our luggage be accessible during the crossing?
Can we reserve seats on the upper deck?
Will we see seals on the crossing?
Which side of the boat should we sit at to see them?
Is there WiFi onboard?
Does the buffet onboard serve almond milk?
I smiled at this final question because I have travelled on the Scillonian several times, and from memory the buffet is more of a Kit Kat and instant coffee sort of place than a skinny decaf late with almond milk.
Nor are the questions limited to the crossing itself:
Where’s the best place to eat when we land on St Mary’s?
Should we reserve a table?
Is there a decent Vodafone signal on St Martin’s?
And so it goes on. For once, I was feeling entirely relaxed, and my anxiety was nothing compared with these bundles of stress and worry. I was confident that the Scillonian will have sold only as many tickets as there are seats, and that if there were seals to be seen, I would probably get the chance to see them. As for the facilities and opportunities awaiting us on St Mary’s, I was minded to wait and see.
I shared a bench seat on the upper deck with an elderly couple, whose only companion was a gentle golden retriever called Ben. I wondered if they were part of an extended family but, if they were, then they were as eager to stay away from the rest of their family as I was. The long-range photographs I took of the lighthouses at Tater Du and Longships did not go unnoticed, and it turned out that Geoff and Mandy had just spent a week staying at the keepers’ cottages at Bull Point lighthouse, on the North Devon coast. I would be at Bull Point myself in about a week’s time, which Geoff regarded as a most remarkable coincidence.
I would also be seeing Tater Du and Longships close up at the weekend, but this crossing represented my best – and only – opportunity to see the lighthouse at Wolf Rock. It was some distance away, and Geoff offered his shoulder to steady the zoom lens of my camera. I got some great shots, but I would have liked to have got closer.
A few days before, I was excited to find a website that offered regular, scheduled boat trips out to Wolf Rock for around £45 per person. My Fowey friend, Sarah, was keen to join me. When I phoned to book, however, the offer started to fall apart. He had been out as far as Wolf Rock twice in the last five years, both times in high summer, and in a boat that was currently in dry dock. And if he did take anyone out that far, it would be at least £300 a person, not £45. I suggested that he might want to review some of the wording on his website.
Wolf Rock, taken from the Scillonian III. This pic is dedicated to Sarah Davies, whose favourite lighthouse this is! pic.twitter.com/FalGfb9x6F
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 7, 2015
Wolf Rock is a lone, hazardous rock located eight miles southwest of Land’s End, in Cornwall. It got its name from the howling sound made when strong gales entered and escaped from the fissures in the rock.
After previous attempts at constructing first a mast, then a beacon, it was not until 1861 that engineer James Walker began work on a granite stone tower that copied the design of Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse. A substantial landing stage had to be built on the rock before work on the tower could begin, while the granite stones were dressed in Penzance before being shipped out to the rock. It was such slow work that it was nine years before the tower was eventually lit for the first time in 1870.
It’s a magnificent, lean tapering stone tower, 135 feet high, emitting flashing red and white lights, which are visible for sixteen miles. It was electrified in 1955, and in 1972 became the first rock lighthouse in the world to be equipped with a helipad. In December 1969, tragedy struck when a lighthouse keeper disappeared while fishing from the winch room. His body was never recovered.
The lighthouse was automated in July 1988.
‘Sounds lovely,’ I said. ‘When were you thinking of going?’
‘Tomorrow. The ferry leaves at 10am,’ was his reply.
I drove through the night in a 1971 Triumph Herald that I’d never taken further than the village shop, on a journey that took me eleven hours. I was at the quayside in Penzance to meet him at nine o’clock the following morning. We’d stayed on Bryher, the smallest (and arguably the prettiest) of the islands, at a small bed and breakfast where we had to fend for ourselves for the last couple of days when the owner was helicoptered off the island to give birth on the mainland.
Some twenty years later, it felt very good to be back and, like most things on Scilly, very little had changed. The ferry arrived at the harbour in Hugh Town on St Mary’s, the largest of the islands. The same group of worried parents proceeded to accost anyone available with a new round of questions:
How long will our luggage take?
How will we get to [insert name of island here]?
Should we have lunch first and then come back for our belongings?
Will our luggage be safe?
Will they be taking the luggage bound for [insert name of island here] first?
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 4, 2015
For once I was travelling light, having left all but a single pannier back in the guest house in Penzance. I was away from the middle-class mêlée and marching through the main shopping street in Hugh Town within minutes. I’ve made a few trips here over the years, so I knew where to gather the few essentials I needed for the couple of days I was here.
The Byelet guest house is on a hill, in a smart residential street on the edge of town. Its owner, Lisa, was evidently born to be the island’s most effective ambassador. She seemed to sense my arrival, somehow, and a tray of tea and scones that would feed a small army were laid out in the garden waiting for me. She has run the Byelet herself for several years, and her father was the head teacher at the main secondary school on St Mary’s, educating the children from all of the islands.
Having explained to Lisa why I was here, she got to work. She suggested that I set off straight away to see Peninnis lighthouse, so that I was back in time to take the evening boat trip to St Agnes, where I would not only be able to walk to the former lighthouse in the middle of the island, but I would also get a great view of Bishop Rock from the campsite at the far end of the island.
Since my last visit the school buildings on the edge of Hugh Town had been closed and boarded up, and a brand-new primary and secondary school built near Old Town Road, close to the island’s southern beach. As I passed the entrance, I couldn’t help but ponder what a delightful schooling the children from the Isles of Scilly must receive.
The lighthouse on St Mary’s is on the outer headland at Peninnis Head, a peninsular that affords some of the most spectacular views the island has to offer. The lighthouse itself is unusual, with its white-painted steel tower mounted on a black-painted steel lattice base.
The lighthouse at Peninnis was built in 1911 at the most southerly point of St Mary’s island, the largest of the Isles of Scilly. It guides vessels entering St Mary’s Sound and on into the harbour at Hugh Town.
Peninnis lighthouse was one of the first gas-powered lighthouses to use acetylene (which drove the rotating optic as well as fuelling the light). It was also built to be automated from the outset. The light was converted to electricity in 1992, and emits a white light, flashing every fifteen seconds, which is visible for sixteen miles.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 4, 2015
The evening boat trips to St Agnes are popular, not least because of The Turks Head, a thriving pub occupying the former coastguard boathouse, just a minute’s walk from the quay. I recognised several faces from the ferry that morning, and as soon as the boat landed a competitive race got underway to see which middle-class family could get to the pub first and bag the best table. A couple of families lagged behind, their smug smiles suggesting that they had pre-booked.
I only had time for a pint of Tribute and a couple bags of crisps, because the boat returned in a couple of hours and I had two lighthouses to see and photograph before it got dark. I headed up the track towards the former lighthouse, which comes second only to the Turks Head as the island’s principal landmark.
Sited at the highest point on the island, it is visible from almost everywhere, and although disused still acts as a daymark to passing vessels. It’s beautiful, it’s in private ownership, and there is nowhere I’d rather live. I was a little put off by the signs saying Private, but I think if I lived there I’d keep them.
The lighthouse on St Agnes was built in 1680, and is one of the earliest constructed by Trinity House. It has a four-storey, white-painted conical stone tower and is seventy-five feet tall. There are adjoining white-painted keepers’ cottages.
When built, the light was provided by a coal fire without a lens, burning in a large chauffer, or open basket. Sooting of the glass was a real problem, but it was not until 1790 that the lighthouse was converted to oil. A parabolic reflector was fitted at the same time, which established a flashing white light, visible for eighteen miles.
After the light at Peninnis Head was completed in 1911, the light on St Agnes was not needed, and so was discontinued the same year.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 4, 2015
The campsite at Troytown farm, at the western tip of St Agnes, is the most beautiful campsite on earth. Two small fields, a few steps up from a sandy beach, look out across the water to Bishop Rock, as well as a handful of small, uninhabited islands. There are no vehicles, other than the tractors and Land Rover that serve the farm itself. A crude hammock has been fashioned from old fishing nets between two tall rocks by the shore. To cap it all, the farm sells homemade ice cream, unpasteurised milk and fresh clotted cream. Really, it’s hard to imagine anywhere more idyllic for a family camping holiday.
The lighthouse at Bishop Rock is about four miles offshore, and to get a decent view I needed my trusty long lens once more. I set it up on the campsite’s gatepost and secured some fabulous pictures. There are frequent boat trips out to Bishop Rock from the harbour at Hugh Town, but the boatman had told me that the water was currently so choppy off the western coast that he thought it would be another couple of weeks before they’d venture out that far.
When Sir Cloudesley Shovel’s squadron of the British Fleet was wrecked in 1707, causing the loss of 2,000 lives, the single lighthouse on St Agnes was deemed insufficient. As a result, Bishop Rock, the islands’ most westerly danger, was identified as a suitable location for a new lighthouse.
Trinity House’s chief engineer, James Walker, first attempted a cast-iron screw-pile lighthouse, but a heavy gale in February 1850 swept away the whole structure just before it was due to be lit.
Walker’s second attempt was a granite tower, 150 feet tall, based on Smeaton’s tower at Eddystone. Like Smeaton’s, it employed granite blocks weighing up to two tons each, which were dovetailed and keyed into position at the top, bottom and sides. It was lit for the first time in 1858.
Concerns about the tower’s foundations resulted in work starting on a third lighthouse, built around the existing one, in 1883. The work was undertaken by engineer Sir James Douglass. The foundations were also strengthened with vast blocks of granite sunk into the rock and held by heavy bolts. This new tower, 160 feet high, was lit in October 1887, and is the one that is still in operation today.
Its white light, flashing every fifteen seconds, is visible for twenty-four miles. Originally fuelled by paraffin, it was converted to electricity in 1973. The lighthouse was equipped with a helipad three years later, in 1976, making the relief of keepers much easier. It was automated in 1991, with the last keepers leaving in December 1992.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) June 7, 2015
They had stopped serving food when I eventually got back to the Turks Head, but I didn’t mind a bit. It had been worth missing a meal to see Bishop Rock, and to have identified where I will take the family camping one day.
Normal service resumed on the boat back to Hugh Town, and competitive mothers compared recent holiday destinations with whoever would join the conversation. I was learning how to answer the seemingly innocent question, ‘Have you been here before?’ It is designed to engage you in tedious and lengthy accounts of the frequent, expensive holidays they have enjoyed on the islands, and of the properties they had considered buying. There is a simple answer that tends to silence the showing off:
‘Have I been here before? I live here.’