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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 28: Looe, Polperro and Fowey

by | Jul 15, 2022

Looe Banjo Pier

Narrow lanes to Looe

Looe is only eight miles from the White Hart, but the route for cyclists was not an easy one. I opted for a B road, via Bylane End and Morval, which was reasonably quiet but so narrow that I frequently held up the traffic. The main road I joined at the East Loop River gave the cars room to pass, but there were many more of them, and they travelled much faster.

Looe seems to start alongside the river, a couple of miles from the harbour, but the town centre itself seemed a long time coming. When I eventually reached the pretty shopping streets, I was astounded by how busy the place was. Where had all these people come from? How did they get here? Where did they park? It’s one of those places where on childhood summer holidays, my father would have driven straight through and out the other side, declaring it ‘too busy for people like us’.

I was happy enough to take my time, getting off the bike and wheeling it through the streets with everyone else. I got side-tracked by a wonderfully artistic display of award-winning Cornish pasties at the Cornish Bakehouse. It was still early in the day, but I was becoming used to a daily pastie and this looked like too good an opportunity to miss.

However their visitors get here, Looe has been a popular holiday resort since Victorian times. The town also still boasts a small fishing fleet, with 120 people employed in the industry. I was heading for the Banjo Pier, best reached by chaining up the bike and walking across the small family beach. I took off my shoes and enjoyed feeling the warm sand on my feet. The water was crystal clear, and frighteningly cold. There were several families in the water, clearly much hardier than me.

Looe Banjo Pier

Looe Banjo Pier

The light at Looe is unexciting, but I was glad to be here. It was built in 1860, but its red cylindrical lantern, mounted on a 20ft cast-iron pole, seems more modern. There’s a small iron railed gallery surrounding the lantern, with a fixed metal ladder providing access. It displays a red and white occulting light, which is visible for fifteen miles.

Polperro is only five miles on from Looe, although I chose the slightly longer, easier route following National Cycle Route 2. I passed through a substantial chalet holiday park, and I was nearly led astray by a sign to the camp launderette. I’ve learned that you really need to take advantage of opportunities like these, but on this occasion I decided to press on.

Inexplicably, a short while later I was cycling though Barcelona, a tiny Cornish hamlet that bears no resemblance whatever to its more famous namesake. Apparently, the local football team have named their own ground ‘The New Camp’ in deference to the slightly more successful team, FC Barcelona.

Polperro is much smaller than Looe, although hundreds more people seemed to be milling about than the town has capacity for. It is also devastatingly pretty, so it’s easy to see why the visitors come. Its lanes are narrow, barely more than the width of a car, yet somehow cars and pedestrians share the road amicably enough. The steep banks on either side of the town are lush and green, and the view down on to the harbour can’t have changed much in a hundred years.



Although I found a simple red lantern on the end of the western pier of the harbour, I was more interested in the light at Spy House Point, just outside Polperro. It was built in 1911 to guide vessels away from the dangerous East Polca and Peak rocks, and is a small, black and white painted cylindrical brick tower mounted on stone paving. It emits quick flashing lights, red to the west and white to the east, which are visible for eight miles. It’s sweet, like a proper lighthouse, only smaller!

The road from Polperro to Polruan was typically Cornish and absolutely breathtaking. Gorse bushes sprouting vivid yellow flowers lined the route, with frequent gaps to take in lush, green rolling hills to my right, and cliffs and the sea to my left. I passed a farmhouse that we had rented for a New Year holiday with friends many years ago, memorable mainly for the flu that had me bedridden from the moment we arrived.

Polruan is another beautiful Cornish village, but it felt quieter and more relaxed than either Looe or Polperro. I suspect that’s because on the opposite bank of the river lies the much more fashionable harbour town of Fowey.

Fowey Quay

Fowey Quay

The ferry across the River Fowey cost £4, including my bicycle. The crossing took only a few minutes, and we landed at Whitehouse Pier, where two of the four lights I had come to see were waiting for me. At the end of the quay itself is a modern, undistinguished light mounted on a metal frame on top of a concrete structure.

Fowey Whitehouse Point

Fowey Whitehouse Point

Much more interesting is the red-painted cast-iron cylinder, mounted on a narrow red column, a few metres away. It emits a white flashing light, visible for eight miles, as well as sector lights – green to the right and red to the left. It’s both unusual, and noteworthy, although as I wheeled my bike towards the town centre it dawned on me that I had an incinerator bin in the garden at home that looks very similar.

Fowey is arguably the most attractive harbour town in Cornwall, and it is easy to see why it has inspired so many writers over the years, including Daphne du Maurier and Kenneth Grahame. But it has also served as a major port for centuries, first for the navy and more recently for the export of china clay.

I was here to meet up with Sarah, a dear friend from my days selling maps and travel books at Stanfords, in London. Like many frustrated travellers, we had both washed up there having realised that talking about travel, and poring over guidebooks, was the next best thing if you couldn’t afford to actually go travelling yourself.

The last time I had seen her was at her wedding, more than fifteen years ago. It had proved to be an expensive weekend. Emily and I were not well off at the time, and we concluded that the only way we could realistically make it to the reception was to leave London at dawn, stop at a roadside cafe to dress up, and do the whole journey, there and back, in a day. It seemed mad, but if we paid for a hotel for the weekend, we wouldn’t have made it through to the next pay cheque.

We were on Hammersmith Bridge, heading west, before five in the morning. We reached Exeter by eight, Plymouth by nine, and were sitting in a cafe on the outskirts of Fowey for brunch at around eleven. We each took it in turns to dress up in the cafe’s tiny toilet and at about midday, we made our way over to the church, where we were expecting quite a reunion. However, the car park was empty, and the church was locked. I dug out our wedding invitation from the glove box of the car, only to discover that the service was scheduled for the following Saturday, not this one.

Back to the present day, and I took refuge in the Brown Sugar Cafe in South Street, and then sent Sarah a text to let her know I was here. She’s a designer, and her studio is nearby. I was so pleased to see her, and we picked up effortlessly on news and gossip about friends and former colleagues. She is also a lighthouse enthusiast, and was able to point me in the direction of Readymoney Cove, from where I could take the coast path up on to the headland to see the principal Fowey light at St Catherine’s Point.

Fowey St Catherines Castle

Fowey St Catherines Castle

A couple of hours passed and I didn’t want to leave, but I was keen to get to St Austell this evening, and there were still two lights to see. So we parted company with promises to organise a Stanfords reunion, and I made my way to Readymoney Cove. A steep, stepped path took me up on to the headland, and after a prolonged hunt I found the most disappointing light of the journey so far, close to the castle ruins. Other than its red colour, it looked no different from the sort of light you’d see on top of an old-fashioned ambulance. It wasn’t worth the hunt, and to be fair it wasn’t in the guidebook either. I had found it on a website run by a man from Germany, who clearly has an even greater lighthouse obsession than me. It felt good to note that I had seen a light that very few of my lighthouse friends will have done.

Fowey Harbour Entrance

Fowey Harbour Entrance

Further along the headland, I spotted a small wrought iron gate, almost entirely covered with brambles. It took an age to inch my way through, and then on to a dark, overgrown path. This time, though, it was worth the effort, and I was rewarded with the bright red cast-iron lantern built in 1904. It’s a handsome structure, and sits on an octagonal base with red-painted iron railings around it. Its white flashing light can be seen for eleven miles to mark the safe entry channel into the harbour. It also emits red flashing sector lights, which are visible for nine miles.

Gribbin Daymark

Gribbin Daymark

My work in Fowey was almost done, but as I was up on the headland already, I decided to walk on to see the Gribbin Daymark. It’s not a lighthouse, nor has it ever served as one, but it is a substantial daymark, eighty-five feet tall, built in 1832 ‘for the safety of commerce and the preservation of mariners’ – so it is relevant, after all.

It wasn’t long before I saw it ahead of me, although far enough away for me to decide that a long-lens photograph would suffice.

It was getting late, and with St Austell still eight miles away, I had not yet arranged anywhere to stay. Luckily, up on the headland, I had the best mobile phone signal I had had for days. The hot tip for budget travellers appeared to be the YHA at the Eden Project. I hadn’t stayed at a youth hostel for the best part of thirty years, and I hadn’t appreciated that I still qualified. Apparently, the YHA doesn’t discriminate on age, and I booked what is described as a bed in a ‘pod’.

I was absolutely delighted when I arrived. The YHA has set up a temporary hostel at the Eden Project, Cornwall’s global garden housed in tropical biomes, housing plants collected from many diverse climates and environments throughout the world. The hostel itself comprises a group of pods made from shipping containers, each technically able to sleep four people.

I say ‘technically’ because space is at a premium. Once inside the door, there is room only to get into whichever bed is assigned to you, and one further step takes you into the open fronted shower and toilet. If you were sharing this with three other people, it would certainly help if you already knew them intimately. If you didn’t, then you certainly would by the time you left.

Fortunately, feedback from previous travellers had brought the cramped conditions to the attention of the management team, and single travellers were now being assigned their own pod. This changed everything. I could assign one bed to my luggage, and another to me. Far from feeling cramped, I felt I was staying in relative luxury.

A central marquee served as reception, bar, cafe and meeting area. I’d arrived too late for an evening meal, and the nearest pub was further away than I was prepared to travel. So I fashioned a meal from crisps, cake and a pork pie left over from the previous day, washed down with a couple of bottles of beer. Just like the Youth Hostels of my (genuine) youth, the protocol seemed to be to sit with your fellow travellers and share stories of your journey to date. I slipped away, back to my pod, where I fell asleep watching the cricket highlights on my phone.


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