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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

A joyous return

We left Taunton at dawn to be sure of being back in Ilfracombe in good time for the crossing to Lundy Island, which lies in the Bristol Channel about twelve miles off the North Devon coast.

We had good reason for feeling extremely apprehensive about the crossing, both of us having endured the force nine storms getting to Lundy for my wedding in 1998 (see Prologue). But Allan had even more harrowing memories of that crossing than my own, because his partner, Sharon, was eight months pregnant at the time.

As it turned out, the crossing today was calm and unremarkable, except for a dense fog reducing visibility to just a few metres.

Allan’s son Cameron was, in a sense, also returning for a second visit, having been the soon-to-be-born child from the wedding party. Now seventeen, he seemed a little bemused about why we were visiting the island, and what the point was of my cycling expedition. I was determined to win him over, but we were clearly starting from a low base when he asked, ‘What exactly is a lighthouse, anyway?’

He turned out to have a lot more sense than either Allan or me, however. We were both planning on stopping at The Marisco Tavern for a couple of pints before the hike to the far end of the island for our first of three lighthouses. Cameron, on the other hand, said that it would be much more sensible to stop on our way back, to be sure of seeing all three lights before the MS Oldenburg returned to the mainland. I felt like protesting, and it felt bloody irritating to be met with such common sense from a teenager.

The fog persisted, and we could see only a few yards of the straight, muddy track ahead of us. With no distractions we made good progress, and less than an hour after we’d disembarked we were close to Lundy North lighthouse. I’ve been here several times before, and to my shame I even managed to poke about inside the tower on my first visit, after finding an unbolted window. But today the fog was so dense that I couldn’t even find the metal staircase leading down the cliff to the lighthouse.

Irritatingly, it was Cameron who was the first to spot it. Sadly, the years had not been kind to Lundy North, and it seemed as though it had been left to decay. The buildings adjoining the tower were badly in need of several coats of paint, and an outbuilding roof had been removed or had blown away, giving it the impression of a controlled ruin. The windows had been sealed shut with metal barriers, and the light itself had been removed from the lantern, and replaced with a sealed beam unit strapped to a pole outside. Another example of an unloved and redundant lighthouse building, which was heartbreaking to witness.

We retraced our steps back to the village, more subdued and reflective than when we were heading north. Seeing Lundy North in that state reminded me of the many other lighthouses that will have to rely for their survival on heritage funds, fought for alongside other deserving public buildings such as theatres, piers, concert halls and fun fairs.

We had to turn off the main track to head west towards the Old Lighthouse, but the fog was still so dense that it was hard to be sure quite where to turn. I spent my honeymoon in the keepers’ accommodation at the Old Lighthouse, and even now I would be confident inching my way between the Old Lighthouse and the Marisco Tavern. But there are far fewer helpful landmarks approaching the Old Light from the northern end of the island.

We played it safe and took the slightly longer route, via a path through the farmyard and campsite that I remembered from previous visits. I’m glad we did, because we saw no sign of the Old Lighthouse at all until we reached the stone wall that surrounds it, just a few metres away. It was the perfect illustration of why this lighthouse had to be replaced.

Being back here, I was struck by nostalgia, and hit by a wave of homesickness. Back in 1998, our wedding guests had headed home the day after our wedding ceremony, leaving Emily and me alone on the island for our honeymoon week. The Landmark Trust team of staff looked after us royally, and as there were no day trips scheduled, and no other people holidaying on the island, they encouraged us to stay in a different building each evening. We spent a couple of nights in one wing of the castle, a night in Government House, and the rest of the week in the Old Lighthouse.

Allan had also stayed in part of the Old Lighthouse over the wedding weekend, and relived the moment when Reg, the island’s agent, had woken up all our guests in a panic early on Sunday morning to warn them that more storms were coming, and that the MS Oldenburg would be returning to Ilfracombe earlier than planned.

Lundy Old Light

At about three and half miles long and half a mile wide, Lundy Island has twenty miles or more of rugged, dangerous coastline. In 1819, Trinity House built a lighthouse on one of the island’s highest points on Chapel Hill. It comprised a granite tower, ninety-five feet high, with adjoining keepers’ accommodation.

Lundy Old Light

The tower showed two lights, a quick-flashing white light from the lantern at the top of the tower, and a fixed red light from a window at the base of the tower. It was not a success. For a start, fog regularly obscured the light, a problem addressed by installing a pair of cannons close to the shore on the west coast. Secondly, the lantern’s optic rotated so quickly that it appeared to ships like a fixed light, and the upper and lower lights appeared to merge into one.

This last problem contributed to a disaster in November 1828, when the ship La Jeune Emmamistook the lights on Lundy for the fixed light on the French Island of Ushant, and went onto the rocks, costing thirteen lives.

The lighthouse continued to cause problems for shipping until it was abandoned in 1897, and replaced with two new lighthouses at the north and south extremities of the island. These days, this lighthouse is under the stewardship of the Landmark Trust and is available for holiday lets.

That was two of the island’s three lighthouses ticked off, with just Lundy South to go. With the MS Oldenburg not due to sail for another ninety minutes, we had enough time to sink a couple of pints of Old Light in the Marisco Tavern before setting off to see it.

Lundy South lighthouse sits on a plateau directly above the quay where the MS Oldenburg embarks, so it made sense to take a detour on our way back to the boat. By the time we had climbed the steps up to the lighthouse, the skies had cleared for the first time. My mood lifted with the fog, and I was heartened to discover that Lundy South was in a much healthier state than its northerly sibling. It had recently been painted, for a start, the light appeared to be intact and even the windows seemed clean.

It was also the first lighthouse of the day that actually impressed Cameron, who alternated between taking in the view from the helipad and climbing onto the roof of an outbuilding to see if he could get inside. Allan was still talking about the wedding: ‘The storms are coming! The storms are coming!’

Lundy North and Lundy South

Lundy North was built in 1897 on a remote plateau at the northernmost tip of the island. It has a white-painted stone tower, fifty-six feet tall, with accommodation and equipment rooms both in front of the tower and behind. It was designed by Sir Thomas Matthews, who had succeeded Sir James Douglass as engineer-in-chief at Trinity House in 1892.

Lundy North

Lundy North

Initially employing a petrol vapour burner, it was converted to electricity in 1971. When automated in 1985 it was controlled by the more accessible lighthouse at Lundy South. Following further modernisation in 1991 it was converted to solar power and its current white flashing light is visible for seventeen miles.

Lundy South

Lundy South

Lundy South is sited in a prominent position at the south-eastern end of the island. It is of broadly similar design, with a white-painted stone tower, fifty-three feet tall, with adjoining keepers’ accommodation. Like Lundy North, it began service powered by a petrol vapour burner, electrified in 1971 and finally converted to solar power in 1994. It shows a white flashing light every five seconds, visible for fifteen miles.

The crossing back to Ilfracombe was uneventful, although I made one last effort to win Cameron over to the cause by pointing out Hartland Point through my binoculars. It made little impression.


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