My largest haul to date
Plymouth has been an important port for many centuries. It was from Plymouth, for example, that the Pilgrim Fathers departed for the New World in 1620 and established Plymouth Colony, the second English settlement in what is now the United States of America.
It’s an important city for the Royal Navy, too, and the naval base in neighbouring Devonport is the largest in Western Europe today. The city’s strategic importance meant that it was bombed heavily during the war, and the city centre had to be completely rebuilt in the 1940s and 1950s.
The bay at Plymouth, known as Plymouth Sound, looks safe enough to the naked eye, but the dozens of beacons and flashing lights visible from my hotel window suggested otherwise. In fact, if you wanted to investigate the source of every flashing light visible from Plymouth Hoe, you’d need a week or two. I had less than a day, for now, thanks to a wonderfully kind invitation to spend a week at the Lizard Lighthouse. But I would be back for another shot at it in a few days.
An incredibly kind offer
The opportunity to stay at the Lizard Lighthouse came in a wonderful email from Emma, who had taken out a six-month rent on one of the keepers’ cottages. She wrote:
‘I’m just sitting here with the Sunday Telegraph and reading about your epic adventure. I am currently renting a cottage for six months at Lizard Lighthouse. If you would like to stay a night or two you are more than welcome.’
The Lizard rental was Emma’s own epic adventure, once her son had left home for university, and her daughter had embarked on a gap-year adventure to the Far East. But after just a month in Cornwall, Emma’s daughter had been involved in a moped accident in Cambodia, had suffered head trauma, and returned home.
Although she was recovering well, Emma wasn’t in a position to return to the Lizard, which prompted her incredibly generous offer. What began as an invitation to stay a night or two quickly turned into the whole of my children’s school half-term week. It meant that Emily and the children could drive down from Kent to join me. A week off. A holiday. With the family. In Cornwall. In a lighthouse. And not just any lighthouse. A lighthouse I didn’t know, and had wanted to visit all my life.
It required changing my own plans, but I didn’t mind a bit. I decided to ‘pause’ the journey in Plymouth, catch a train to Truro, then cycle the twenty-seven miles to the Lizard by nightfall where, all being well, Emily and the children would be waiting for me. We would spend the week at the Lizard, and then I would retrace my route, by bike and train, to start back again in Plymouth at the weekend.
Back to today, and I reckoned on chalking up the majority of the poles and beacons around Plymouth Sound, as well as the famous lighthouse on the promenade at Plymouth Hoe.
I started on the promenade. It is said that it was here, on the lush green lawned headland, that Elizabethan Sea Captain Sir Francis Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before heading out to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. I weaved my way through what seemed like a brightly coloured construction site, as a local funfair was being unpacked and unfolded from trailers for the upcoming Bank Holiday weekend.
I thought that nothing would distract me from my path to the lighthouse, but I found myself looking down in awe onto the Art Deco lido, which had just reopened for the summer season. Built in the 1930s, it’s a saltwater swimming pool of a type that is increasingly rare. There are a handful closer to home on the Kent and Sussex coasts, but many are in poor repair, some abandoned altogether. This one is remarkably well preserved, and gives a sense of Plymouth’s splendour and prosperity before the war.
The lighthouse on the Hoe is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Devon, and although I was at the entrance at the 10am opening time, there was already a queue of people wanting to look around it. So I sat on one of the benches nearby, with a polystyrene cup of takeaway coffee from a burger van, set up to cater for the funfair trade. The long lens of my camera served as a makeshift telescope, and I zoomed in close, first to the Plymouth Harbour lighthouse, and then far out to sea to Eddystone.
I was worried that the rebuilt Smeaton tower on the Hoe would feel artificial, especially following extensive refurbishment in 1999. But I needn’t have been, following a splendid, guided tour. The views from the lantern are spectacular, both out to sea and over the city itself. With views like these, I’d happily make Plymouth my home.
Smeaton’s Tower, Plymouth Hoe
When the rock base underneath John Smeaton’s lighthouse on the Eddystone Reef was found to be unstable in the 1880s, plans were made to dismantle the tower and rebuild it on the Hoe at Plymouth. The idea was for it to replace a triangular obelisk, built by Trinity House as a navigation marker for shipping in Plymouth Sound.
Smeaton’s 72ft tower at Eddystone was officially decommissioned in 1882, once the new lighthouse, designed by John Douglass, was completed. A new base was constructed in Plymouth to accommodate the lighthouse, and then the tower was dismantled and rebuilt on the Hoe, stone by stone.
After more than a hundred years on the Hoe, the tower underwent considerable refurbishment and restoration work in 1999 and 2000, before being reopened to the public in 2001. It’s a prominent and much-loved landmark to this day.
If that’s the way it has to be …
I started with a pair of leading lights on the Hoe, below Smeaton’s Tower. The rear light is a 30ft circular white steel tube, with red banding, and a red-painted lamp on top. The front range is similar, a couple of hundred metres out to sea. They stretched my definition of a lighthouse to the absolute limit, but having not missed a single light from these guidebooks so far, I wasn’t going to start now.
A few minutes later I passed what my guidebook refers to as the light at Cattewater Approaches. It looks like a kitchen bin, albeit about six feet tall with red and white bands. From one side, a small black reflector gives its domed roof a beak, and I dare say that late at night, after an evening on the town, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a lone penguin. It’s no one’s idea of a lighthouse, but it is charming nonetheless.
I cycled on to the Royal Western Yacht Club, where the rear of a pair of range lights is set into the roof of the Yacht Club building itself. This was setting a new low. If it had not been listed in the guidebook then there is no chance at all that I would have cycled here to see it. The front range light here is another red and white banded pole on the marina breakwater.
I was starting to understand why the only two lighthouses in Plymouth that people ever mention are Eddystone and Smeaton’s Tower!
On the opposite bank at Mount Batten Point, at the entrance to the marina, there is a substantial, red-painted lighthouse lantern set into the ground. It looks a little unloved, with its red paint peeling away, but the optics inside are splendid. With so many lighthouse optics removed and replaced by tiny, modern lenses, this is a rarity. If this structure had any sort of tower, it would be the closest thing I’d seen to a lighthouse since Smeaton’s Tower.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 25, 2015
A punishing cycle uphill took me to a walkers’ car park above Staddon Point. I spent an age trying to conceal my bike behind the ruins of a farm building. So long, in fact, that I must have drawn far more attention to myself than if I had just left it propped up at the side of the road.
I found a cliff path heading down towards the water, and hoped that I was heading in the right direction. After a while, I found the strange-looking circular concrete tower and once I reached it, I also managed a decent long-range photo of the Staddon Point beacon a few hundred metres offshore.
I have to admit that although I was knocking these lights off the list quite quickly, I felt little genuine enthusiasm in the task. My mind was focused on catching the train to Truro and seeing the family for the first time in a month. I decided to get going, and leave the rest of the Plymouth lights for my return in a week’s time.
Taking a break
I retraced my route back into the city and bought a ticket to Truro.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 25, 2015
The train service from Plymouth to Truro is part of the mainline service between Paddington and Penzance. It’s a decent, twice hourly service, although their policy concerning bicycles seems a little random. Each train has a dedicated compartment for oversize luggage and bicycles, with a maximum capacity of just six bikes. By the time the train has reached Plymouth, these may or may not have been taken. Unless there is a free bicycle rack on the train, you can’t board the train with a bicycle.
It doesn’t take much to make me anxious at the best of times, but this was off the scale. I was on the platform with nearly half an hour to spare, but there were already two other cyclists waiting. What were the chances that there would be three spare spaces on the next train? How many trains would I have to wave off before finding one with a free space? I paced up and down the platform, my bicycle at my side, worrying about where the carriage with the goods compartment would stop. Could I beat the other two to it? Why were they looking so relaxed? Had they pre-booked spaces? The whole problem seemed insurmountable, until the train pulled in and the three of use wheeled our bikes into a completely empty goods carriage.
I emerged from Truro railway station at a little after 4.30pm. I reckoned I had about a 25-mile ride, about three hours, to the Lizard. I didn’t count it as far as the adventure was concerned, because I would be covering these same miles all over again the following week. So I took the most direct route, along National Cycle Route 3, and opted for speed and stamina rather than scenery.
By Helston, I was ten miles short, but I’d had enough. I had covered more than sixty miles in the day overall. I found a supermarket car park, bought one of every variety of pizza they had, and called Emily to ask her to pick me up. Less than an hour later, Zoe, Tom and Lottie were giving me the guided tour of the lighthouse grounds and cottage. Tom had already set up camp in the little living room, with dozens of his little games cartridges piled up on each arm of the sofa. Complicated wiring, chargers and consoles everywhere.
I put on a pair of normal, everyday jeans, laid every pizza out on the kitchen table, opened a bottle of Malbec and felt like a family Dad again for the first time in a month.