Back in Plymouth
I was up at dawn, because I had been granted passage on a fishing trip that was about to set off from Cattewater harbour. It was a six-hour round trip, which would get me up close to the Plymouth Breakwater lighthouse, and should also afford me at least a decent long-lens shot of Eddystone.
I found an all-night shop, and bought a handful of pork pies, scotch eggs, crisps, chocolate and water. Who knows what I might need for six hours at sea? I also packed my tiny portable radio and earphones, because England were playing New Zealand in the 2nd Test at Headingley, and I didn’t want to miss a ball.
There were ten of us booked, and we met, bleary eyed, by the harbour steps. We were told to look out for the Explorer, a light-blue vessel skippered by Ken Bridge, who has been operating fishing and pleasure boats in Plymouth for 45 years.
My nine fellow passengers were all here for the fishing, and bream, bass, ling and pollock were on the menu. They were all amateur fishermen, although a party of seven were taking it very seriously indeed. They were dressed in barely used, full length green waders and the sort of yellow waterproof jackets that you only ever see in advertisements for fish fingers. My guess was that trade at the local chandlery had been unusually brisk the previous afternoon.
Then there were Rob and Sam, an about-to-be-married couple in their early twenties, who were clearly enjoying still being able to be on holiday during school term times. Rob had obviously been extolling the thrills of deep sea fishing, although I think it’s fair to say that Sam was yet to be convinced.
Ken is a jovial skipper and host, and I sensed a barely concealed smile as the party of seven climbed aboard in their matching seafaring apparel. He greeted Rob and Sam heartily, expressing a little concern that six hours in rough seas might be a bit much for the young lady. He greeted me equally warmly, but didn’t know quite what to make of me. We had spoken by phone the previous afternoon, and he had willingly offered me a place on the boat for a tenner, as long as I promised not to fish. It was a promise I was happy to make, although now I was here he was worried that there wouldn’t be much in it for me.
Having reassured Ken that a photo of the breakwater light, and seeing Eddystone, genuinely were the only rewards I sought, we steered gently out of the harbour. I hadn’t appreciated quite how far out the breakwater is sited, nor how substantial a structure it is at 1,500 metres long. There’s a substantial lighthouse at the western end, and a strange-looking beacon at the eastern end.
Although Plymouth had served as an important port for centuries, it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that the government decided to build a breakwater to protect its fleet, with the imminent threat of attack from France. Work started in 1811, and required four million tons of rock to be quarried at a cost of £1.5 million.
Initially, a light vessel was moored at the western end of the breakwater, but it soon became apparent that this was insufficient. The Admiralty commissioned renowned civil engineers Walker and Burgess to build a new lighthouse, and work started in 1841. The result is a 78ft tower, first lit in 1844, constructed from Cornish white granite. It’s a handsome lighthouse, which displays a white flashing light that is visible for one and a half miles. In 1854 a second white light was added, from a window lower down in the tower, indicating the safe harbour entrance channel.
On completion, the stewardship passed to Trinity House, who managed the lighthouse until 1993, when it was passed to the Ministry of Defence.
The original plan was for a similar lighthouse to mark the eastern end of the breakwater, but this was not considered cost effective. So instead, a beacon was erected, comprising a spherical cage mounted on an oak pole, seventeen feet high, which itself stands on a stepped plinth twenty-five feet high. The cage was designed to accommodate up to six shipwrecked sailors.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 30, 2015
In percentage terms, this was my most productive day so far. It was barely nine o’clock, and with both breakwater lights reached I had already achieved two-thirds of my target for the day. But it counted for nothing unless I also saw Eddystone, arguably the most famous offshore lighthouse of them all.
For now, though, I was at a bit of a loss. We would be trying out a number of fishing spots before having so much as a chance of seeing Eddystone, the cricket didn’t start for another couple of hours, and I’d forfeited my right to a fishing rod. I guess most people’s advice would be just to sit back, relax and take in the view. But advice like that rarely serves me very well, and within fifteen minutes my mind wandered to money worries, whether I’d have any work when I eventually returned home, what action Tom’s school would take with his tormentor, and whether my bike was safe in the foyer of the guest house. And that was just the beginning. Believe me, I may not be the best at multitasking, but I hold the record for the number of simultaneous worries and anxieties that it is possible to dwell on in a single moment.
We anchored near a wreck, apparently renowned for plentiful shoals of Black Bream and Bass. Ken produced a tray of strong tea in mismatched mugs, and then patiently equipped the party with rods, weights and bait. The party of seven were confident that they knew it all, and required no assistance. Rob and Sam gladly accepted Ken’s help, and Sam seemed genuinely pleased to be kitted out with a mackerel line, which required no bait, only shiny, reflective metal lures with hooks at one end.
We fished for nearly an hour. Sam caught around a dozen mackerel, Rob one decent sized sea bass, and the party in fancy dress absolutely nothing. Ken was permanently on the move, unhooking Sam’s mackerel, offering suggestions and tips to the party who knew it all already, washing mugs and producing more tea.
With all the rods reeled in, we moved to the site of another wreck. The procedure was the same, except this time I had an irritating last wicket stand by the New Zealanders to occupy me. 350 all out. Much more respectable than it might have been.
At around midday, Ken invited me into the wheelhouse. He had a folder of photographs of Eddystone to show me, both early and contemporary. The lighthouse clearly meant a lot to Ken, a constant symbol of his 45 years in these waters. Soon afterwards, he pointed dead ahead, and there was Eddystone, just a small dot on the horizon. With my zoom lens I could see all the missing detail, if only this damn boat would stay still for just a second. I took thirty photos, at least, of the sky, the sea, the deck … I seem to catalogue the entire seascape comprehensively, apart from the lighthouse itself.
Ken was smiling, because he had a plan. A quick poll of the fishing party, and he has secured agreement from everyone to get closer to the lighthouse. He assured us all that there was good fishing potential near the rocks, and that was all that nine of the ten members of the party needed to hear.
It was a calm afternoon, but there was a silence in the waters around the Eddystone rock that was both eerie and calming at the same time. It’s almost impossible to imagine the feat of engineering demanded to construct a tower here, on this isolated rocky outcrop. To be sat in this boat, in the shadow surrounding the base of this tower, was humbling. It really was …
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 30, 2015
The current Eddystone Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1882, but is in fact the fourth to mark the small but dangerous Eddystone Rocks fourteen miles south-west of Plymouth.
The first tower, built by eccentric Henry Winstanley, was completed in 1698, and was the first tower rock lighthouse at sea in the world. When waves ninety feet high crashed over the lighthouse during its first winter of operation, it was clear that Winstanley’s tower was not strong enough, and could be washed away in a storm. So the following year, Winstanley returned and rebuilt it, almost doubling its girth, and raising its height to 120 feet. Built of wood and stone, it resembled a Chinese pagoda at sea, with a lantern lit by sixty candles. It survived only four years, when both the tower, and Winstanley himself, perished during a hurricane in 1703.
The second tower was designed by architect John Rudyerd, who enlisted the help of two shipwrights from Woolwich with the construction. He favoured a cone-shaped design over Winstanley’s octagonal shape. It was completed in 1709, and stood for nearly fifty years until it was destroyed by fire in 1755. It is reported that the keeper on watch was Henry Hall – 94 years old but ‘of good constitution and active for his years’ – who tried to put out the fire by throwing water upwards from a bucket. While looking up, some of the roof’s molten lead fell into his throat, and at his post-mortem, a flat oval piece of lead weighing seven ounces was found in his stomach. Apparently, it’s a prize exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland today.
The third tower, designed by John Smeaton, is the one currently sited on Plymouth Hoe, following its decommission in 1882. His inspiration is said to have come from the shape of an English oak tree, something in nature proven to withstand gales and storms. It is a shape that has been adopted in the construction of rock lighthouses ever since. Work began in 1756, using 1,493 blocks of local granite and a quick-drying cement of Smeaton’s own invention. He also pioneered an ingenious method of securing each block of stone to its neighbour, using dovetail joints and marble dowels.
Smeaton’s tower was lit for the first time in October 1759, and stood for 120 years. In fact, it was because of cracks in the rocks supporting the lighthouse, rather than in the tower itself, that a new lighthouse was required in the 1870s.
The fourth, and current lighthouse was designed by Trinity House engineer-in-chief James Douglass. It’s another granite tower, broader in its base than its top, similar to its predecessor, though taller at 168 feet. Its revolving optic was operated by clockwork, with a large weight on a chain, that needed to be wound for fifteen minutes each hour. Two Argand oil lamps were converted to paraffin in 1906, and finally automated and fully electrified in 1982. It flashes twice every ten seconds, and has a range of seventeen nautical miles.
Amazing to see Eddystone after so many photos in books. The stump is the base of Smeaton’s Tower, now on Plymouth Hoe pic.twitter.com/i3ryha34cr
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 30, 2015
After Eddystone, my cup of happiness was full, and I was content to put the anxieties in my chattering mind aside for a while. It felt like a reward for the twenty or more unremarkable poles, beacons and columns I had diligently ticked off my list during my two visits to Plymouth.
Back in the harbour, the final tally of fish was counted, and Rob and Sam were clear winners. In fact, the guys who knew it all, and who needed no help, had barely scraped together a BBQ’s worth between them. Still, those waders will come in handy for something, I’m sure. And the rubberised sailcloth jackets will look great on the back seats of their Range Rovers back at home.
It hardly needs saying that my bike was safe and secure at the guest house, and by early evening I was pedalling steeply out of Plymouth, this time leaving the city for the last time. I had arranged to meet up with an old friend in Fowey the next day, and unless I got some miles behind me this evening I was unlikely to make it. So I vowed to keep going until I found a decent-looking pub with rooms.
I had now crossed the county border into Cornwall, and I struck gold in Menheniot, a pretty village a couple of miles outside Liskeard. The White Hart looked splendid with its recent coat of pale-yellow paint, and
dozens of hanging baskets and window boxes boasting flora of every colour in the rainbow. A recent Tripadvisor review had described the place as shambolic, but I found welcoming staff, a comfortable room, decent food and several pints of immaculately kept Tribute bitter.