A bumpy ride
I was up early the following morning for the boat to Alderney. The contract for the scheduled ferry service between Guernsey and Alderney had been awarded the previous year to Bumblebee Marine, a family enterprise run by father and son, Chris and Dan Meinke. Their vessel is a newly built, bright yellow, ten-metre catamaran, capable of carrying no more than a dozen passengers.
As I reached the quayside it started to rain, and the sea looked pretty rough to me. But there were six of us waiting hopefully, and before long the Bumblebee emerged out of the gloom.
Our skipper for the crossing was Chris, a relentlessly cheerful chap, who warned us that the going might get a bit choppy. He wasn’t kidding. The heavy rain had driven me, and my five fellow passengers, to take shelter in the catamaran’s tiny wheelhouse. But rain was the least of our troubles, because no sooner had we emerged from the harbour at St Peter Port than we started to be thrown about the wheelhouse with each wave that hit the side of the boat.
The bench seats in the wheelhouse are quite high, and not one of us could touch the floor with our feet while seated. It meant that any movement of the boat caused us to slide along the bench until the end passenger fell onto the floor. We took it in turns to sit at the end of the two benches and for a few minutes it felt exhilarating, like the most popular ride at the fun fair. But before long it felt relentless, and it dawned on me that this was how it was going to be for the next couple of hours.
My balance is not great at the best of times, and I felt my centre of gravity shifting with each second, and with every wave we encountered. I tried to compensate by clenching muscles that I didn’t know I had, and grabbing hold tightly of anything that was fixed to the floor or ceiling.
Somewhat improbably, I discovered that clenching my left and right buttocks helped considerably, just as long as I did so in time to the rise and fall of the boat. And so I maintained a rhythm as best I could, shifting my balance between left and right buttock, left and right arm.
Nor was our skipper exempt from the ordeal. Now Chris is not a tall man, and when seated on his captain’s stool, his feet didn’t quite touch the ground either. In most conditions this would not be an issue, but today it meant that he was struggling to stay upright as much as we were. Frequently we would hit an especially fierce wave, Chris would be thrown from his stool onto the floor, he’d roar with laughter and then claw his way back to his position. It was a great testament to his nautical skills, however, that no matter how roughly he was flung, he never once let go of the wheel.
After ninety minutes we reached dry land and docked at Alderney. I felt thoroughly sick and although my target was the lighthouse at Quénard Point, all I really wanted to do was find somewhere to sit down and remain still for a while.
The single garage on the island offered bike rental, and for just ten pounds I managed to hire a small electric bike whose battery, I was assured, would endure a complete circle of the island. But first, I cycled straight to the centre of town in search of breakfast and a decent cup of coffee.
I was extremely lucky to find Gloria’s Food, a wonderful family run cafe and bistro, in a small street leading from the main shopping area.
I ordered a full English breakfast, and got chatting to Gloria herself about what I was doing on Alderney, and how I had hoped to get closer to Casquets Lighthouse than I had managed on the ferry crossing from Portsmouth.
News travels fast on Alderney. While I was tucking into a really first-class breakfast, much was being done behind the scenes. Gloria’s son tried, without success, to fix me up with a local boatman to take me out to Casquets. He had also found my website, donated £50 to Shift MS, and tipped off the features writer at the Alderney Press that I was here.
Within minutes I saw a young woman running up the hill towards the cafe as if her life depended on it. I wondered what on earth made anyone rush about on an island like Alderney, until I realised that she had come to see me. She produced a voice recorder and asked me if I was the intrepid lighthouse cyclist. Pleased as I was to be newsworthy, I was surprised that my visit appeared to be her biggest scoop for many weeks.
Food for cycling energy, courtesy of Gloria’s Foods on Alderney pic.twitter.com/DjGVb1NZtS
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 16, 2015
I stayed at Gloria’s Food for far too long, and it took a fair effort to pack my bag and get on my bike for the ride to Quénard Point. After two weeks on my bulletproof Thorn Nomad, this tiny-wheeled electric bike felt very strange indeed. But I was determined to make maximum use of the battery assistance, and within minutes was loving travelling at speed without any effort at all on my part.
The lighthouse on Alderney is spectacular, and was the first ‘proper’ tower lighthouse I had seen since La Corbière on Jersey. It holds a commanding position, with far-reaching views over the channel in three directions. The lighthouse opens to visitors on Sundays, but today it was locked and deserted. I had read that the keepers’ accommodation had been turned into holiday cottages at some point, but I could see no sign of this.
Quesnard Point, Alderney
Alderney Lighthouse, also known as Quénard Lighthouse after the headland on which it was built in 1912, is at the island’s north-east point. It is 105 feet tall and painted white with a central black band to make it more visible to shipping during daylight hours.
It looks out over a hazardous stretch of water known as The Alderney Race, between Alderney and Cap de la Hague in Normandy, that includes the strongest tidal streams in Europe.
The lighthouse was automated in 1997, and following advances in the navigational technology fitted to bigger shipping, its light was downgraded from twenty-three miles to twelve miles in 2011, and its foghorn withdrawn altogether.
This is a proper lighthouse! It’s Quenard Point on Alderney pic.twitter.com/99tNxcwie3
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 16, 2015
From this headland I planned to cycle to the opposite end of the island to see if I could get a closer view of Casquets Lighthouse than I had managed from the Portsmouth ferry. The rain had stopped, the skies had cleared, and without my panniers I had nowhere to store all of the unnecessary layers of clothes I was wearing. I was getting far too hot, and after barely ten minutes I stopped for a delicious cream tea at The Old Barn, near Longis Beach. When I eventually passed the island’s airport and reached Alderney’s south-west coast I was rewarded with a clear view of Casquets, but no better than the one from the ferry.
Cycling back towards Braye Beach and the Bumblebee, the battery level indicator had dropped into the red zone, and I took every opportunity to freewheel and, where absolutely necessary, to pedal. I stopped at Fort Tourgis, a ruined and abandoned fort that had been built by the British in 1855 to provide defence for Alderney and its harbour against French naval power in the Channel.
It was adapted by German occupying forces during the second world war to resist potential British assaults to recapture the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by Germany. After the war it was used by the military up until the 1960s, then became a boarding school for a while before falling into disrepair. Despite various plans over the years to redevelop the fort as flats, houses, a luxury hotel, even a casino, the site remains eerily still and abandoned, but offers a spectacular vantage point over the island and its waters.
Leaving the bike at the roadside I hunted for, and found, the conical white stone that once served as a daymark to assist mariners who were navigating the hazardous waters below.
The crossing back to Guernsey was considerably calmer, and we had the wind behind us all the way. When we were nearing St Peter Port, Chris piloted as close as he could to the Tautenay, Roustel and Brehon Tower lights, to make sure I got some great pictures, a lot better than the ones I had taken hastily from the shore the previous day.
I’m not sure that, with hindsight, I’d count any of these three lights as bona fide lighthouses. Tautenay is a 23ft stone tower, painted with black and white vertical stripes. It was originally a daymark, but a modern light has been added, operated by the Guernsey Harbour Authority. It marks the Little Russel channel between Herm and Guernsey.
The Roustel Tower is a lattice steel construction with a white flashing light on top, visible for seven miles. It sits on a black and white chequered-painted concrete base.
And the Bréhon Tower is a circular stone fort on Bréhon rock, an island in the Little Russell channel about a mile or so north-east of St Peter Port. It was designed to guard the shipping channel between Guernsey and Herm, and to help protect the harbour at St Peter Port. On top of the tower is a white light, operated by the Guernsey Harbour Authority.
Whether they counted or not, I was pleased to tick them off my list, although I recognised that by doing so, I was setting a precedent. By counting these, there would be many more dubious lights, beacons and towers that I would need to seek out and check off over the coming weeks.
I was glad to get back to Old Government House, where I enjoyed a couple of pints of Butcombe bitter and a substantial club sandwich.