A leisurely start
I thought I had got up early, but creeping downstairs to make myself a cup of tea I found Gavin fully dressed, my clothes washed and drying out on the line, and breakfast already laid out. Katherine had left for work an hour earlier and so over toast and cereal, Gavin and I shared stories of sailing, cycling and how much Southampton had changed since my university days.
By car, my next lighthouse near Beaulieu would have involved a busy, industrial stretch of dual carriageway through Millbrook and Totton. It was a road I was familiar with from weekend day trips to the New Forest. By bike, however, I could take advantage of the Hythe ferry, crossing the water from Town Quay at the east end of Southampton Docks to the pier and marina at Hythe opposite.
A ferry has operated between Southampton and Hythe since the Middle Ages, and the route is marked on a map from 1575 by Christopher Saxton. The service was owned and run by the Percy family for the majority of the last century, but its future was uncertain when I crossed, relying on a single catamaran on loan from the service between Gravesend and Tilbury on the Thames.
Pausing in Hythe to plan out my route to Beaulieu, I realised that I had accepted a kind offer of a bed for the night here from Colin and Sandy, keen lighthouse enthusiasts whom I had met through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK). I felt awful having to mess them about, but looking at my agenda I needed to keep up the pace if I was to reach the Channel Islands by the weekend.
Progress towards Beaulieu was slow and, although the roads were flat and the views breathtaking in places, I was exposed to strong winds and held up queues of cars behind me, waiting for a gap to overtake. Turning off the main Beaulieu Road towards Lepe, though, was a different story. The lane was much quieter, the hedges on each side provided welcome shelter, and I picked up my speed.
My target was Britain’s youngest lighthouse, whose official title is Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon, built in 2000 to help navigate the approach to the Beaulieu River from the Solent, which includes a relatively narrow channel between Beaulieu Spit and the Lepe Foreshore. The lighthouse’s tower is twenty-five feet tall and made from white-painted cement-rendered brick, with an octagonal lantern and weathervane on top. It displays a white light to indicate the safe channel, with red and green sectors on each side, and also serves as a daymark during daylight hours.
Back in Beaulieu village, I stopped for far too long over lunch at The Old Bakehouse Tea Rooms and by the time I got going again my legs were stiff, and once again I was behind schedule. I was making for Hurst Castle, where I had arranged to meet several members of the ALK. They established a museum of lighthouse artefacts there, after Trinity House’s museum in Penzance closed in 2005. Mondays were the one day of the week when all of the volunteers would be there, and so I needed to reach Keyhaven for the ferry across the water by 3pm at the latest if I was to meet up with them.
My route to Keyhaven took me through Lymington, which was delightful, and I wished I had more time to stop and explore the town. Situated on the west bank of the Lymington River, at the edge of the Solent, Lymington is now a major yachting centre with three marinas. But it began as an Anglo-Saxon village, recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Lentune’. Throughout the Middle Ages and until the early nineteenth century, Lymington was renowned for its salt making, and more recently established a thriving ship building industry.
Keyhaven is a hamlet with a pretty harbour, lying at one end of the shingle bank known as Hurst Spit. You can walk along the spit to the Hurst Castle in around half an hour, but I was waiting at the quay for the short ferry crossing, where my ALK friends had told me to introduce myself to the ferryman, Bob. The harbour seemed desolate and exposed, and for the first time I worried about where I would leave my bike and panniers. But as Bob pulled up at the quay, he insisted that there would be room on his boat for me, the bike and my luggage, and between us we managed to haul it all on board. The water was remarkably still and peaceful, protected from the Solent by the shingle spit, and so the crossing was remarkably quiet.
Where there's a lighthouse The Beacon Bike must follow! pic.twitter.com/dUaVobKjgp
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 11, 2015
As we neared the castle, a heavy fog descended, concealing the current Trinity House lighthouse altogether. I could make out the castle’s Tudor entrance through the mist, and I honestly don’t think a special effects team could have given my arrival a more eerie cinematic feel.
My ALK friends were pleased to see me and for the first time since Dungeness, I posed in front of my bike for official photographs. John Best, a longstanding member of the ALK and volunteer at the museum, showed me around the castle, and helped me to clamber up onto the castle walls to see the two former low lights. The ALK museum and archive is expanding, and I was delighted to see that their current project was the restoration of the distinctive red octagonal lantern from the Nab Tower, that I had searched for from the east coast of the Isle of Wight. The restoration was nearing completion, and was to be their prize exhibit.
The restoration work is carried out by a small team of volunteers and enthusiasts, headed up by Keith Morton, the ALK Project Manager at Hurst Castle. Lighthouses are a passion for them, and their knowledge, skill and dedication is remarkable.
Meeting up with the fabulous voluntary team of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers at Hurst Castle this afternoon pic.twitter.com/5GnC5b0e1C
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 11, 2015
The current Hurst Point Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1867 to guide vessels through the hazardous western approaches to the Solent. It has an eighty-five-foot-tall, white-painted circular stone tower with lantern and gallery, as well as keepers’ accommodation and other associated buildings around its base.
The lighthouse was extensively modernised in 1997, including the installation of an accurate system of red, green and white directional lights that mark the channel between the Needles and the Shingles Bank. Unlike many earlier directional lights around our coast, the ones at Hurst can be realigned in the event of movement of the shingle.
There have been a number of lights at Hurst Point, from as early as 1733. The first Trinity House lighthouse, sited to the south-west of Hurst Castle, was lit for the first time on 29 September 1786. It was soon established that this lighthouse was obscured to shipping from certain directions and so an additional lighthouse was built in 1812, which also provided a guiding line to vessels.
After extensive additions to the neighbouring castle during the 1800s and 1870s, the original 1786 lighthouse was replaced with a new low light in 1866, built into the castle walls. At the same time, the 1812 lighthouse was decommissioned and replaced with the current 1867 tower.
The shifting shingle meant that the 1866 low light had to be abandoned in 1911, and was replaced with a square metal tower, standing on steel joists attached to the castle wall. Both of these low lights remain, although they have been repainted to camouflage them to avoid confusion for mariners.
The current Trinity House lighthouse opens for visitors, although evidently not on a foggy May Monday afternoon during term time.
Somehow the castle staff, the ALK volunteers, my bike, luggage and I all managed to pile on to the tiny ferry back to Keyhaven. John Best had kindly offered to put me up for the night, and by the time I had cycled the hour-long route to his house in Christchurch, supper was already prepared. Over a wonderful stir fry, we talked about many of the lighthouses I would visit, and the people I should look up on the way. He may not have cycled to them all in a single journey, but I couldn’t find a single lighthouse that John hadn’t reached at some point in his lifetime. I had a lot of catching up to do.