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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Days 33 and 34: St Martins, Round Island and return to mainland

by | Aug 11, 2022

Round Island

The world’s smallest radio station?

After a hearty breakfast, I walked down to a tiny broadcasting studio at Porthmellon, home to Radio Scilly, a community radio station launched by Keri Jones in 2007. For a while it laid claim to being the world’s smallest radio station, serving the 2,100 island residents. I was due to be interviewed during the breakfast show, and I met the show’s host, Lydia, at the top of the stairs.

I was on after Ken, head of the St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association, delivered his regular slot highlighting the boat trips scheduled for the day ahead. I had made the right call the previous evening, because tonight’s trip to St Agnes was cancelled.

When my turn came, Lydia asked about my expedition, as well as my previous visits to the Scillies. She was either genuinely interested, or a bloody good host. I was enjoying myself, and didn’t want this to end. In fact, I wanted to learn how to present a breakfast radio show, right now, find somewhere on the islands to live and take over the radio station.

By ten it was all over, and I met Ken again briefly as I waited in line for a boat trip to the eastern isles, taking in the daymark on St Martin’s and Round Island, home to the only lighthouse on the islands that I had not yet seen.

St Martins Daymark

St Martins Daymark

This was really a trip for bird lovers, and we were promised a wide variety of species, including puffins. On St Martin’s I had to walk briskly to get to the daymark and back before the boat left. I am not usually interested in daymarks that have never been lit, but St Martin’s is the exception. It was built as an aid to navigation in 1683, making it the earliest surviving example of a beacon in the British Isles. It is positioned at the highest point of the island and resembles a rocket, with its tapering cone on a circular, granite base. Until 1822 it was painted white, but is now painted in red and white bands.

We paused off St Helen’s, one of the fifty or so uninhabited islands in Scilly. But it wasn’t always so. We could see what was apparently the remains of one of the earliest Christian sites in Scilly, an eighth-century chapel lived in by Saint Lide. There are also the remains of an isolation hospital used to quarantine sailors with the plague. These days, the residents of St Helen’s all have wings, and everyone on the boat seemed delighted to see dozens of puffins. Despite the abundance of seals, shags and guillemots, the puffins were the star turn.

Round Island, at the most northerly point on the Isles of Scilly, is also uninhabited and has only ever been inhabited by lighthouse keepers. As we circled the island it was not hard to see why. It’s a bleak, barren rock that is constantly battered by waves and wind. We couldn’t dock on the island – landing is restricted – but we got right up close to the lighthouse and I took hundreds of photographs.

Round Island

Round Island

Round Island

The lighthouse on the top of Round Island was built by Trinity House in 1887. Building it was challenging and tough work, with the sheer rock face making the offloading of building materials virtually impossible. Access today is by helicopter, or via the flight of steps cut into the rock face. They aren’t for the faint-hearted.

With St Agnes Lighthouse providing safety for vessels in the southern approaches to the Scilly Isles, and Bishop Rock Lighthouse in the west, a lighthouse was needed to protect shipping from the dangerous northern rocks and smaller islands.

It’s a white, circular tower, sixty-three feet tall, designed by James Douglass. Originally its flashing light was red, at thirty second intervals, which needed to be intensified by a huge biform hyperradial optic, similar to the one installed at Bishop Rock.

The lighthouse was electrified in 1966 and the optic was replaced the following year. When it was automated in 1987, the optic was changed once more, this time resulting in its light pattern changing to a flashing white light, visible for eighteen miles.

As far as lighthouses are concerned, that was me done on the Isles of Scilly. The next crossing back to the mainland was the following afternoon, so I had the rest of the day, and most of the next, to rest and prepare for getting back on my bike on Sunday.

When I bade farewell to Lisa, she knocked off a third of my bill, and then donated a healthy sum to Shift MS, the charity I was raising funds for. She also presented me with all my laundry, cleaned and ironed, claiming that she needed to put a load on for the construction workers staying, so it was no trouble adding mine. The workers assigned to the Byelet during the construction work were clearly the lucky ones.

Back in Penzance I was reunited with the bike, and excited at the prospect of reaching Land’s End. It represented a significant milestone, as the most westerly point in England and home to another of our most iconic lighthouses.


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