I have been thinking of doing a cycle tour to all the lighthouses in the South West for a few years and when my cycling buddy Jo expressed an interest in joining me I was galvanised into action. I decided arbitrarily to only include the lighthouses that are on the mainland and those that are working. Once I got into the planning it seemed reasonable to also include iconic lighthouse hotspots as well – like Smeatons Tower on Plymouth Hoe and Lands End with a view of Long Ships for example.
It is always good to have a theme for a cycling adventure: it adds direction and purpose. I live on the South Coast of England in Dorset and I have walked the South West Coast Path and kayaked around the South West coast over the last twenty years or so. The sea kayaking took us out to places like Lundy Island and Long Ships off lands End which were definitely not possible on the cycling tour.
A lighthouse is a structure, usually a tower or other type of structure, built as an aid to navigation for maritime pilots at sea. Back in the day people used to light fires on hills to aid navigation but the modern era of lighthouses began in the eighteenth century with advances in structural engineering and new efficient lighting equipment allowing the creation of larger and more powerful lighthouses including ones exposed to the sea. The function of lighthouses is to provide a visible and, in poor visibility, audible warning against shipping hazards such as rocks or reefs.
Today Trinity House maintains over 60 lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. These highly visual aids to navigation range from isolated offshore towers like the Eddystone to shore based locations like the Lizard.
In 2010 I took part in the Eddystone Challenge which involved paddling from Plymouth to the Eddystone lighthouse and back again. The race is intended for gigs but kayaks are allowed to join in. I was paddling a sea kayak not a gig. Although it was fabulous to paddle out to the Eddystone, I didn’t have the urge to do it again!
While lighthouse buildings differ depending on the location and purpose, they tend to have common components.
A light station comprises the lighthouse tower and all outbuildings, such as the keeper’s living quarters, fuel house, boathouse, and fog-signalling building. The lighthouse itself consists of a tower structure supporting the lantern room where the light operates.
The Lantern Room is the glassed-in housing at the top of a lighthouse tower containing the lamp and lens. Its glass storm panes are supported by metal bars running vertically or diagonally. At the top of the lantern room is a storm-proof ventilator designed to remove the smoke of the lamps and the heat that builds in the glass enclosure. A lightning rod and grounding system connected to the metal cupola roof provides a safe conduit for any lightning strikes.
Immediately beneath the lantern room is usually a Watch Room or Service Room where fuel and other supplies were kept and where the keeper prepared the lanterns for the night and often stood watch. The clockworks (for rotating the lenses) were also located there. On a lighthouse tower, an open platform called the gallery is often located outside the watch room (called the Main Gallery) or Lantern Room (Lantern Gallery). This was mainly used for cleaning the outside of the windows of the Lantern Room.
Lighthouses near to each other that are similar in shape are often painted in a unique pattern so they can easily be recognized during daylight,
Today all the lighthouses are automated and the accommodation has been converted for use as holiday lettings.
The list of lighthouses on the south west peninsula for our cycling tour were, in order:
- Anvil Point
- Portland Bill
- Berry Head
- Start Point
- St Antony
- Tater Du
- Trevose Head
- Hartland Point
- Crow Point
- Bull Point
- Lynmouth Foreland
I decided to start on the south coast with the lighthouse furthest to the east which is Anvil Point in Dorset. From there the route went to Portland Bill and then down the coast through Devon and Cornwall following the coast all the way down to Lands end. From Lands End the route went to St Ives and then followed the north Cornwall and Devon coast up to Lynmouth. The last lighthouse on the tour was Lynmouth Foreland.
The total distance planned was 900 kilometres (550 miles) but with over 11,000 metres of climb (36,000 feet). We were planning to camp if the weather permitted so we had about 11kg of luggage each. I allowed 7 days for the ride but if all went well we could probably complete it in 6 days.
The first lighthouse in the tour was Anvil Point which is near Swanage. This is to the east of where we live so I decided to do this section as a day ride and stay at home the first night.
The lighthouse was completed in 1881. Anvil Point Lighthouse was fully automated in 1991 and is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House Operations at Harwich.
Our route took us through the Lulworth Ranges (open on a Sunday) and along the coast to Weymouth. We rode along the sea front and the Rodwell trail to the causeway which took us out onto Portland and down to the Lighthouse at Portland Bill.
The present lighthouse is the third to be built at Portland Bill. The two original lighthouses now known as Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse operated as a pair of leading lights to guide ships between Portland Race and the Shambles Sandbank. The present lighthouse was completed in 1916. It was de-manned in 1996 and control transferred to the Trinity House Operations.
From Portland Bill we rode back to Bridport. With 11,000 metres of elevation in this tour there were obviously going to be some proper hills. One of these was the climb out of Abbotsbury which is a long sustained climb.
The next day we set off on our touring bikes heading down to the South West of England.
Each of us carrying about 11kg of luggage carried mainly in Ortileb panniers.
Our route took us through Exeter and down the River Exe to Dawlish then along the coast to Teignmouth. We dropped down to visit the lighthouse there, which is a grade 2 listed building.
In the early 1840s Teignmouth Harbour Commissioners decided to erect a lighthouse as an aid to shipping, and a tower was built of blocks of local limestone during the years 1844 to 1845 with the light being shone for the first time in 1845.
The lighthouse has never had a keeper, resident or otherwise; never been open to the public, and because of its size, has mistakenly been referred to in Guides as a toy lighthouse. However it is not; it is a real navigational aid.
In Powderham Terrace and close to the Lynton House Hotel, some 200 feet behind the lighthouse is the second leading light, which is a tall pole with a red navigational lamp fixed on the top.
Today the lighthouse is kept clean and maintained by the Harbour Master. It shows a fixed red light visible for 3 miles and when lined up with the leading light behind it provides a safe passage across the sand bars at the mouth of the Teign.
Our target destination for the day was Berry Head above Brixham where there is a vertically challenged lighthouse. Berry Head is reputedly the shortest lighthouse in Great Britain but also one of the highest. It is only 5 metres tall but 58 metres above sea level.
It was built in 1906.
We camped at Berry Head and the next morning with fresh legs zipped over to Kingswear for the ferry across the River Dart to Dartmouth.
In my zealous effort to avoid riding on main roads we found ourselves on a hill too steep to ride which degenerated into a bridleway. So we had a longer walk than we would have liked.
It would have been better to have taken the A379 out of the town.
As it was we joined the A379 and followed it along the coast to Slapton where we visited the Exercise Tiger Memorial.
From Slapton we headed out to Start Point.
Start Point lighthouse was built in 1836 to protect shipping off Start Point in south Devon. For us it involved an undulating ride along narrow lanes. It was worth it as Start Point is exactly what you expect from a lighthouse. A tall white tower built on a rocky promontory with a raging sea below. This being May, the wild thrift and bluebells were magnificent.
We were able to pick up fuel in the form of cheese and onion pasties (neither of us eat meat) and doughnuts before continuing to Kingsbridge. The road through the South Hams to Plymouth is scenic and undulating. The cyclists among you will recognise these word as euphemisms for very hilly.
We diverted to Plymouth Hoe where the centrepiece is Smeaton’s Tower. The lighthouse was originally built on the Eddystone reef in 1759. It was take down in the 1810’s when it was discovered the sea was undermining the rock it was standing on. The tower was dismantled and erected at Plymouth Hoe.
It was a beautiful clear day and we were able to see the Eddystone Lighthouse. The Eddystone is an extensive reef about 20km SSW off Plymouth Sound and midway between Start Point and Lizard Point. The reef is submerged at HW springs and very much feared by mariners. The present lighthouse was built in 1882 and is still in use.
We cycled through Plymouth and along the Tamar to the Torpoint ferry where we crossed into Cornwall.
We rode, hugging the coast, to Looe. On this the third day of the tour had now ridden over 100km with over 2000m of climbing so another pasty was called for to fuel the last 20km – with a monster hill – to Fowey.
We dropped very steeply down to Polruan to catch the ferry to Fowey. There were several steps down to the small boat and fortunately there were 4 strong men – 2 to each bike – to help us.
We bought food in Fowey and climbed steeply out from the river up to our destination for the night at Penhale Farm.
After a great nights sleep we set off for our next lighthouse which was on the Roseland Peninsula. St Anthony’s Lighthouse is at St Anthony’s Head on the eastern side of the entrance to Falmouth Harbour which is one of the largest natural harbours in the world.
We then rode round to St Mawes – and bought some pasty fuel at the pier while waiting for the ferry to Falmouth.
We skirted around the Helford River and crossed it at Gweek before climbing onto the Lizard.
The name Lizard is probably a corruption of the Cornish name ‘Lys Ardh’ meaning ‘high court’. It is a coincidence that much of the peninsula is composed of serpentinite bearing rock.
There are several nature sites on the Lizard Peninsula; Predannack Nature reserve, Mullion Island, Goonhilly Downs, and the Seal Sanctuary at Gweek. Much of the Lizard is a national nature reserve because of its coastal grasslands and inland heaths. The area is also home to one of England’s rarest breeding birds, the Cornish Chough.
We rode to the lighthouse – which has the brightest light of all and can be seen 100 miles away on a clear night.
Lizard point beckoned to finish the job off and we were treated to some relaxation in the sun watching the antics of seals surrounded by beautiful wild coastal flowers.
We cycled back up the Lizard to Helston and then continued to Mounts Bay and spent the night at Penzance Youth Hostel.
We started the next day by riding along the coast through Newlyn. We paid our respects at the Penlee Lifeboat Station’s Solomon Browne Memorial.
Our first lighthouse of the day was Tater Du. Access involved some low grade trespassing but it had to be done. Tater Du Lighthouse is Cornwall’s most recently built lighthouse and was constructed after the Juan Ferrer tragedy in 1963 on nearby Boscawen Point.
The next bit of the ride through St Buryan to Lands End was fabulous and virtually flat – a welcome relief and some recovery ready for what was to come after Lands End.
We were at Lands End before 10am when it officially opens so it was mercifully quiet and free of tourists. We just rode out to the view point and took a picture as if we were ‘end to enders’!
We waved at the Longships lighthouse which is situated 2 kilometres off shore but couldn’t get any closer on this occasion.
The next section of the tour from Sennen to St Ives is magnificent and was fuelled by an excellent pasty stop at St Just. The route follows the B3306 which has a couple of proper hills on it but the coastal scenery is fabulous throughout. In contrast to the sea views is the wild moor and heath inland. We diverted to Pendeen Watch Lighthouse.
We dropped down into St Ives for the sake of completeness and enjoyed the picturesque harbour and the historic Smeaton’s pier.
The next lighthouse on this stretch of coast is on Godrevy Island so outside our remit.
We continued our journey along the North Cornwall coast to Newquay and camped at Porth.
We enjoyed a beautiful evening close to the beach at Porth.
Fresh legs were required for the scenic undulating B3276 to Trevose Head. This is a magnificent lighthouse – another tall tower on a rocky headland with beautiful wild flowers in the environs.
We continued to Padstow where we were able to refuel on fantastic pasties before catching the ferry across the River Camel to Rock.
We were unlucky to miss the last ferry from the harbour and had to walk down to the Lower beach as the tide was rapidly ebbing. The ferry took us across the river but left us with a half mile walk along the beach to the slipway.
Aghhhhhh – it rained! So far we had enjoyed dry weather- quite chilly and breezy but no rain. The forecast was terrible and we hastened to Hartland Point to get ahead of the weather. We were lucky and the promised hours of heavy rain only amounted to a few showers.
Hartland Point is in Devon and marks the western limit of the Bristol Channel with the Atlantic Ocean continuing to the West
We had already ridden 100km for the day but decided to continue towards Bideford on the Torridge. The route was lovely and followed quiet lanes which undulated more gently as the streams became more organised towards the River Torridge. We dropped down into the Taw/Torridge estuary area riding on the Tarka Trail and started to look for somewhere to eat and somewhere to stay. We finished up riding 174km all the way to Braunton. We had supper in a pub and then camped on Velator Quay on the Braunton Canal – unofficially.
I really wanted to find Crow Point lighthouse. Crow Point is a sandy beach backed by low dunes at the southern end of Braunton Burrows Nature Reserve. The beach looks south east across the River Taw and south west to Appledore. The point is a sand spit formed near the confluence of the Taw and Torridge Rivers. In reality it is little more than a finger of sand and mud protected by groynes.
The solar powered Crow Point Lighthouse also called Braunton Sands Lighthouse lies at the southern extremity of the spit. It stands just 7.6 metres above high water.
After visiting Crow Point we returned to the B3231 and detoured around Saunton and Croyde – finding much needed coffee and breakfast.
We continued to Mortehoe and then on the access road out to Bull Point lighthouse.
The lighthouse provides a visual aid to the villages of Mortehoe, Woolacombe and Ilfracombe and warns of the rocky coast in this area. Back in the kayaking days it was also a useful point to aim at on the mainland when paddling back from Lundy.
From Mortehoe we followed National Cycle Route 27. This was the easiest 5 kilometres of the tour. The route follows the London and South Western Railway Ilfracombe branch line from Morthoe and we freewheeled all the way. Bliss!
After a visit to the bakery in Ilfracombe we dropped down to the harbour to see Verity. Verity is a stainless steel and bronze statue created by Damien Hirst which has been loaned to the town for 20 years. It depicts a pregnant woman holding aloft a sword while carrying the scales of justice and standing on a pile of law books. Half of the sculpture shows the internal anatomy of the pregnant woman with the foetus clearly visible.
We climbed out of Ilfracombe, dropped to sea level again at Hele, climbed again and dropped to sea level at Watermouth Castle, climbed again and dropped into Coombe Martin. From Coombe Martin to Lynmouth it is hilly. We could have made life a little easier for ourselves by going up to Blackmoor Gate and then on the A39 but we took the scenic route up Buzzacott Lane, (walked some of this) then down to Trentishoe and down to the Hunters Inn. The climb out of the Hunters Inn was just too steep on our loaded touring bikes and we had to walk.
We were able enjoy the magnificent scenery of Woody Bay.
We continued up (again) past Lee Abbey Christian Retreat and on to the scenic Valley of the Rocks.
The route climbed up out of the Valley of the Rocks to Lynton and then dropped steeply down again to sea level at Lynmouth. We had done so much climbing as we neared the end of the tour that I had phoned ahead and arranged for our panniers to be taken by car up Countisbury Hill. With a maximum grade of 27.4% over the 4km hill we needed all the help we could get! We made it up to Foreland at an elevation of 300m. The last lighthouse Lynmouth Foreland was at sea level. Jo chose to ride all the way down to it –and back again. I didn’t!
Phew! It was a great tour. The way we did it in just 6 days carrying all our camping gear required a good level of fitness and an ability to ride with tired legs. We really enjoyed the ferries and the lighthouses and enjoyed the magnificent coastal scenery. May was a lovely time of year to ride as it is before the main holiday season so the roads were quiet and the wild flowers were at their best. We were lucky with the weather. It was mainly dry, cool and sunny with just a few showers near Hartland in North Devon.