Like most landlubbers I take lighthouses pretty much for granted, if I ever bother to think about them at all. But when you get up close to a lighthouse, like Whiteford Point on the Gower peninsula, Talacre on the coast of Flintshire and the famous and much photographed South Stack on Anglesey (it was even the prop for a Roxy Music album cover) they exude an undeniable character and atmosphere.
This had never occurred to me until I started researching a guide to walks from Welsh lighthouses though.
I’d never even considered that these structures actually play a part in my everyday life - from my home on a hill above Solva Harbour I can see (on a clear day) the Smalls Lighthouse, some 20-miles offshore, and when I take my dog on his evening walk the beam of Strumble Head lighthouse to the north can be seen sweeping across the night sky.
If you’re out at sea this can only be reassuring, the more so in the days before GPS, for the Welsh coast is a wild coast, and when a storm blasts in from the Atlantic you need all the help there is to stay safe out there.
Many of the lighthouses I visited were actually built as a result of tragedies at sea – others have had a more organic development – one of my favourites is the stocky, whitewashed Tŵr Mawr on Llanddwyn Island off the Anglesey coast. Built in 1845, it was adapted from an earlier tower dating back to the early 19th century, and is in a style that is characteristic of Anglesey windmills.
The 10-metre high tower stands on the south-west tip of lovely little Llanddwyn Island, where it served vessels passing through Menai Strait. Though decommissioned in 1975, it reflects on an important period in Welsh history, as do so many of the country’s lighthouses.
The Victorian era was the high point of lighthouse building around the Welsh coast, when the amount of sea traffic increased vastly; vessels plying the Bristol Channel from Cardiff and Bristol and boats involved in the coastal trade up and down the Irish Sea.
Passenger ships travelling to and from Liverpool and Holyhead to Dublin or across the Atlantic to the New World – never had the waters around Wales seen so much activity…”
Passenger ships travelling to and from Liverpool and Holyhead to Dublin or across the Atlantic to the New World – never had the waters around Wales seen so much activity. Neither had they seen so many shipwrecks. Just one storm, prosaically known as the ‘Great Storm’ of 25-26 October 1859, saw some 133 ships sunk around the Welsh coast. When I visited Point Lynas on a sunny June afternoon the weather conditions could not have been more different to those of the Great Storm.
It allowed me to sit in front of the lighthouse and enjoy one of the things lighthouses are best for (besides preventing shipwrecks) – acting as a prop from which to stare idly out to sea and think about nothing in particular.
Although that said, you can’t gaze mindlessly into the middle distance for long at Point Lynas, since this is one of the best places in Britain for spotting cetaceans.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a group of porpoises popping in and out of the waves – not to mention seals, terns, gannets and guillemots doing their thing in the air and the sea. Later that same day I booked into Surf Snowdonia to catch a few waves at the world’s first surf park. As I sat on my board and waited for a wave to roll towards me I considered briefly how far we’ve come from the time when Point Lynas was built.
In those days, the sea and its waves were something to be feared; now, here in the heart of Snowdonia, I’m playing on a man-made wave the size and frequency of which is determined by a computer programme.
I couldn’t have credited such a thing when I started surfing thirty years ago, so imagine how improbable it would have seemed back when our lighthouses were being built.
Some are now approaching 200-years-old, yet even so Point Lynas, Nash Point, Strumble Head, and a score of other lighthouses around the Welsh coast will tonight beam their arcs of light, safety and reassurance across a black, shining sea as they have on thousands of nights past, and may yet do on thousands of nights future.
And no one will think anything of it…
Alf’s book ‘Walks to Lighthouses’ published by Northern Eye Books, was released in November 2017
Alf's top ten Welsh lighthouses to visit
01 Nash Point, Glamorgan – great views across the Bristol Channel
02 Whiteford Point, Gower – an atmospheric lone sentinel on the sands
03 St. Ann’s Head, Pembrokeshire – safeguarding the entrance to Wales biggest estuary
04 Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire – magnificent coastal landscapes and a wealth of birdlife
05 Tŵr Mawr, Llanddwyn Island – possibly Wales’ most scenic lighthouse
06 South Stack, Anglesey – Wales’ most iconic lighthouse
07 Point Lynas, Anglesey – a great place to spot whales in Wales
08 Trywn Ddu (Penmon Point), Anglesey – black and white and just offshore
09 Great Orme, Llandudno – fantastic sea views; and you can drive all the way there
10 Talacre/Point of Ayr, Flinthsire – look out for the ghost of the lighthouse keeper!