Sweet beams at an Ir­ish light­house

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

THE coun­try road nar­rows to­ward the end of the penin­sula, trees dis­ap­pear and as we curve around the last bend, the light­house comes into view, a tall yel­low-and-black striped tower watch­ing over the sea. St John’s Point light­house is on a rocky head­land in County Down, North­ern Ire­land.

It’s been a work­ing light­house since 1844 and now, thanks to the Great Light­houses of Ire­land tourism ini­tia­tive, vis­i­tors can stay in the for­mer light­keep­ers’ cot­tages.

The project has brought to­gether 12 work­ing light­houses around the whole of Ire­land that vis­i­tors can ei­ther take a guided tour of, or stay at.

At St John’s Point, there’s a light­house tower and four dwellings, one of which is for the light­house keeper and his fam­ily (the light was au­to­mated in 1981 but keep­ers still play an im­por­tant role). One is used for stor­age, and two opened in Au­gust for vis­i­tors to rent.

In our cosy two-bed­room house un­der the light­house tower there’s plenty of mar­itime para­pher­na­lia – on win­dowsills there are light­house books, plus binoc­u­lars, an old sex­tant and a barom­e­ter. The house is bright and sim­ply fur­nished, with sea-green doors and other fea­tures keep­ing to the nau­ti­cal feel.

There’s lots to ex­plore out­side too. The tower it­self is not open but a man and boy are fish­ing at a boat land­ing cut into the rocks and nearby are the ru­ins of 10th­cen­tury St John’s Point Church.

Later, re­lax­ing with tea out­side the front of the cot­tage, with the light­house tow­er­ing above, I won­der what the light­keep­ers once grew in the now-over­grown gar­den. Be­yond the sea wall I can hear the roar of the sea and the cries of seabirds, while cows graze in the fields.

At 40 me­tres (131 feet) high, St John’s Point is the tallest on­shore light­house on the Ir­ish coast. Ir­ish writer Bren­dan Be­han once helped paint the tower (his fa­ther was a light­house painter).

The ex­pe­ri­ence was not a suc­cess – the prin­ci­pal keeper com­plained that Be­han was “wil­fully wast­ing ma­te­ri­als and open­ing paint tins by blows from a heavy ham­mer” and had turned the place into a sham­bles.

Luck­ily, he found a skill he was bet­ter at.

Later that night I watch the two beams of light sweep­ing past at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals as the lens turns, warn­ing ships of the head­land and guid­ing mariners safely to shore. It feels nice to fall asleep un­der this bea­con of safety.

“This build­ing is unique in Ire­land. It’s a cor­belled pigsty,” says Duane Fitzsi­mons the next day, point­ing out a tiny medieval stone build­ing near the light­house. Lo­cal guide Duane runs tours of the Le­cale penin­sula, where St John’s Point is, and thanks to his knowl­edge, I find out how rich the area is in his­tor­i­cal sites.

“Will we start the tour at the mini dark hedges which lead to a stone cir­cle?” he asks, as my eyes widen, re­al­is­ing that this is like real-life Game of Thrones (which fea­tures the dark hedges in Bal­ly­money) and Out­lander (a stone cir­cle) all in one.

The mini hedges don’t dis­ap­point – we take the long down­hill Cow Path, lined with hawthorn and gorse which have en­twined to form a low arch over the path.

At the end is Bal­ly­noe stone cir­cle, a mys­te­ri­ous cir­cle of with 50 evenly spaced stones. The cir­cle is 33 me­tres across and is prob­a­bly from the late Ne­olithic or early bronze age; ex­ca­va­tions car­ried out in the 1930s found graves in a cen­tral cairn.

Next we visit Stru­ell Wells, to see holy wells linked with St Pa­trick, who founded Ire­land’s first church in the area and was re­put­edly buried in Down­patrick in 461.

The site has bath houses for pil­grims who came in the mid­dle ages. Duane also shows us Le­cale’s beaches and the town of Ar­glass, which has six cas­tles.

From the light­house, the view across Dun­drum Bay is of the black and pointy Moun­tains of Mourne in the dis­tance.

These are North­ern Ire­land’s high­est peaks, and we set off on the Blue Lough walk – a fairly easy in­tro­duc­tion to the moun­tains – with Mournes walk­ing guide Peter Raf­ferty. It’s rain­ing, but Peter keeps us en­ter­tained, ex­plain­ing how the 35-kilo­me­tre (22-mile) gran­ite Mourne Wall was built, pass­ing over 15 moun­tains to en­close a reser­voir catch­ment area.

He also shows us spongy sphag­num moss, used as an an­ti­sep­tic in the World War I trenches. We climb to a cave as Peter tells sto­ries of smug­glers and the “brandy path” route they used here in the 18th-cen­tury.

The plan was a post-hike swim at New­cas­tle’s Rock Pool – one of Ire­land’s last out­door sea­wa­ter pools – but stormy seas have closed it, so we ease our aching mus­cles in Soak sea­weed baths op­po­site in­stead.

Owner Der­mot Devine har­vests wrack sea­weed from lo­cal shores, and once it hits warm wa­ter, it re­leases a min­eral-rich gel from its fronds. “Do you know that your blood plasma is al­most iden­ti­cal in makeup to sea­wa­ter?” asks Der­mot, as he ex­plains how the bath re­stores the body’s min­er­als.

Thanks to the bath, my in­ner sys­tem is prob­a­bly more in har­mony with the sur­round­ing sea­wa­ter.

That night back at the light­house (US$420 for three nights), as I sit out­side and watch the beams sweep past ev­ery few sec­onds, I feel even more con­nected to the sea. It’s a shame so few per­ma­nent light­keep­ers are needed now that light­houses are all au­to­mated, I re­flect. I could grow used to this life.

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