Sweet beams at an Irish lighthouse
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.