An action man’s beacon of peace
Owner needed for secluded lighthouse home with peerless views and an awful lot of stairs. Jonny Beardsall reports
Lighthouses make exceptional homes for exceptional people. This was why David Nicholls, a retired brigadier, was enthused when, three years ago, he began renovating the run-down keeper’s cottage attached to the High Lighthouse, a mile from the harbour town of Tayport on the mouth of the Tay.
But fate is cruel and Nicholls – who had combined a remarkable career in the Royal Marines with becoming the outstanding military mountaineer of his generation – died from a heart attack last summer, so never saw the work completed. He was only 57 and now his home, on the coast of Fife, is for sale.
Nicholls was an action man. He saw active service in Oman and commanded 45 Commando from 1991-94, and was later instrumental in the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia. In retirement, he founded the South Georgia Heritage Trust (a conservation body) and also led British Schools Exploring Society expeditions to the Antarctic.
It was probably this love of wild and stirring landscapes that drew him to this most unusual of addresses on the clifftops just four miles from Dundee, where he devoted boundless energy to Project Atlantis, an environmental research group based in the city. For similar reasons, this far-flung hideaway had appealed to the previous occupant, an eccentric Dutch ex-tugboat captain who had leased it for many years.
Nicholls bought the High Lighthouse – a stone house under a slate roof – in 2003 from Dundee’s Harbour Board, which still operates the unmanned station to which the dwelling is fused. Reached along a private access road, originally it comprised two cottages built in the 1820s. These are believed to have been designed, along with the tower lighthouse, by the Scottish engineer, Robert Stevenson.
Thirty years ago the cottages were knocked into one, and Nicholls and his family have turned it into a rather cunningly spacious, four-bedroom ground-floor home, with two floored attics. It has a peerless rotunda sitting room added by the family, with an oak floor based on the design for the Discovery Centre, where Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ship, Discovery, is moored, so is perfect for sweeping the horizon with a telescope and the floor with a soft broom.
The views from the cliffs across the estuary to Broughty Ferry, Angus, are unmatched. “Actually, they’re unique,” says Clare Valentine, of Strutt and Parker. “I’ve never sold a lighthouse before, as they come up randomly rather than regularly. This one is a real peach and there’s masses to do here, what with all the golf and the seaside, not to mention St Andrews and Dundee.”
The lighthouse tower is part of the north-east wall of the house, and the small gallery where the lantern is mounted is reached via an internal spiral staircase from an exterior door in the front garden. The light itself emits a small navigational beam at the mouth of the estuary, so doesn’t move. In effect, the 76ft tower is in the custody of the owner, because the technician who occasionally calls to check on the battery is the only person who has reason to bother those within. And should the port ever decide to decommission it, the owner has the legal right to snap up the tower for a trifling £1,000, a sum that is index-linked to 2003.
Tayport is on the south bank of the river. It looks well-served; it has a post office, grocer, newspaper shop, dentist, medical centre and a library, but in any case the city of Dundee is only a short drive across the Tay Bridge if you insist on something a touch more cosmopolitan.
Nicholls’s stepson Chris, 31, is a landscaper and was helping his stepfather with the project when he died, whereupon the lighthouse was left to his half-sister, Sophie, 23, who is studying for a history doctorate at Cambridge University.
“Clearly it was no use to her as a student, so she has decided to sell,” says Mr Nicholls. “Sadly, her father never got to live here in what is now a really fabulous home. As I live close by, I’ve spent the summer finishing off the grounds and the walled gardens. I’ve created lawns and paved paths, one of which descends to the shoreline.”
So how is the fishing? “I have fished off the beach but must admit I’ve never caught anything,” he says. Strewn mostly with pebbles rather than sand, the beach comes with a sturdy mooring ring to enable the next owner to tie up a boat, which, depending on the tide – and on whether you moor a dinghy or a yacht – could regularly be left teetering high and dry.
High Lighthouse, Tayport, Fife is on the market for offers of more than £475,000. Strutt & Parker, 28 Melville St, Edinburgh EH3 7HA (www. struttandparker.co.uk, 0131 226 2500)
Clockwise from top left: the six-hob cooker in the kitchen; a dramatic view of the lighthouse tower and theTay in the background; the rotunda added by David Nicholls; the bathroom; living room; fireplace; and Chris Nicholls, the brigadier’s stepson