Keepers of the light
Arlene Harris finds a family stay in one of Ireland's lighthouses to be a relaxing and illuminating break
Strong, silent and reassuring – the very notion of a lighthouse conjures up images of solidity and safety. Helping to guide seafarers into land for centuries, these buildings are steeped in history and mystery.
There are currently 22 lighthouses in various locations around Ireland. Because of the nature of their job, each one is situated in an area of natural beauty looking out over the wide open sea. Depending on the weather, they can be a beautiful, tranquil place to visit or a welcome port in a storm with waves crashing onto the rocks below.
We all have romantic notions of what it might be like to actually sleep within the ancient walls of a lighthouse with the wind howling outside and the strong, reassuring light casting its glow onto the vast expanse of water below. So when the opportunity arose to check out Blackhead Lighthouse in Antrim, I jumped at the chance.
With three inquisitive sons, I knew this would appeal to their sense of adventure while the parents were delighted at the prospect of an open fire, an internet and TV-free zone and the chance to explore a part of the country where we had never stepped foot before.
Located down a series of winding lanes, Blackhead Lighthouse is about 10 minutes from Carrickfergus by car. It is so hidden away that first glimpse is something of a surprise as the imposing tower seems to appear out of nowhere, but it's a welcome sight after navigating the one-car track to the furthest point on the headland.
In its day, the lightkeeper's cottage (attached to the actual light by a walkway) must have been a grand affair because nowadays it has been turned into two properties – each with its own entrance. One sleeps seven people and the other five – both extremely comfortably too, I might add.
We arrived on a sunny but blustery winter's day but I would imagine that there is always something of a strong breeze blowing as you first step out to marvel at the view from the 'front-yard' of the lighthouse. Once inside, it was invitingly warm and cosy and this feeling also extended to the heavy mahogany furniture and old-fashioned fixtures and fittings.
Closing the door on the wind, it really felt like we had stepped back in time. Racing from room to room, the boys were ecstatic about their temporary home – the two older ones choosing sizeable single rooms in the basement, while the youngest got a huge room to himself with a view directly onto the impressive light outside. Initially he was worried about the possibility of the strobes interrupting his sleep, but heavy wooden shutters put paid to any risk of that happening.
Located as it was on the cliff-face, our lighthouse was the perfect spot for exploring the rocks and craggy 'smugglers' caves below – so in what probably looked like a scene from a modern 'Famous Five' film (albeit with two larger members), we eagerly got to grips with the locality while waiting for the night to close in.
And sure enough as the watery sun began to fade, as if by magic, the strong silent beam of the lighthouse began to make its slow and steady presence felt across the bay. We stared in wonder at our house on the cliff and began the ascent to the top as we eagerly awaited the experience of battening down the hatches and enjoying the experience of spending the night inside the lighthouse.
First job was to light the fire before preparing dinner in the (very well-equipped) farmhouse-style kitchen and once we had all helped to clear away, we settled down to play some of the board-games in the sitting-room cupboard and flick through the vast array of books – some of which were centuries old. The only sounds to be heard were the ticking of the clock, the hissing of the fire and the howling wind outside – it was utterly blissful – even the kids seemed unperturbed by the lack of modern intervention.
And after a peaceful few hours, the boys headed to their beds without complaint while we relaxed in front of the glowing embers of the fire before following suit and enjoying a thoroughly warm, cosy and quiet nights' sleep.
Heavily shuttered against the dawn, we were eventually woken by the cry of gulls searching for breakfast and the morning view from the bedroom windows gave the impression of being in the middle of the ocean – what a way to start the day.
Our first night in a lighthouse was a unique experience and as various others continue to be developed for public use, I look forward to visiting another location and enjoying some more peace, tranquillity and adventure.
The Irish Landmark Trust, together with the Commissioners of Irish Lights, has recently launched the All-Island Lighthouse trail, and work is currently underway to open all the lighthouses around the country to the public.
At present, there are four lighthouses with accommodation – offering visitors the unique opportunity to be 'keepers of the light' – while another three are open for informative tours and exhibits. There are six more in the development phase and the remaining properties are awaiting the final go-ahead.
Recently renovated, the first phase of the lighthouse trail includes:
This lighthouse has six octagonal rooms carefully constructed in the void that existed within the tower when it was first taken on by Irish Landmark. The arched windows are set into walls which are a metre thick, and offer stunning views out to the Irish Sea and the surrounding countryside.
With 109 steps from the front door to the kitchen, which is on the top floor, this property would not be suitable for anyone with mobility problems or small children.
One dog is allowed to accompany visitors and, sleeping up to four people, the property costs from €500 per weekend.
Galley Head Lightkeepers' Houses are perched on dramatic cliffs at about 130 feet above sea level, overlooking St George's Channel, close to Clonakilty village, Cork.
Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities from dolphin and whale watching, surfing at Inchydoney Blue Flag Beach or a historical walking tour of the town. The property sleeps four and costs from €400 per weekend.
Loop Head lighthouse station in Co Clare is a major landmark on the northern shore of the Shannon River. Built on a cliff-top with 300 degree views of the sea down to Kerry Head and Dingle, and across to the Cliffs of Moher, the property is three miles from the nearest village, sleeps five people and costs from €320 per weekend.
Located on a headland 20 miles north of Belfast, visitors to Blackhead lighthouse can enjoy spectacular views over Belfast Lough and follow the popular coastal path which leads along in front of the lighthouse to the Victorian town of Whitehead.
This property sleeps seven people and costs from £290 per weekend. However, it is cliff-facing so children must be supervised at all times.
Situated on the most south-westerly tip of Ireland, Mizen Head lighthouse and signal station offers many attractions to the public. Although it doesn't have any facility for accommodation, there are all sorts of interactive and informative exhibits, including a Navigational Aids Simulator, the Fastnet Rescue Tide Clock, the Engine Room and the Keeper's Quarters in the former Irish Lights Signal Station.
Entrance costs €6 per adult and family discounts are available.
Valentia Island lighthouse at Cromwell Point opened to the public last summer. It is maintained by the Commissioners of Irish Lights and still operates as a harbour light to guide vessels from the sea and lead them through the northern entrance of Valentia Harbour, past Harbour Rock.
Entrance costs €5 per adult and family/group discounts are available.
Hook lighthouse in Wexford is about 800 years old and is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world. Although it doesn't offer accommodation, tours of the lighthouse tower are available all year round and visitors can climb the 115 steps to witness the spectacular view from the balcony. A gift-shop, cafe and exhibition area is also open to the public. Many festivals are held throughout the year and the former lighthouse keeper's houses now play host to the visitor facilities.
For more information, visit irishlandmark.com and cil.ie