Who doesn’t love a lighthouse? These weathered, romantic-seeming sentries help to mark a frontier between worlds wet and dry. They are saviours, keeping sailors from rocks, and are symbols of hope amid the darkness.
That’s how I feel, anyway. So, when I came across Stranraer Development Trust’s new linear self-guided cycling tour between a trio of lighthouses around the Rhins of Galloway peninsula, in Dumfries and Galloway, plans were hatched for a trip to south-west Scotland.
The suggested route runs from Stranraer to Portpatrick via Corsewall (or reverse), but I choose to adapt this slightly, adding the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway and a smaller beacon at Port Logan. I also decided to end my trip at Corsewall Lighthouse, which is a hotel, too.
As only an occasional cyclist – and having been warned about the gales common to this cape where tree coverage and shelter are limited – I arrange to hire an electric bike, which a local firm, Westby’sdelivers to my hotel in Stranraer and will collect later from Corsewall.
Under a charcoal-coloured sky, I begin with the 23-mile journey from Stranraer to the Mull of Galloway headland. It’s smooth progress, past Sandhead’s powder bay and along a palm-lined drive to the Logan Botanic Garden, where tree ferns from New Zealand and Vietnamese magnolias improbably prosper thanks to the Gulf Stream. I pedal on to my first lighthouse – though, really, it is a 10-metre-high beacon – in the village of Port Logan. An elegant bellringing tower at the quay end, designed by Caledonian Canal-creator Thomas Telford, the beacon is long-defunct; today’s lone activity sees a man and boy cast lines into the frothy waters below.
“What are you fishing for?” I ask. “Anything we can get,” the father replies, and grins.
Wishing them luck, I lean on my bike’s assistance while slogging up to a menhir (standing stone) where two brent geese give me evils. Icy hail soon earns scowls of my own, despite the empty roads encompassing thrilling downhills. This would be lovely on a summer’s day, I think, jealously.
When the Mull materializes from the fog ahead, I feel like a mariner finding guidance. At last, my own harbor – its cafe, Gallie Craig – is safely, soggily attained. The lighthouse’s estate doubles as an RSPB reserve protecting guillemots and kittiwakes. His tour guide, Graham McPherson, takes me round. As with many in this area, this complex was designed by one of the Stevenson family – whose number also yielded Treasure Island writer Robert Louis – and is sugar white with a caramel trim. After I’ve climbed the 115 steps up the 26-metre-high tower, Graham explains how a paraffin lamp functioned here before electricity and automation in 1988. “You can see Cumbria on clear days,” he says. Today, even the cafe is invisible.
With both mine and my bicycle’s batteries now dangerously low, I scrap my intended return ride and ring a taxi to take me back to Stranraer. My driver says that The Vanishing, a 2018 thriller starring Gerard Butler, was filmed at various lighthouses here. Has he seen it? “Aye.” A pregnant break. “I prefer action movies.”
The next day is blue-skied and bonny, and I follow the Old Military Road for four miles across a lush plateau before zipping downhill into Portpatrick, a town whose conch-shaped natural harbor is framed by grassy headlands. The cute, brown-brick lighthouse here has lined one harbor arm since 1779; it was decommissioned more than a century ago and a craft shop, open only in July and August, now sells pottery in premises by its base.
In the 1700s, Irish couples came by ferry from Donaghadee to Portpatrick for quickie marriages. Modern-day visitors to “The Port” tend to be tourists, however, hence the heaps of hotels and restaurants; Handily, there are also charging points for e-bikes. Inside the Crown Hotel’s award-winning restaurant, I relish a zingy pepper cod (£17.95).
The four-mile jaunt to Killantringan involves a steep descent on an access road to another caramel-white Stevenson charmer, resplendent in the sun. Currently a private estate, and with just one other dwelling in sight, Killantringan feels thrillingly isolated. Gusts nag at my trousers as I scan Portamaggie Bay, hoping for a glimpse of the wrecked (in 1982) MV Craigantlet. I’m unsuccessful.
Time for a 13-mile pull to the Rhins’ north coast, with a prolonged plummet to Loch Ryan segueing into seal-spotting along its shoreline. Beyond Kirkcolm, one last lengthy climb into an assistance-negating wind makes my muscles grumble. Eventually, Corsewall Lighthouse appears, daubed again in those same soft colours, and I whiz down to it along a newly smoothed road. (Having been taxied over, my overnight bag gets there ahead of me.)
Since automation in 1994, Corsewall’s old keepers’ residence has been a hotel. The square building has six small-but-stylish rooms – accompanying a two-bed house in an adjacent unit – above a restaurant where excellent, varied dinners are served. First-time hoteliers John and Helen took charge in 2020, having relocated from Norfolk.
“We’d reached a point in life of wanting to do something different … without having once considered running a hotel. It’s just so beautiful here, though,” says Helen.
Later, standing at the lighthouse – its tower off-limits to visitors for now – I see what she means. Sunset paints part of the wide sea pink, including a passing Belfast-bound ferry and the silhouetted island of Ailsa Craig. Then, twilight ebbs and the beacon’s light begins making intermittent sweeps, as it has done each night for 200 years.
The trip was provided by the South of Scotland Destination Alliance. E-bikes from Westby’s Electric Bike Hire (£26pp a day). For cycling routes, see stranraerdevelopmenttrust.co.uk. Tea Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel has doubles from £150 B&B