An article for National Geographic Traveller India about a stay in a 190-year-old lighthouse in Wales, UK.
The tower of the West Usk Lighthouse had signalled ships to safety for about a century and had served as a lookout post during the Second World War. Now run as a B&B by a couple (and their border collie Archie), this place holds the promises of historical secrets. I can’t wait to go back and find a treasure map!
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From the roof of the lighthouse I watched the white-tipped waves lap the jagged rocks below. Distant ships dotted the sea, and a strong wind blew ominously against my face. I couldn’t believe I was going to be staying at this 190-year-old lighthouse, overlooking the Bristol Channel in an obscure corner of Wales.
The pages of Enid Blyton’s books leapt to life as I conjured up tales of storms, shipwrecks, and underground tunnels. The tower, built in 1821, had signalled ships to safety for about a century. During the Second World War, it had served as a lookout post. I shivered, thinking of the historic events it had witnessed, and the dark secrets it harboured.
Now, the West Usk lighthouse is refurbished as a B&B, and my mother’s birthday seemed to be the perfect occasion for my parents, husband and me to visit over a weekend. I could feel my heart beating with anticipation as we drove down a deserted, rutted road, towards the circular structure, perched on the edge of the land.
A handsome border collie welcomed us, insisting on a stomach rub. Here was the quintessential dog, without which an English novel isn’t quite complete. “I see you’ve already met Archie,” said Frank the owner as he greeted us.
Inside, a spiral, wooden staircase curved up around a wishing well, leading to our rooms. On the first level was a bookcase with DVDs and books. A lighthouse-shaped cookie-jar sounded a startlingly loud foghorn upon lifting its lid. “Mothers love it,” Frank grinned. “They know when their kids are indulging.”
The wedge-shaped rooms had a nautical theme, with an “All Aboard” sign on a mantelpiece, lifebuoys suspended from hangers, and an old barometer on a washbasin. Ships in bottles, wooden sailboats and anchors—this had to be some sort of Famous Five adventure, I thought, looking around for a treasure map on yellowing parchment.
The roof boasted an open-air hot tub and a replica of the time-travelling Tardis from Dr Who. But I had already been transported to another age. The glass-covered lantern room right on top was full of antiques: an old telephone, a sailor’s jacket, a rusted telescope. A gilded Om symbol on the floor and framed mandalas on the walls added a layer of mystery.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1922, and was in a shambles when Frank and his wife Danielle bought it in 1987. The painstaking restoration, funded by the English Heritage and Wales Tourism Board, took two years. The original lantern was replaced with a stained-glass one, which is lit every night, making it a magical sight. I could imagine the rotating beam that once extended for miles, warning sailors.
For dinner we drove to bustling Newport, 15 minutes away. On our return, as the noise of the city faded away, we saw the lighthouse silhouetted against the sky, and the unblinking light from its lamp guided us up the road.
Back in my room, I sat by the window, watching the never-ending theatrics of the sea and the sky. I slept reluctantly, only to dream that I was the lighthouse keeper and had to wake up periodically to fill the lamp with oil.
Early the next morning, we set out for a walk. The estuaries seemed like translucent sheets reflecting the mood of the sky. A muddy track took us through a green meadow, that seemed oblivious to the drama of the rocks and waves just beside it. A small stream ran through the field, where swans glided placidly, a curious contrast to the majestic seagulls that soared above the adjacent sea. Grazing cows stared at us balefully.
At the inn, a door with a porthole lead to the dining room. Two decades ago, porpoises and sea otters swam in these waters, almost at arm’s length from the window. Now, human presence has pushed them further away. Breakfast was a hearty affair, seasoned with Frank’s robust conversation. He told us that the lighthouse is a popular wedding venue with space for 25 people. “This might not be enough if you’re planning an Indian wedding though,” he trailed off.
We asked how he and his wife came to acquire this unusual property. Frank said it was as simple as spotting an ad in a magazine. “We wanted to get away from the London rush,” he said. “Life’s been good here. Archie’s never even been on a lead! He goes and comes as he pleases.”
As we walked into the hall, Archie pounced on us. We opened the door and he sprinted into the fields, barking at us to follow. We hurried along. Finally someone was going to lead us to the buried treasure. Would it be a chest of gold or a bag of bones?