Going up isn’t the problem, but we’ll find that out soon enough. For office-dwellers like me, used to staring at four walls, South Stack is an outcrop of rock looking out on a dizzying expanse of open space. If you’ve travelled and seen the Rockies or the plains of the Midwest much of Britain’s landscape can seem as if it’s made in miniature. But at South Stack you can see why the ancients felt they were stood at the edge of the world. To the north the coast melts away in a haze towards the Skerries off Anglesey. To the south the mountains of the Lleyn peninsula taper off into the sea. But ahead of you there is nothing but the vast open waters of Dublin Bay. It may only be fifty or so miles to Ireland but you might as well be staring into the Pacific from Hawaii. Only on exceptionally clear days can the Wicklow Mountains be spied from up here.
Perched on a clifftop the drop is sheer and sudden to the raging, foaming waters beneath. Down to the lighthouse we zig and zag through 600 or so steps hacked or cemented into the cliffs. About halfway down a hole was blasted through the cliff face so a visiting Queen Victoria could enjoy a perfect vantage point to watch nesting seabirds. The first light was set up in 1809 and for the first few decades the lighthouse keepers must have been hardy men. There was no bridge and they were winched across in a wicker basket. The Stack light could be seen for 20 miles and was fitted with a three-second foghorn. The steps (see above) wind in on themselves like a seashell. Going up is fine, but several of our group had to shuffle down on their bottoms with the onset of vertigo. There are plenty of charts and photos and guides are on-hand in season. Among the photos is a black-and-white of the legendary Tommy.
Poor old Tommy was a donkey taught to fetch groceries by the keepers. The faithful mule would have a shopping list and money pinned to the basket on his back and trot off, up and down those steep 600 steps in all weathers, to market. He’d arrive a few hours later, reliable as ever. I hope he ate their sugar cubes and carrots on the way.