Bishop Rock – the world’s smallest island with a building on it

After All: No man is an island, but a rock with a lighthouse is!

Image credit: Alamy

Our columnist presents a candidate for the world’s loneliest place, and uncovers its fascinating engineering history.

Among the responses to my June 2021 column ‘Bring the salt but leave behind wine and superglue!’ in which, among other things, I ventured to create a virtual ‘Campervan Owners Society’, there was an email from Terry Harris which I only received in mid-August. Having mentioned his recent holidays in a caravan he towed across Tasmania, Mr Harris remarked: “OK! I own up, I have never owned, or rented, a campervan! So, there it is, out in the open! Sorry... It would be good to hear of other experiences in a tent, caravan, or even, if you must, a motorhome!”

Here I want to remind all readers that in the same column it was stated very clearly that the ‘Society’ was open to “every existing or potential campervan, caravan or camperhome-owing (or dreaming of owning) reader” as long as they “kept sharing (with me and other members) their campervan and camping-related experiences and techno-advice”.

A very warm welcome to the club, Mr Harris, and thanks for recounting your adventures!

To give readers more time to respond, I’ve so far been alternating my campervanning columns with those related to my collection of the world’s quirkiest places, made special by technology.

In their emails, several readers complain of feeling lonely in their tents overnight on a remote campsite, even if accompanied by a friend or a partner.

In response to that and to prove again (after Albert Einstein) that everything is relative, let me introduce you to a very peculiar British island: a small rocky ledge jutting out of the sea, four miles west of the Isles of Scilly, called Bishop Rock. It is officially categorised by the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s smallest island with a building on it”!

Having spent one night on the Rock in 1999 as part of a Daily Telegraph travel assignment in the Scillies, I will always remember it as the place where I felt lonelier than anywhere else.

Australians have a nice (if somewhat down-to-earth) ‘Strine’ expression: “As lonely as a brick dunny in the desert.” I’ve never been left alone in the desert and never had a chance to experience what a ‘brick dunny’ may feel (if it can feel anything at all), but I sincerely doubt that the unsophisticated brick structure could ever experience anything close to what I felt stuck overnight in the only building on that small island, listening to the roaring of the waves beating stubbornly against the rock as if trying to shift it, and to the hooliganic whistling of the offshore wind.

The ‘world-famous’ building that had made it to the Guinness Book of Records was a former lighthouse, converted to a priapic ten-floor B&B where up to four visitors could stay for up to three weeks, and I only lasted just one night!

The history of Bishop Rock, or rather of its only building, has a lot to do with James Walker (1781-1862), an influential Scottish civil engineer. The rocks around the Scilly Isles have caused the wreck of many ships over the years, including the loss in 1707 of four ships and 2,000 men from Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s squadron of the British fleet. Eventually the Elder Brethren of Trinity House in London (who then constituted Britain’s Lighthouse Board) concluded that the lighting of the Scilly Isles, which at that time consisted of just one old lighthouse at St Agnes, was inadequate, and decided to build a lighthouse on the most westerly danger, Bishop Rock.

Walker, who was also chief engineer within Trinity House, was against building a solid granite tower on Bishop Rock, arguing that the rock ledge was too small and the elements too powerful. He claimed that such a tower would not withstand the tremendous force of the seas in a spot where the wind pressures sometimes exceeded 7,000lb per square foot (34,000kg/m2).

So, in 1847, it was decided to erect a screw-pile lighthouse at a cost of £12,000. The first task was to sink cast iron legs into the solid granite, braced with wrought iron rods. The idea was that the waves would crash right through the piles instead of slamming into a solid masonry tower. Within two years, the structure was complete and all that was required was a lighting apparatus. But – shock and horror! – before it could be installed, a heavy gale swept away the whole structure on the evening of 5 February 1850.

Walker took the news in his stride and turned to the idea of a granite tower. It was a dangerous task. The workmen had to be housed on a nearby uninhabited islet, where living quarters and workshops were erected. The men were shipped to and from the site as the weather permitted. All the granite was brought over from the mainland to the island depot, where it was shaped and numbered, before being sent to the rock. The tower was completed in 1858.

In 1881, Sir James Douglass, an English engineer and lighthouse builder who took over from James Walker, made a detailed inspection of the tower and reported extensive damage in the structure. It was decided to strengthen the tower and increase the elevation of the light by 12m. The plans were quite complex in nature, but essentially required the construction of a new lighthouse around the old one, completely encasing it. The main weakness was in the foundation, and Douglass proposed to strengthen it with massive blocks of granite, sunk into the rock and held there by heavy bolts. He suggested an enormous cylindrical base, providing the lighthouse with an excellent buffer onto which the force of the waves could be spent before hitting the tower itself. The one-metre-thick masonry casing was carried up as far as the new masonry required for the increased height of the light. The work was completed in October 1887 at a cost of £66,000.

In the old days, the 49-metre lighthouse had to rely on paraffin vapour lamps. It was electrified in 1973, and today there are generators and batteries. A helipad was built in 1976. Bishop Rock Lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in 1991 and the last keepers left the building, hastily made into a guest house (where I stayed in 1999), in December 1992. The lighthouse is now controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.

One can no longer stay at Bishop Rock, but boat trips run from St Mary’s and St Agnes. Perhaps I should return one day. 

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