Lying awake in bed at his grandmother’s Kent cottage, Edward Peppitt was struck by a shard of light. The beam would appear every 10 seconds through a small mullioned-attic window. Everything was dark. Gulls would come and go in the still of the night, but the flashing light was relentless.
Most of us would grumble, close the curtains and head back to sleep. Yet for Peppitt, the insistent flash from the Dungeness lighthouse left a lasting impression.
His passion for these remote and romantic structures grew like no other. The young man went on to become a successful publisher and married his wife, Emily, on Lundy, just to honeymoon in the island’s lighthouse. The 65 guests survived the ferry journey through a force 9 gale, but filled 100 sick bags between them.
Needles lighthouse on the Isle of Wight (Alamy)
The father of Zoe, 14, Tom, 11, and Lottie, seven, dragged his children on annual pilgrimages to more than 70 lighthouses dotted across Britain – whether they liked it or not.
But change was on the horizon. In 2012, Peppitt was diagnosed with relapsing and remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). For a while, he lost his sight. And his legs felt numb some days, but tingly and wired up to the mains the next. These were some of the symptoms of the neurological condition that affects more than 100,000 people in the UK.
Many of us would probably raise the white flag and surrender. And for a while he did. Chronic fatigue and the inability to work left Peppitt with a mountain of debt, jobless and without a home, too. Bailiffs knocked at his door. The disease engulfed all elements of his life.
“It never crossed my mind that things would ever be the same again,” he says with a sigh. “I was in complete denial for six months and hit rock bottom. I would inject myself with Copaxone [one of the main disease-modifying treatments] every day.”
St Bees Head lighthouse in Cumbria (Alamy)
But there was a beacon of light in the darkness. A chance encounter brought him into contact with Shift MS, a social network and support community for people with the disease. The organisation says: “MS doesn’t mean giving up on your ambitions. It just means rethinking how to achieve them.” It was the lifeline he desperately needed.
Meeting Peppitt for the first time, you would never guess he suffers from the debilitating disease. He is engaging, enthusiastic and energetic. He will need this energy more than ever over the coming months following his decision to achieve a lifelong ambition, embarking on an expedition to cycle around the coast of England and Wales, visiting the 203 working and former lighthouses placed strategically on our rugged and dangerous coastline.
You might think years of training would be needed for such a punishing and potentially hazardous expedition. Not for the 46-year-old. “I train three times a week, pedalling for about 15-20 miles, against the wind towards Dungeness Lighthouse,” he says. “But I am woefully unprepared.”
Despite this lack of preparation, his bright-yellow Thorn Nomad bicycle is oiled for action. The steel, hand-built British touring bike is virtually indestructible. It sports thick tyres with deep tread.
Punctures, of course, are a hazard on the coastal terrain, when going up against gorse, thistles and old broken glass bottles en route. His journey will lead him from the salt marshes of Kent to East Sussex and west to Devon, tracing the shoreline in a clockwise direction.
Longstone lighthouse on the Farne Islands (Alamy)
Peppitt is certainly no Cavendish, Hoy or Bradley Wiggins. And he would probably smile at such associations. But he will be wearing Lycra for the first time, and plenty of wool layers during the 3,500-mile journey.
Can he do it? “This is not the Tour de France. So, yes, I think so. If the weather is utterly s—, I might take the day off. It is not about weathering the elements, it is about a personal challenge,” he says. “It will require more than 100 days on the road, it might take 120. I have not told my wife that yet.”
Peppitt acknowledges that the challenge will be difficult. “The Eddystone Lighthouse, off the coast of Plymouth, and the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, near the Isles of Scilly, are bound to be the harshest and most inaccessible,” he says.
“When I need to go where a bike won’t take me, I will beg or borrow a suitable vessel,” he says. “I will also take in the islands, including the Isle of Wight, Lundy and the Channel Islands.”
Will he be eating the food of athletes to fuel his journey? Energy gels, or a sophisticated filtration system, perhaps? Not likely. The 6ft 5in figure is indulging in a diet of pork pies and crisps. When he spots a friendly pub, he will rest his weary legs for a well-earned pint.
Many have shown their support already. The Princess Royal shares Peppitt’s passion and plans to visit Scotland’s many lighthouses. She recently sent him a supportive letter with her best wishes for his gruelling journey ahead.
The expedition is not just a personal odyssey but is also about raising money. Thousands of people fall victim to MS every year and Peppitt plans to raise £25,000 for MS Shift. To date, £1,600 has been donated (). He has a long way to go, both in terms of fundraising and hours in the saddle.
As we gaze up at the Dungeness lighthouse, a smile beams across his face. “Life goes on – no need to let MS be a life sentence,” he says. “Just make the most of every day.”
Clearly, this is a man on a mission. The Copaxone is working and Peppitt has managed to clear his debts. Now, he is about to embark on the second biggest challenge of his life. The first, of course, was keeping MS in check and learning to live within its limitations.
The Beacon Bike Lighthouse Challenge is a journey of epic proportions. Some may spend a year travelling the world, but an insight into Peppitt’s life will broaden all our horizons.
There will be no yellow jersey or champagne on the winner’s podium at the end of this challenge. But for Peppitt there is something much more important – a peloton of love and admiration from his wife and three children that an inspiring husband and father has achieved his ambitions, despite tremendous adversity.