It might sound silly to highlight lighthouses on an aviation blog but pilots who fly on the coast know why they are important.
Lighthouses make for unmistakeable landmarks and are often used as Visual Reporting Points.
Also, they tend to be on the most scenic of locations (why is that?) and so I know I’m not the only one with dozens of photographs of beautiful lighthouses looming over rough rock and crashing waves.
When I first flew to Guernsey, I fell in love with the Casquets, to a great extent because it was the most obvious visual reporting point I had ever seen: three towers perched on straggly rocks, a lighthouse clinging to sandstone reef. I wrote about the The Shipwreck of the Stella, a chilling maritime accident, made real by the fact that I’d seen the location and the memorial in the graveyard.
In my post, I wondered what it might be like to have been at the lighthouse, so close to where the ship went aground and yet not able to see a thing.
To my surprise, I got a very specific response.
I was a Keeper on Casquets Light House from 1984 until automation in 1989/90 and had read of the wrecking of the Stella. Having been on Casquets on many a foggy day/night with almost no sea visibility, I cannot imagine the horror on board the ship. It is reported that the keepers heard screams from a large number of people but saw nothing.
Gordon Partridge knows lighthouses. He spent 22 years working the lights and seen duty at 22 different stations, including some of my favourites: he worked both at the Needles and at the Isles of Scilly. He was the last lighthouse keeper at the Casquets, the last to leave up the ladder into the helicopter. Gordon studied Museum Curation while on the lights: Open University courses were funded by Trinity House. Now he regularly speaks on his experiences of Lighthouse Life.
To be inside a tall tower offshore lighthouse is quite an awesome experience, especially the first time! On Bishop Rock, west of the Scilly Isles, the tower is approximately 150 ft above sea. During the worst of the Atlantic weather, the sea crashes over the top; the structure shakes and bangs, crockery rattles, and the noise of the sea is like a loudly roaring lion!
When the sea hits and climbs, all goes dark inside as the daylight is interrupted. Such experiences only lead one to pay homage to those Victorian engineers who designed and built such structures. The walls are 15ft thick granite at the base, tapering to some 3ft at the higher levels; each stone is dovetail jointed (woodwork fashion) to its neighbour.
Before the extensive use of helicopters, reliefs were carried out by boat. This involved waiting for a “fair weather window opportunity” in order to effect. It was not uncommon to have to wait several weeks after having served an 8-week duty! Helicopters changed our lives so much! If I can I will forward you a photo of me being winched from a boat onto the Bishop Rock: a trip up of some 45 ft onto the landing!
It might all sound pretty awful but, once inside the tower with the coffee pot simmering on the Rayburn stove, it was cosy! To be in one’s bunk when all outside was hell was really snug!
Gordon has offered to answer more questions in the comments so if you are interested in the life of a lighthouse keeper, please ask away!