Living in a Lighthouse

25 Feb 11 10 Comments

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!

10 Comments

  • I for one would love a brief overview of what the daily routine was like. Also, how you dealt with loneliness – 8 weeks is a long time without company (although tbh, nearing the end of half term, it does sound rather lovely as long as the lighthouse had wifi :D)

  • As a child, I read fictional accounts of lighthouse keepers with families, children rowing to the local town for school, that sort of thing. Is that at all realistic, or are lighthouses kept by a single person? (Single as in ‘one’, not necessarily ‘unmarried’.)

  • It sounds awesome.

    Did lighthouse keepers work alone or in pairs? I can’t imagine being all by myself for eight weeks at a time (plus the wait for a fair weather window opportunity) but being stuck with someone you didn’t like might be nearly as bad.

    It’s a fascinating insight into the life.

  • Hi All, Thanks for your interest in what to me,was,”just me doing my job!” There were never less than 3 Keepers on a Lt Hse, except for very short periods in exceptional circumstances.Life was a well ordered routine of watchkeeping,maintenance schedules and cleaning! Every 3rd day one was Cook of the day which meant preparing,cooking serving and washing up for one’s colleagues;sounds awful perhaps,but in real terms it meant having no culinary duties at all for two days out of three! Because of the watchkeeping hours covering the 24 hr period,sleep times came at irregular hours.
    Before helicopters,life for the Lt Hse Keeper meant having to potentially await good boat landing conditions at each end of the 2 month duty period.The two months did not start until the relief Keeper had landed on station! Helicopters changed everything and soon after their introduction,the duty turn was changed to one month on/off.
    More soon folks but I hope that this answers a few questions!
    Regards to all Gordon

  • Thanks for getting back to us, Gordon. I can see how three people in a lighthouse makes sense with having to cover the 24 hours – I hadn’t even thought of that. I wouldn’t mind two days off from cooking but having to wash up as well as cook always feels a bit hard!

  • Hi I am a teacher at Altarnun school in Cornwall and have just come across your name while planning for the work we will be doing on lighthouses in September. The children would love to meet you. I see you do talks. Any chance you could come and visit our school. The children are aged 4-7. I have attached my email address.

    Thanks

  • Hello Gordon,
    Thank you for offering to answer questions RE lighthouse keeping.
    I was in the 1987 October hurricane with my father, William McKay in our sloop, Kiome, off Brest and the Channel Islands. RNLI gave us an emergency tow early Sunday AM off North Light to St. Peter Port after complications overcame us.
    I’m researching that storm episode and would like to read more about your experiences that weekend at Casquets. Please feel free to email me or I’m sure the discourse would be most interesting in this open forum.
    Thank you in advance, sir.
    Bruce McKay

  • Hi Bruce Mackay, I would be glad to help ypu re storm to which you refer; it is actually mentioned in quite some detail in my book “Hands that made lights work” available on all book seller sites.I’m NOT trying to flog you a book,but felt it might be worth a mench!
    Look forward to hearind from you.
    Gordon

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