Imagine being a lighthouse keeper. Before I dropped beneath the surface of this secluded, often secretive, occupation, the idea brought to mind wind-blown seagulls, or a bearded sea dog chewing his pipe. Such is the romantic notion many of us have about lighthouses. The reality is (or was, because the staffed lighthouse is now extinct) quite different.
Land lights – those charming beacons you’ll find on the coast, the distinctive red stripe of Portland Bill or the thimble-shaped watchpoint at Llanddwyn – are appealing, but for me the sea towers hold the greatest allure. I’m talking about those majestic, improbable stations rising audaciously up out of the ocean – the Bell Rock, the Bishop, the Longships. The famous Eddystone, south of Plymouth, is the fourth built on that reef, in an effort that spanned almost 200 years. Its neighbouring “Smeaton’s Stump”, the remains of a third manifestation, serves as a stark reminder that water is not meant to hold buildings.
Tower lighthouses exist like mirages on the horizon. Stand at Land’s End and you’ll see the Longships – not too far, only a mile away. Now peer further, deep into the haze, and on a clear day you might pick out the matchstick vertical of the notorious Wolf Rock, eight nautical miles out, so called because of the howling sound the wind makes as it tunnels between the rocks. Today, every lighthouse in the UK is automated: the last to go electric was in 1998. Before then, three men lived out there on that distant, hostile post for two months at a stretch.
All they had was each other and the sea. Rooms piled one on top of the other, a couple of strides across and that’s it, no way out, nowhere else to go. Inside, it was stuffy and dark, thick with smells of sweat and tobacco and burned bacon, shutters closed in heavy weather, double windows fastened against waves that could chuck salt-spray 85ft into the air, smacking the panes while you’re drinking your tea. During a storm, the whole tower would quiver as if caught in an electrical current. Rocks smashed the base, clunking and groaning. It seemed a miracle it could stay standing.
Before I started researching my book, I knew nothing, really, about lighthouses. I had visited a few land lights as a child and probably professed myself bored. It wasn’t until my 20s that the fascination clicked. Recently, I was asked what prompted this interest. I’ve tried to trace it back – perhaps to my grandma’s house on the Isle of Wight, where I’d stare out of her staircase window at the grey Solent and the distant chimneys of Fawley power station; or was it the Norfolk windmill we stayed in at half-terms, the wonder of those circular rooms and the winding ascent to the gallery, from which white trellis sails gleamed like ladders to the sky?
The further I rowed in uncharted waters, the more immersed I became. I wanted to discover what made these keepers tick – why they did this job and at what cost it came. I read as many first-person accounts as I could: memoirs, autobiographies, the narrative interviews in Tony Parker’s superlative book, Lighthouse.
Some lighthouse keepers loved the life – more, they needed it. They made friends with the sea, they prophesied the weather, they pursued pastimes of painting, reading, putting ships in bottles. They considered the lighthouse to be perfect isolation, peace, calm – a chance to exist in the moment (what, in today’s world, we might call mindfulness). The lighthouse didn’t just offer safe harbour to passing ships, it offered these men the same. Didn’t they get lonely? No, it was the other way round. Ashore was where these keepers felt rudderless, every eight weeks having to go home and reinsert themselves into normal life, be an ordinary man again, a husband and father. The land life was too fast, too confusing, too broad compared with the narrow comfort of a tower whose boundaries never changed. I imagined the feeling of stepping off a boat after a long crossing, legs turned to jelly, the earth unreliable.
Others couldn’t wait to get back. They were happy enough on land lights, island (or rock) lights too, but dreaded the towers. Some requested transferrals from these extreme posts, unhappy at the quarantine and cabin fever. I asked myself which I would be. I like my own company; I’m not easily bored; I might feel at home on the sea. Perhaps this is part of the appeal – wondering if we’d have had the stuffing to do that job, how the monastic life would have suited us. In 2021, we’ve all grown used to isolation in some form. What interests me is when a person chooses that isolation – what it is they’re fleeing from, or towards.
Through the course of my research, I learned that light-keepers weren’t wistful or fearful people; they were practical and level-headed, meticulous and precise. Despite this, centuries of lighthouse lore must have haunted their watch. One story that stays in my mind is of an assistant keeper who vanished while fishing from the tower entrance door. Just like that, he was gone, the water calm, the birds wheeling, the sky blue, nothing amiss, as if he’d been plucked clean out of this world.
Another took place at Smalls Lighthouse in 1801, where a keeper died and the other kept his body with him for weeks until the relief boat was sent, for fear of recrimination. To prevent anything so gruesome happening again, Trinity House progressed their stations from two- to three-men crews. And, of course, there’s the definitive lighthouse mystery – the now near-mythical disappearance of three keepers in 1900 from the island of Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides, their fates unknown to this day, and the inspiration for my book.
I wasn’t just fascinated by the keepers’ lives, but their wives’ as well. Here were women who in some respects were made to submit to their husbands’ jobs, living in provisional housing, forced to uproot to wherever in the country the work called. But, in others, they were pioneers. A light-keeper’s wife ran her household to her own tune; she was autonomous in his absence, a single parent for much of the year, imposing her own rules and fashions. How hard it would have been, though, looking out at that lonely, endless sea. My daughter was six months old when I started writing, and during the long, sleepless, hopeless nights of babyhood, I could imagine looking out at a lighthouse, knowing my husband was there but unable to reach him. The ocean became synonymous in my mind with distance – not just physical but emotional – and the gulf that can divide us, if permitted, in difficult times. The women’s stories connected with me deeply.
In summer 2018, I travelled down to Bull Point Lighthouse, Devon, to spend three nights alone in converted keepers’ cottages. The compound was right on the headland, down a narrow, winding track, as close to the sea as it was possible to be. As an author, it’s romantic to think about looking out at the water all day, but after a while that vast, indifferent view became less liberating than oppressive. I had learned through my exploration that manned lighthouses were more than the bathroom ornaments would have us believe – they guard a noble, complex history of human endeavour and endurance, and, for the people involved, signify dark as much as light.
This year and last, I’ve got to thinking how we have all become lighthouse keepers, in a way. Each confined to our tower, a few others to be on there with if we’re lucky, the glimmer of land in the distance a promise that things will start again. I love lighthouses because they symbolise all that is worth knowing in this life. That distances are worth crossing, that we’re better off together than apart, that darkness can be lit, and that loneliness is eased by the hope of an outstretched hand.
The Lamplighters, by Emma Stonex (Picador, £14.99), is available from guardianbookshop for £13.04
Five lighthouse holiday homes and B&Bs where you can get a taste of life at sea.
Bull Point Devon (trinityhouse.co.uk)
Belle Tout Eastbourne (coolstays.com)
Corsewall Hotel Dumfrees and Galloway (lighthousehotel.co.uk)
Winterton Norfolk (wintertonlighthouse.com)
Trevose Head near Padstow (trinityhouse.co.uk)