In at Sunset
My memoirs of being a Lighthousekeeper
Main text of your writing.
This is the rough draft of the opening pages of my autobiography!
In at Sunset
During my childhood in Essex I only saw the sea when we went to Mersea for our holidays and when we visited my grandparents who lived in Southend on Sea and my grandfather had a telescope that he would use to watch the ship my uncle worked on whenever it sailed up the Thames. I used to enjoy looking through that telescope at the ships on the river whenever we visited my folks.
Essex,as has been explained by others does not have a coastline just a place where the mud meets the water, a stunt my father used to pull on us kids was to promise a present to the first one of us that could fetch him a bucket of seawater, we would run off to the sea which if he asked us at low tide would be some 2 miles away; he never promised us the presents when it was high water!
The Chapman Lighthouse, but it was taken out of service many years ago. I was told that the instructions for getting onto the lighthouse were ‘walk to the end of the sand spit and shout, the ‘keepers will row across to you.’ Whether that was true or not I don’t know but it wasn’t my father who told me it so it could have been true. He told me about there once being a lighthouse on an island in the North Sea called Helgoland that was operated by Trinity House but that Britain swapped it with Germany in the 19th century, we gave the Germans that island and they gave us what was then German East Africa. Another fact that he told me was that all Royal Navy personnel salute Lighthousekeepers in honour of the sterling work they do keeping ships safe. AgainI didn’t know if this was true until one day just after I became a Lighthousekeeper I was on Exeter Train Station in uniform and a group of matelots saluted me, admittedly they were just Sea Cadets but I still walked up and down the platform a couple of more times so that they could salute me some more, which they did. I cannot recall a real sailor saluting me! The only other time my uniform made an impact on people was when I was standing on the platform of Tower Hill tube station in uniform and some people mistook me for a London Transport official, they asked for which train to catch to get to East London; I directed them onto the train for Wimbledon! I hope they enjoyed their journey!
Anyhoo, at the age of 16 we moved from Essex to the coast of North Devon, it was by moving there that I was finally disavowed of my belief that shafts of sunlight coming through clouds were God talking to people, a simple belief to hold when living in a town but seeing the rays strike the sea meant it wasn’t God talking to people, unless he enjoyed having conversations with sailors and mermaids. (Maybe it was and he did. (Prove me wrong!)
Two other strange phenomena I witnessed at Ilfracombe were the strange green lights that glowed among the clouds; were they UFOs or Russians or something, my stepfather and I even reported one particular display to the coastguards who told us the lights were beams from the nearby RAF base measuring height of cloud and not signs of imminent invasion. The other strange sight was a sleek beautiful white ship that would sail past every so often. It carried no markings that we could discern. More Russians? Some kind of secret naval vessel? Another panicky phone call to the coastguard and the explanation that it was the Fyffe’s Banana Boat sailing between Cardiff in South Wales and the West Indies with its refridgerated cargo of bananas. But it looked so sleek and dangerous. It’s hard to believe that a bunch of bananas could cause such fear?
The only other time I made a mistake in mistaking someone was when I was in Guernsey Airport when I saw what I thought was the crew from the Channel Lightvessel waiting for their flight home. I found out that on fact it was a bunch of criminals and ne’erdo wells under police escort being taken to the mainland prison. Well, to be fair to myself, they looked like the sort of men who would work on a Lightship!
Just before my 18th birthday in 1972 I got the idea into my head that I would like to become a Lighthousekeeper.
Just after my 18th birthday in 1972 I became a Lighthousekeeper.
I didn’t join up for the glory or romance of the job, I joined because of the pay. At that time I was earning about £8 a week working as a junior salesman in a TV shop when I saw the Lighthouse job advertised in the local paper with a basic pay of £18 a week so I applied.
My job as a salesman was good but the pay was so low that by the time I had paid my bus fare each day from Ilfracombe in North Devon where I lived to Barnstaple in North Devon where I worked plus paid for my cigarettes and lunches I had little money left over for any luxuries so I applied for the higher aid job!
It was a major step for a callow, sweet innocent youth like myself to join a job staffed mostly by ex-services men considerably older than me. Indeed I hold the record of being the youngest ever peacetime recruit to the Lighthouse service and if my ticker keeps going and I refuse to eat the homemade mushroom soup my wife makes for me I could be in the running to be the last ex-Lighthousekeeper alive in Britain. Each 3 months I get a copy of the staff magazine, when it arrives I check the obituary column, if my name isn’t in it really makes my day!
I went up to London for my interview at Trinity House, the headquarters of the Lighthouse Service and all went well, I had to go to a GP in East London for my medical examination and that went well too except that the doctor lingered a little too long in checking my cough reflex but who could blame him? I was (and still am) a very handsome and desirable hap.
The initial training period for the job was for a period of 8 weeks at the Trinity House Depot at Blackwall in London. The 8 week training period was based on an assumed intake of some 20 recruits, that in my draft there was only 3 of us did not change the process a jot so the 3 of us had a glorious time. Training started at 10am and sometimes went on until 3pm and we were let out early on a Friday afternoon so we could go home for the weekend and miss the rush hour traffic.
A part of the training was to learn Morse Code using an
Aldiss Signal Lamp. I would practice by ‘ditdahing’ the name of a local pub ‘The Coach and Horses’. Later in my career I was confident that I was ready to reply to any ship that signaled a question that required the answer ‘The Coach and Horses.’ My lack of understanding of the Morse Code was borne out when I was on Flatholm Lighthouse on an island in the Bristol Channel and the Trinity House ship was anchored just off our jetty, I was on a tractor at the top of the slipway when the ship flashed us a message, I was on the other side of the island by the time they’d finished signaling. I wonder if they’d asked us for the name of a good pub on the East End of London. I’ll never know! I was not the only one who lacked signaling skills. On another Lighthouse I was working on the District Officer whilst paying us one of his regular inspections asked for a display of the use of the Morse Lamp. The Lamp was Pssed between me and my colleagues. They thought that as I was the most recent out of training school I would better understand Morse Code, I on the other hand thought that they being old hands in the job would better know the code. The farce ended when the Principal Keeper explained to the officer that the bulb in the lamp was broken, the officer didn’t ask for proof as he probably knew we couldn’t signal and I also suspect he couldn’t understand the code either but I do know that if he’d asked for the name of a good pub in the East End of London I could have told him:
‘The Coach and Horses.’
Whilst training I stayed at a Seamans Mission near the docks. It was cheap and it was clean(ish) and very interesting. Up until I went there my impression of homosexuals and Queens was that they were hairdressers or owned tea shops but this hostel was filled with characters I never knew existed. It was the type of place that, as my father would have described it, if you dropped a £5 note on the floor you should kick it out of the door into the street before you bent down to pick it up.
I met great hairy armed stokers who wore mascara and called themselves Deirdre, but the chap I met most was a lad about my own age a sorry looking soul who was the steward on a ship who was on sick leave for a medical condition…he had piles.
After my initial training I was sent to Trevose Head Lighthouse in Cornwall. It was a lovely Lighthouse with an amiable crew and I was there for a couple of weeks replacing Dave who was on holiday, Tom was the PK and Terry his othert assistant. Tom was considerate of my newness And youth. He showed me how to tend the Parraffin Vapour Burner Light and the clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens apparatus as well as how to start up the Fog Signal.
Tony was a Cornishman, well not a real Cornishman as his family had only been in Cornwall since arriving with the Armada. He told me of a time when Mormon Missionares knocked at his door, he declined their invitation to talk about Salvation saying “Him next door would be interested, he’s one of your lot”. So the Mormons went to Dave’s house next door. Dave was a fervent Jehovah’s Witness. Tony told me that the sounds of their debate came thundering through the walls of his house for hours!
After a sweet fortnight at Trevose Lighthouse I was dispatched to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse in the Isles of Scilly.
I was young and foolish and not to say stupid so I thought I would be able to get to the sles of Scilly from my home in Ilfracombe in one day. So I set off on Saturday morning leaving Ilfracombe at about the same time as the ferry for Scilly was leaving Penzance. I was marooned in Penzance until I could catch the ferry on the Monday. On arrival I made a mad dash to the local shop to buy food and then along the quay to where the boat was waiting to take me out to the Lighthouse.
Now, I know that my mistake in travel times meant that I had ruined things for everyone else and that the man coming off the Lighthouse had had to spend an extra 2 days out there away from his family but why it was that as I was being winched out of the boat onto the ighthouse the men winding the winch should stop winding so that I was plunged into the sea is a mystery that defies all explanation.
I was on the Bishop Rock with George. The PK, and Roger, his Assistant and it is thanks to Roger that I survived my time out there because he leant me a pair of plimsolls to wear, you see, nobody at the training school had told me to take a pair of slippers with me so I arrived with only my hob nail boots to wear. You must understand that in a lighthouse wqith one man asleep at all times and the only way to move from one room to another was by metal ladders boots are not recommended footwear!
On my second day aboard I was duty cook, as we ate the food I had prepared George asked me
“ Do you know how to cook?”
I replied “No”
Then you’ve got 2 days to learn!”
I spent the next 2 days watching Goerge one day then Roger the next cook lunch. When it was my turn to cook again I managed to produce a reasonable offering!
I was on the Bishop Rock for some 4 weeks (less the 3 days it took to get out there in the first place