Exploring the lost world of the lighthousekeeper

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 February 2020

Needles Lighthouse Photo: Courtesy of Trinity House

Needles Lighthouse Photo: Courtesy of Trinity House

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The lighthouse at The Needles may be one of the enduring symbols of the Isle of Wight, but does it still have a role in the 21st century?

St Catherine's Lighthouse Photo: Courtesy of Trinity HouseSt Catherine's Lighthouse Photo: Courtesy of Trinity House

"I know exactly what you're going to do and say all the time!" So shouted the two feuding lighthouse keepers at each other across the kitchen table, exhausted with each other's company after 12 years together in the same lighthouse. One hated the other for always whistling EastEnders while making the tea, while he was hated in return for repeatedly opening a packet of biscuits the wrong way.

It was a piece of classic comedy performed by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones called the Predictable Lighthouse Keepers and was an amusing skit, albeit a slightly unkind one.

It wouldn't happen now in real life because lighthouse keepers are a thing of the past in Britain. It is over 25 years since the lighthouse at The Needles off the Isle of Wight was automated and the keepers left for the last time. It is now controlled remotely by Trinity House from an operations centre at Harwich and it is the same for Hampshire's other lighthouses at Hurst Point, St Catherine's Point and Nab Tower.

Life was never easy for the keepers when they lived at places such as Needles Lighthouse. Gerry Douglas-Sherwood, former president of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, had a 28-year career on lighthouses. He had short spells at St Catherine's and Nab Tower - describing his time at the latter "a grim and very curious experience" - but it is his 12-and-a-half years at Needles that he remembers most.

Nab Tower from Trinity House tender Galatea Photo: Courtesy of Trinity HouseNab Tower from Trinity House tender Galatea Photo: Courtesy of Trinity House

One of three keepers stationed at a time, he was at Needles from 1982 to 1994. He describes the layout of the building as though he was there yesterday. "I always thought it was a bit like living in a submarine, only the other way up," he says. "On the ground level there was a double front door into the engine room where the diesels ran 24 hours. Next up was the store room with freezers and workshop gear. Then there was the combined kitchen, sitting room and office, containing a solid-fuel stove for cooking and warmth. Above that was the bedroom, containing five curved bunks. The service room with the electrical and radio equipment was next, then the lower lantern with the fog signal, then the main lantern with the lens and a gallery outside, and finally the helicopter pad at the top."

Gerry and his fellow keepers spent their time keeping the machinery, fog signal and radio gear operating, splitting each 24 hours into four shifts. During his time off, he obviously could not spend it off the lighthouse and used to paint and draw instead. If he fancied some exercise - other than going up and down the stairs - that was spent walking "backwards and forwards" on the tiny landing stage outside the front door or "round and round" on the helicopter pad.

Conditions might seem primitive but Needles was actually Gerry's favourite tower rock, as lighthouses perched on rocks at sea were called.

One of the things that impressed him about Needles was it had a flush toilet up in the service room. "That was highly advanced for a tower rock," he says. "Many offshore lighthouses had an Elsan toilet, which was nick-named the 'bucket and chuck-it' system."

Hurst Point Lighthouse Photo: Courtesy of Trinity HouseHurst Point Lighthouse Photo: Courtesy of Trinity House

And Needles also had a shower in the service room, although the need to save water meant each keeper could use it only once every three days. When he was stationed at Wolf Rock Lighthouse out in the Atlantic off Cornwall in the 1970s, keepers got washed using a plastic bowl on the kitchen floor.

Despite its exposed position at the western mouth of the Solent, Needles never experienced the sort of stormy weather that lights such as Wolf Rock did. "Occasionally the sea would come up as far as the kitchen window," he says, "but no further. Storm shutters were needed only on the lower windows."

During his two years at Wolf Rock, things were rather different. "If there was a storm outside, sometimes for days at a time, the sea used to run up the side of the lighthouse, over the top and back down the other side. The whole place used to shudder."

The Needles, Isle of Wight, England Photo: Robert LinsdellThe Needles, Isle of Wight, England Photo: Robert Linsdell

That must have fuelled tension inside the tower. Did he ever fall out with his fellow keepers in the manner of Smith and Jones? "Wherever I was, I always worked with wonderful chaps and made some friends for life," he replies. Gerry does admit though to watching the Smith and Jones sketch on TV while at a lighthouse. "I hate to admit it," he says, "but there was some truth in that. I did hear that once at Eddystone Lighthouse off Plymouth, two keepers there wouldn't speak to each other for a whole month.

"Needles though was one of the happiest lighthouses. We got on very well. We had to rely on each other and we acted as a team. We had little differences, of course, but we were big enough to ride over them."

Gerry finished his lighthouse career at Nash Point in south Wales. In 1998 his station was automated. "I was very sad to leave the service, yes, but I'd had a good innings. I was one of the last three keepers in Wales and went out on a high. Mind you, I'd do it all over again. Once a keeper, always a keeper."

Small boys and children's story writers may be distraught that the job of lighthouse keeper has slipped into history but Trinity House explains why it had to be. Public relations manager Neil Jones says: "Our mission is to deliver reliable, efficient and cost-effective aids to navigation. Once automation technology could be demonstrated to be effective, we were obliged to deliver those improvements and thereby save costs for those who pay for these services, largely commercial shipping. It's worth noting that efforts to begin automating lighthouses actually began in the late 19th century!"

In practice, lighthouses are just one tool in the armoury of marine navigation aids offered by Trinity House. There are also light vessels, buoys and beacons and, in addition, an array of high-tech alternatives. Trinity House provides a satellite-based navigation system based on GPS funnelled through a series of ground-based reference stations, one of them at St Catherine's Point. There is also a network of radar beacons, Racons for short, that respond electronically to the signal coming from a ship's radar, warning it of a nearby hazard.

Precise navigation will become ever more important. Ships are growing in size and number, while developments such as offshore wind farms are likely to reduce the amount of navigable space available. Marine navigation is becoming ever more technology-based, pointing to a very different world to the one the humble lighthouse was built to serve. So can there still be a role for lighthouses in the future?

Trinity House remains adamant there is. Systems based on GPS are wide open to interference, inadvertent or even deliberate, while Trinity House - and even the UK Government - has no control over GPS itself, which is operated from the US. "Overdependence on this increasingly vulnerable system is a growing concern," says Neil Jones. "It underlines the continuing need for traditional aids to navigation, like lighthouses, and the importance of having the skills to make use of them."

That will come as some relief not only to many at sea but also to dry-land mariners who see lighthouses as icons of our island nation. Indeed, they are surely so much more than a light in the dark. The lighthouse keepers played by Smith and Jones may have been predictable and able to guess what the other was about to say and do, but predictability can mean a sense of continuity, comfort and reassurance. Lighthouses provide exactly those things in a changing modern world.

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