Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the storm before the calm – part two

Part one of this post finished off with my book content being submitted to Whittles Publishing in February 2019. It was time to get prepared for Spring, which was going to be busy with lighthouse trips. Firstly I got to organise and attend two Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) events, the first based out of Oban, taking in Lismore, Corran and Ardnamurchan lighthouses as well as a tour of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s depot and their vessel Pharos. The second trip involved much more planning on my part when I welcomed a number of ALK members to the north coast of Scotland for internal tours of Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head, and Cape Wrath lighthouses. It really was great fun to spend time with lots of likeminded people.

The ALK group at Noss Head lighthouse

Although the ALK events had begun, it didn’t put a stop to my own trips. The previous December we’d made contact with the owner of North Coast Sea Tours to find out if they would be willing to get us to the particularly tricky Sule Skerry. Not only did they agree to that, but the owner also suggested we and a few of our friends could join him and a few of his pals as he brought his boat back up from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland in April 2019. The idea for the West Coast Adventure was born. With Derek the skipper in charge of the boat, Bob in control of the island and lighthouse itinerary and myself taking the lead on organising accommodation for everyone, it was a big task to pull it all together, but for the incredible days we got out of it there was no denying it was worth it. It’s really unlike any other trip I had been on before or have been on since. A really great experience and opportunity.

My very unscientific method of measuring the circumference of a lighthouse on Rona

The fun with North Coast Sea Tours continued the following month when we finally managed to get out to Sule Skerry. The first day a group of island baggers made it there and the second it was the lighthouse baggers’ turn. It was another incredibly unique trip and much more like the bagging years times, but with some of my new lighthouse friends along for the ride too. An added bonus with this trip was sailing around Cape Wrath as Derek brought the boat around to the north coast in preparation for the Sule Skerry trips.

Sule Skerry lighthouse – formerly the most remote manned station in the British Isles

June 2019 saw the biggest overlapping of this period with the ‘bagging years’. On the last big trip I joined with the collectors of all things, which was in Shetland, I was desperate to go out and enjoying visiting lighthouses and islands as I had in previous years. I had a wonderful time – how could I not, especially with reaching the magnificent Muckle Flugga and so soon after Sule Skerry felt like a huge achievement – but my enjoyment was, in some ways, hampered by the pressure of having so much else to do at the same time. At one point I was wandering the streets of Lerwick on my way to the library to print out two copies of my 200+ page book and then heading onwards to the Post Office to get one copy sent off to a friend to review. There was a tight deadline on reviewing it and, at the same time, I’d done little preparation for the presentation I needed to deliver in Orkney on the way back home from the Shetland trip. That period really was the most stressful, when I realised that perhaps I had overcommitted somewhat. I still managed to get to and enjoy some of the most fantastic places though, thanks in no small part to Alan who did an amazing job of organising trips for around 40 of us, especially when the first week was almost a write-off for so many of the planned boat trips.

The incredible Muckle Flugga lighthouse

My presentation in Orkney was followed just a couple of months later by a trip for a small number of us to some of Orkney’s beautiful islands and lighthouses not covered by ferries. While the north coast had thunderstorms we had absolutely gorgeous weather and made it to so many fantastic islands, including Copinsay, Papa Stronsay and even landed at Barrel of Butter in Scapa Flow.

Copinsay lighthouse moved very quickly towards the top of my favourite Orkney lights list after this visit

Mervyn joined us for that trip and returned the favour at the end of that month when he invited us on a fantastic boat trip around Mull, picking up far more lights than I even thought we would, including a landing on Lady’s Rock. By this point I was well and truly caught up in the ALK efforts and I remember travelling to Oban for the Mull trip and having a phone call with a boatman based in Eastbourne about the trip I had organised for some ALK members to go out to Royal Sovereign and Beachy Head lighthouses. There was a lot of overlapping, but thankfully not as much as in Shetland!

Lady Rock lighthouse

September 2019 was a particularly busy month. Always trying to make the most of an opportunity a visit to Scurdie Ness lighthouse was in order during the Angus Coastal Festival. A chance encounter there led to a wonderful tour of Tod Head lighthouse too, which was a huge bonus. Just a few days later I was in Edinburgh for the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland. This involved a presentation to almost 100 people and a book signing afterwards. Once that had passed it was full on over the next couple of weeks with final plans coming together for the ALK AGM at Spurn. A lot of trips involve doing something else on the way there or back to break up the journey or maximise on opportunities. That time it was a visit to the National Museum of Scotland’s large item store in Granton to see the old Sule Skerry hyper-radial lens. On the way back it was a quick spin out on the Firth of Forth to land at both Oxcars lighthouse and on Inchkeith. It was a very busy month, but a real variety and a lot of fun.

My book launch at the National Library of Scotland

After that life calmed down a bit and there was background planning to do for the ALK and various promotional articles to write for my book, but not a lot else until the following February when I travelled to Bidston lighthouse and observatory for an ALK archive event. I am so pleased I made the effort and spent all those hours on the train as it was to be my last trip for some time.

The view from Bidston lighthouse

Then along came COVID-19 and lockdown. Personal trips and ALK events were being cancelled all over the place and that was really quite hard to take when there had been so many exciting plans for the year. It was a relief when restrictions were eased and it really became about just taking opportunities for last minute trips like Galloway, Ayrshire and Argyll, Canna, Suffolk and the Western Isles (which was actually Plan C after the ALK AGM weekend in Belfast – Plan A – was postponed, and travel to Ireland for some new lighthouses – Plan B – wasn’t permitted).

Reaching the most remote land-based lighthouse in Britain, Rubh Uisenis in the Western Isles

The past year has been such a strange time as I’m sure it has been for so many. A rollercoaster really, but I’ve also benefitted from it in a number of ways. A few months into the pandemic I rediscovered my love of music which had fallen by the wayside during the years of lighthouses and kids, and I’ve started walking a lot more, partly just to be doing something outside but also to see the local landscape in much greater detail than I ever have just driving through it.

I suppose most importantly though I’ve realised how important people in my life are. Some of these people I expected while others have come as a really lovely surprise. I’d never really considered myself to be a “people person” and I’m really quite happy in my own company, but I’ve realised I do need people and it’s great to know they are there, as I am for them. We are always stronger when we stick together.

Leaving Canna lighthouse with the Isle of Rum in the background – Canna and Sanday became two of my favourite islands after this trip

It’s also been a good time to reflect on many things and my lighthouse journey has been a massive part of that. Before I started these posts I was thinking a lot about where I’d come from, where I’d been and how all of this had impacted on my life and me as a person. To be able to write these thoughts down in some sort of semblance of chronological order has really helped me to gather it all together and say to myself ‘Right, that’s what has happened. This is where I am now. How will I go forward from here?’ Of course none of us really know what will happen, which is one of the the joys of life, or the most frightening aspects depending on how you see it. What I do know though is that I want to be out there, seeing more, enjoying more and being more glad than ever before that I can do it. I hope you’ll continue to join me for the journey 🙂

Discovering lighthouse history at Bidston

I have just returned from a great couple of days discovering a lot about the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) archives. The archives are at Bidston lighthouse, although some items are in storage elsewhere. The purpose of the weekend was to begin to establish what video footage is held in the archives, what condition it is in, what is worth keeping and what should be digitised.

When I arrived on Friday the videos were in full swing. They had already taken a look at some footage of Royal Sovereign lighthouse and its platform being moved into place. Everyone’s feedback on that one was really positive so hopefully it will be possible to watch that one at some point, especially as it is going to be removed within the coming years. I caught a short section of a VHS showing Lighthouse Keepers at the Needles lighthouse enjoying Christmas dinner, and this was made even better by one of the Keepers being present. So lovely to see.

A few of us were whisked off to another room to have a look at some of the slides. These had all been clearly labelled, the only problem was knowing which way to put them in to make sure they didn’t display sideways or upside down – we got it right on the third attempt. Fortunately the slides we looked at were chosen by someone else who is into the Northern Lighthouse Board lights so it was lovely to see those on the Isle of Man, including quite a few of the harbour lights. We also looked at some from various parts of England and Wales (I think we were at the end of the alphabet as we had South Stack, Whitehaven and some of the old Thames lights). Great to see those.

We then watched Keepers of the Light, which is quite a sad documentary as it was filmed at the time the lighthouses were being automated and the Keepers were leaving them for the last time. I find it such a unique situation, where the whole profession became redundant (aside from the Retained Lighthouse Keepers or Attendants – although that is nowhere near the time commitment the Keepers had). As lighthouse keeping was so closely linked with their off-duty time as well, they lived in the cottages at the lighthouse or in the towers themselves, it must have been such a huge blow for them, and their families too. It’s no wonder ex-Keepers speak so fondly of their days in the lighthouses.

Footage of the Nab Tower with its former lighthouse was shown over the weekend

The screenings and accommodation for the weekend all took place inside Bidston Observatory – an outstanding building with so many rooms, floors and points of interest. On Friday evening we went up onto the roof and had panoramic views of Liverpool and Wirral at night. We also went inside one of the domes on top of the building and you could see how it would have moved and been operated in the past.

Inside one of Bidston Observatory’s domes

On Saturday morning we started off discovering what stage the archiving is currently at. Stephen, who works alongside his wife Mandy on the archives, showed us the software he had developed for this purpose. There are currently over 13,500 items logged on the archive software with more still to go. The software allows you to search the archives in general or by various categories such as lighthouse stations, light vessels, depots and countries. We did a few random searches and looking at Southwold alone we found more than 50 items.

A demonstration of the archive software was given

The archives had started out with one of the founding members of the ALK, a Lighthouse Keeper, logging the items by hand in 6 index books. The transcription from these books was started by another active member of the ALK before it was passed on to Mandy and Stephen.

The archives are a real treasure trove of information, pictures, films, artefacts etc. You immediately look at some of it and think “this should be available for everyone to see”. However, as Stephen explained, these days it’s not as simple to just putting documents, pictures and films online. With the new GDPR rules it is essential that they are careful with information about people and whether or not anyone in the pictures or videos are happy for them to be shared. In addition to this, there are issues around copyright and whether or not the owner of the copyright gives permission for them to be made available publicly. These are complications that many wouldn’t think of and so it’s definitely not as easy as making everything digital and getting it up on the internet.

Another challenge they have faced has been the categorising of items relating to light vessels. There are a range of vessel names and numbers as well as station names. Some names and numbers have been reused as well, making it difficult to establish how different items should be categorised.

The discussion moved on to female lighthouse keepers. Trinity House and the Northern Lighthouse Board never had female keepers, although there are now female Retained Lighthouse Keepers in Scotland. The only female keepers worked in privately owned lighthouses and the name Peggy Braithwaite was mentioned. Of course the next VHS we watched was a television interview with Peggy who was a Keeper at Walney. That was really lovely to see.

Bidston lighthouse

Of course it wasn’t possible to go to Bidston without setting foot in Bidston lighthouse and Stephen had very kindly offered to give us a tour, not only of the lighthouse, but also the archives. As well as boxes in other areas, there was a room near enough dedicated to the archives. There was even a special cupboard containing some of the old visitor books from lighthouses. I have been informed that within the archives there is a visitor book from The Needles which has been signed by Charles Dickens! That is really quite special.

Just some of the ALK archives at Bidston

It’s been a few years since I last had a tour of Bidston lighthouse and it was very nice to return. Stephen is an expert tour guide, so full of knowledge and not just about Bidston either. The lighthouse is beautiful (I had a wonderful view of it from the bathroom in the Observatory), but it is a part of the Bidston “package”. I was speaking to Stephen about Low Head lighthouse in Tasmania and he said that there is so much there: the lighthouse, the foghorn, archives… It’s the fact that it’s everything brought together that makes it so interesting and I would say the same for Bidston.

The lighthouse has a lot of history and this is all so well presented throughout the tour by a combination of visual aids and Stephen’s talk. I wouldn’t want to go into too much detail as I feel it’s worth experiencing these things first hand if you can rather than reading someone else’s account (if you are reading between the lines there you may have guessed that what I was trying to say was “Go to Bidston and do the tour!”) One thing that always fascinates me though – and it did so last time too, but probably moreso this time – is the way they used to use flags on Bidston Hill for signalling when and which boats were coming in to Liverpool Docks. Because of the hill’s location it blocks the view from the Docks to the sea. While very useful to the people at the Docks, they were also helpful to the local families who had fathers, sons, brothers etc. out at sea and the flags enabled the locals to find out when their loved ones were on their way home so they could prepare (as Stephen said “kick the lodger out”). For some reason that piece of history always touches me and one of the others in the group said they felt the same. There really is so much history and I would highly recommend you make Stephen the person to tell you all about it.

One of the many views from the top of Bidston lighthouse

Back over at the Observatory we were in agreement that we wanted more cine film so we put the ex-Keepers to work setting it up. We watched a really interesting documentary about light vessels, with footage from the Essex and East Anglia coasts. It was thought that the film probably hadn’t seen the light of day for many years so it was fantastic to see it in working order still.

Setting up the cine film

Moving back to the other room, we watched a few interesting VHS tapes, including one about Skokholm, which features pictures from around 1915. It’s an island I’ve still to reach so it obviously gave me slightly itchy feet and it may have climbed a little higher up my priority list as a result.

This film was followed by the island lighthouses of Tasmania. I love an island anyway, but some of those look so beautiful on incredibly rugged and awe-inspiring islands. Very much like the far-flung lights around Scotland like the Flannans, Muckle Flugga and Sule Skerry. A veritable feast of lights at the top end of the “particularly challenging to reach” category. One particular island at the time was reached using a boat/off-road vehicle combination that was launched from the main maintenance vessel. It sailed through the water and then bounced its way up the long track to the lighthouse. Looked like good fun to me!

We began watching a film about lighthouses in South West England. It was another interesting one, but the sound went off after a while and so Stephen decided to play us some of his foghorn music, which also featured gull sounds! Once it was pointed out that some of the foghorns sounded like cows I became increasingly amused by it.

A shot of the light vessel cine film mentioned above

One of the things I enjoyed most about the weekend was the gathering of Keepers. A lot of the ALK events I have been to the Keepers have been a minority and so I don’t get to hear them speaking to me or each other so much. They really do have some of the greatest stories and what I find particularly wonderful is that many of them never met while in the lighthouse service. They sometimes served on the same stations, but it is only through the ALK that they have come to know each other and share their memories and experiences with each other as if they are old friends. It is so heartwarming to watch and I took some wonderful pictures of two of them looking at some images on a camera. It seemed like such a special moment and this is the perfect example of two men who never met through work but have bonded through their experiences.

I realised on the final evening that I’d not ventured down into the depths of the Observatory, which I had heard a lot about. The building became even more fascinating then. One of the rooms downstairs contained tables covered in pictures of all of the work the current owners had put into improving the Observatory. Such a hidden gem, it really is.

Bidston Observatory

I should also mention before I finish this post, because I’ve said I will include it, that at about 7.15am on Saturday morning I managed to lock myself out of the Observatory. I’d decided to go out for a short stroll to take a picture or two of the lighthouse and wander around the Observatory. Rather foolishly I’d forgotten to put the front door on the latch so it didn’t take long to discover my error. I was standing out in the rain with no idea if anyone else was awake inside and wondering what to do with myself when another early riser opened the door. He’s possibly never seen anyone look quite so glad to see him as I was, although I had only been standing outside for a few minutes. What a relief that was!

It was a really interesting weekend and there was talk of planning more during the year. I will also take this opportunity to say that the ALK does some really wonderful work (archives and in other areas) and I would highly recommend becoming a member if you have an interest in lighthouses at all. ALK events enable you get to spend time with others who are just as mad about lighthouses as you are, or maybe even slightly more mad! At the heart of it though are is the Keepers: a fantastic bunch of kind, welcoming and humble individuals. 🙂