The history behind Cornwall’s lighthouses and the keepers that ran them
PUBLISHED: 11:26 01 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:31 04 November 2020
Cornwall is defined by its coastline – and the lighthouses which dot the landscape have saved countless lives
Lighthouses are undoubtedly places to look up to. They stand as symbols of strength, longevity and reassurance in an uncertain and changing world. Perhaps none more so than Bishop Rock Lighthouse, standing defiantly on a rock outcrop in the Atlantic beyond the Scilly Isles at the south-western gateway to Britain.
Spare a thought for the lighthouse keepers who have kept the light shining and mariners safe down the years from this bleak spot. A more unconventional and testing way of life is hard to imagine. There are no keepers here now though; today the lighthouse is automated and operated by remote control from Harwich on the east coast by Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales. Perhaps to the disappointment of small boys and children’s authors alike, it’s the same for all the organisation’s lighthouses.
The last keepers at Bishop Rock headed for the shore 25 years ago. One of them was Bill Arnold, who remembers well his time as Principal Keeper at this sea-battered outpost. Bill joined Trinity House in 1978. ‘I didn’t really decide to become a lighthouse keeper,’ he says. ‘The decision was made for me. I’d spent ten years in the army and when I came out I worked down the South Crofty tin mine. This was during the early-1970s, when there was the three-day week and I was made redundant three times in three years. But I had a mortgage, a wife and two children and saw an advert for a lighthouse keeper. I thought: “Well, they won’t be making them redundant!”’. Although he would eventually be proven wrong on that point, Bill went on to have a long career in lighthouses.
His first base was South Bishop Lighthouse off the Pembrokeshire coast and he ended up serving at more than a dozen, including several around Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Bishop Rock was his home in 1992 as the lighthouse was being prepared for automation and he actually performed the last manual turn-off of the light at daybreak just before Christmas that year. He describes the layout of the lighthouse as though he left just yesterday and conjures up an idea of what lighthouse-style ‘vertical living’ entailed.
Towards the base of Bishop Rock was the ‘set-off’, a gangway around the tower three feet wide and about 20 feet above the base rocks. From this, steps led up to the entrance, beyond which was a room with a shower, a toilet, a chest freezer and storage space for ropes. Above, reached by a series of metal spiral staircases, the floors stacked up like a tube of sweets.
Next came the oil storage room, then the engine room, which provided electric power for the lantern. The next floor was the ‘everything room’, as Bill describes it. It was a combined kitchen and living room, originally with a coal-fired cooking range that also provided the main source of warm. And until the shower was put in downstairs, the kitchen sink was effectively the bathroom too, and a frugal one at that.
‘Water was always at a premium and we had to be very careful with it,’ says Bill. ‘All fresh water came by boat or helicopter and, when I was first there, was delivered only every six to eight weeks.’
Up from the everything room was the communal bunkroom, able to sleep five, and above that was the watch room, the main ‘office space’ for the keepers. Next was the upper engine room, containing the fog horn and other equipment, then the lantern room and finally the roof-top helicopter pad.
The keepers worked as a team of three, providing cover round the clock for a month before they were relieved. On any one day, two keepers would be taking it in turns to work and the third would be having a day-off. Work was largely routine – for example, the lens had to be kept clean and polished, the engines always required attention and the roller bearings that the lens moved round on needed oiling. And at many lighthouses, detailed weather records had to be kept.
For the keeper on his day-off, that couldn’t possibly mean a day off the lighthouse. After all, there was sea in all directions. ‘I’d spend half the day asleep,’ admits Bill. ‘Then, if the weather was decent, I’d go up to the helipad for some sunbathing or go for a walk round and round and round.’
Wasn’t that a little dangerous, considering the height above the rocks? ‘There was safety netting around the edge. Mind you, I did get blown into the netting once or twice by the wind.’
And what was it like, living and working so close to two others for a whole month at a time? ‘I worked with a good bunch of lads but used to reckon that by the end of the first week, we’d heard all each other’s news,’ admits Bill. ‘By the end of the second, we’d heard all of each other’s jokes. By the end of the third, we were getting on each other’s nerves and by the fourth, we could have cheerfully strangled each other!
‘But then relief came and I was soon in the pub having a pint.’
It must have been an odd life too for the families of lighthouse keepers? Bill laughs. ‘When I’d been home for a few days, my missus used to say: “When are you going back?”. It was a way of life, a routine, for her too. I’d come home and upset that routine.’
Bill is full of stories of his time on Bishop Rock, some of which might leave those of us who prefer firm land under our feet with white faces. ‘During a storm the sea would run up and right over the tower,’ he relates. ‘But we knew the tower has been there for more than 100 years, so didn’t worry.
‘The first Christmas I was at Bishop Rock, the weather was really bad with the wind up to hurricane force. When the sea hits you in those conditions, the tower trembles for four to five seconds – and it’s designed to.
‘But once while it was trembling, the sea came at it again and the tower didn’t just tremble, it shook. You could hear the big interlocking granite blocks lifting and then dropping again. Then the alarm went off and we rushed up to the lantern room to find the light had stopped turning and the floor was awash with the mercury from the turning mechanism. We had to put on space suits and masks and clear it up and try to put it back in the tank. All we had was a dustpan and brush!’
Towards the end of Bill’s time on this rock in the ocean, the tower was busy with technicians, preparing for automation. Bunks were in short supply, sometimes leading to problems. ‘A mechanic got in touch from the mainland saying he needed to come over to do some work,’ says Bill. ‘I said there was no room – we already had too many people staying. But he insisted and finally said he’d bring his tent and sleep in the garden. Clearly he didn’t know where we were! I said: “Well, you’d better bring your wellies!’” He did actually come but not with his tent – someone must have quietly put him right on that one!’
With automation looming it must have seemed the end of a tradition? ‘Automation made me sad, yes. We all knew what the end game was – we’d be out of work. For people like me it meant a way of life that would be gone.’
Trinity House explains why it had to take place. ‘Our mission is to deliver reliable, efficient and cost-effective aids to navigation,’ says public relations manager Neil Jones. ‘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!’
And Bill can see the other side of the economic coin too. ‘Looking back now, automation has worked. It has saved a lot of money and you can’t knock it.’
Today Bishop Rock is maintained from a base at St Just Airport, where a team looks after all lighthouses in the South West. ‘We typically visit Bishop Rock twice a year for 12-day periods,’ says Neil. ‘Technicians will then live on-station and do a mix of inspection and maintenance.’
As well as Bishop Rock, there are another 11 Trinity House lighthouses around Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly: the land-based St Anthony’s, Lizard, Tater Du, Pendeen, Godrevy and Trevose Head; Peninnis and Round Island on the Isles of Scilly and the off-shore rock towers of Eddystone, Wolf Rock and Longships, as exposed to the cruel power of wind and sea as Bishop Rock.
But over recent decades these traditional aids to navigation have become less relied on as mariners have turned to the precision offered by satellite-based navigation systems. As well as the age-old network of lighthouses, lightvessels and buoys, Trinity House now offers the modern Differential Global Positioning Service, based on Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) fed through a series of ground-based reference stations, one of them at Lizard.
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. There are three Racons locally – one at Wolf Rock Lighthouse, one on the Sevenstones Lightvessel, moored at the Seven Stones Reef north-east of the Isles of Scilly, and one on the Bann Shoal Buoy, north of Pendeen.
Marine navigation is becoming ever more technology-based, so can there be any sort of lasting future for the good, old fashioned aid to navigation that is the humble lighthouse?
Trinity House is adamant there is. Systems based on GPS remain 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. ‘Over-dependence on this increasingly vulnerable system is a growing concern,’ says Neil. ‘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 comfort to all those who appreciate lighthouses, land-based mariners included. Many might say that without the lighthouse’s irresistible combination of kindly, paternal persona and indomitable, rugged stature, our coastline would just not seem the same.