The Stanfords years
After completing a degree at Southampton, I joined up with a number of other slightly rudderless would-be travellers by getting a job at Stanfords, the map and travel bookshop in Covent Garden in London. Here the staff were incredibly knowledgeable, but held a shared belief that they should be, and deserved to be travelling somewhere. So the retail part of the job was never taken very seriously, and serving customers was always regarded as an unwelcome and somewhat unpleasant aspect of saving up for the next big trip.
Retail staff came, saved up their funds, went travelling and then returned to start the process all over again. I quickly learned the hierarchy: seasoned, global travellers worked upstairs on the International desk, sharing their stories of travelling through unmapped and politically unstable parts of the globe. Those with fewer expeditions under their belt worked at the European desk on the ground floor. From here, they were as likely to be called upon to help with the choice of gallery, restaurant or hotel on a romantic city break, as with possible places to camp on a long-distance trek across the Alps. That left me in the basement – a windowless, dark and rather damp space – selling local walking maps, and guides to British towns and cities.
There were three of us in the basement. At one end of the floor sat John, a thirty-something amateur sailor who ran the maritime department. His passion was for boats rather than for retail, and he loathed most of the customers he was called upon to serve. He reserved the strongest disdain for customers who asked questions, and also for those who took books or maps off his shelves, even if they subsequently purchased them. But he had one unrivalled skill that became his party piece. Describe a sailing or boat trip anywhere in British waters, and John could tell you which British Admiralty chart or charts you would need. From a catalogue extending to hundreds of pages, this was an impressive feat to witness.
At the other end of the floor was Jon without an h, in charge of all maps and books published by Ordnance Survey. Now Jon had already clocked up twenty years of service at Stanfords, almost all of which had been served in the basement. He had exceptionally blond hair and pale skin and I wondered if it was natural, or had resulted from a lack of natural light. He had an extraordinary memory, and he too had a trick up his sleeve. Name any village, town or city in the UK and Jon would know instantly which of the 250 or so large-scale Ordnance Survey walking maps it appeared on.
I took the central sales area of the basement, and my role covered general UK tour guides, street maps and road atlases. But I spent a lot of my day trying to appease or apologise to customers who had had dramatic fallings out with John. On one occasion a customer approached my friend David from the International desk, and asked for help with selecting an Admiralty chart. When David suggested that he needed to head down to the basement, the customer begged him to come with him, explaining that he ‘daren’t ask that ghastly man for help again!’
I may have had some natural talent for retail, but I realised that I needed my own party trick if I was to hold my own in the basement. It came very quickly and easily to me. For any point on the coast, I could reel off the ten nearest lighthouses heading either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Admittedly, mine was the least valuable skill from a retail perspective and it was seldom called upon. But it was always something of which I was immensely proud.
Stanfords was also where I met my wife, Emily. It’s fair to say that she has endured, rather than embraced my passion for lighthouses, but she has always been supportive of my slightly quirky interest nonetheless. She once arranged a surprise holiday on Lundy Island, where we stayed in The Old Lighthouse, converted by the Landmark Trust into fabulous holiday accommodation. And so when we were planning our wedding Lundy had seemed the obvious location, if only we could pull it off.
We made it work, but at quite a cost. From a financial perspective, it was only possible if we married out of season. We persuaded the local Rector at Appledore, on the North Devon coast, to officiate at the marriage ceremony, and a team of bell ringers to bring the island’s Church of St Helena to life on the morning of the service. We chartered the MS Oldenburg to bring our sixty guests across from Ilfracombe on the last weekend of February in 1998. And that’s where it all went wrong. There was force 9 gale that day, and a crossing that should take two hours took nearly four. Our sixty guests made use of more than a hundred sick bags between them, and on reaching land several guests kissed the ground. It was a tough start to our wedding weekend, but the vast majority of the guests took it well. Certainly the conversation in the pub on the first night was not about how they each knew the bride or groom, but about how sick they had been on the boat. I got to spend my honeymoon in the old lighthouse, and it is still the wedding which friends talk about with great fondness, nearly twenty-five years later.
So forty-five years after my first encounter with the flashing light in the attic bedroom, my love for lighthouses endures. I have my own family now, and British holidays invariably involve the coast, and making a beeline to the nearest lighthouse, much to my children’s irritation. But my cycle touring dream remained unfulfilled. As with so many romantic notions, stuff got in the way. You get a job, you buy a house, you get married and have a family. Before you know it, taking twelve weeks off work to cycle around the coast isn’t practical, isn’t possible, and just seems a bit indulgent. And in my case, it wasn’t only work and family stuff that got in the way.