Seeing the light
When I was a kid, a part of each school holiday was spent at my Granny’s house in New Romney, on Romney Marsh in Kent. It was about half a mile from the sea, a house divided into two – she had bought a large town house after the war, and set about splitting it down the middle and then selling one half to an old friend. The hallway had two unlocked doors, one to each side of the original house, where Granny and her friend met each morning to allocate the morning post. They even shared one phone line between them, and you could often listen to Mrs Kemp’s tittle-tattle just by picking up the receiver in Granny’s house. I had a bedroom in the eaves, and from the mullioned window I could see for miles around.
It was July 1974 when I made the discovery that it was the light from the lighthouse that projected its flash onto my bedroom wall. I was six. I remember telling my parents that I could see the Dungeness light from my window, and I also recall the rebuff from my dad that I was being ridiculous, because it was nearly ten miles away. But I was certain that this was where the light was coming from, and I was transfixed. To my six-year-old self, the light was comforting, reassuring, something reliable and constant. Each time we holidayed on Romney Marsh, I could hardly wait until dusk so that I could climb the stairs to my room and check that the light was still flashing. And I remember the sense of relief and wonder when I saw it again.
We had a routine for every holiday. There would be a trip to Dymchurch, dubbed ‘the children’s paradise’ and home to fish and chip shops, a funfair and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway that ran along the coast from Hythe. We’d schedule a stop at Dungeness, and my dad would buy fish from the seafront shack run by Mrs Thomas. She’s still there today, although it is her son rather than her husband who brings in the catch, which nowadays he sells direct to local restaurateurs, so you have to get there early to meet the boat as it comes in to compete for the pick of the freshest fish.
Then we’d walk our Labrador, Sam, along the shingle beach, towards the two lighthouses. I discovered that it was the construction of the nuclear power station in the sixties that made the 1904 lighthouse redundant, because it obstructed the sweep of the beacon across the distinctive shingle spit. So a new lighthouse was built in 1961, unmanned and automated, and one of the last new lighthouses that Trinity House, the body that governs lighthouses in England and Wales, ever built.
Even though there were plenty of distractions on the beach – centuries of bric-a-brac from fishing, lobster creels, cast-off nets and tarry buckets strewn across our path – this treasure was of no interest to me. What held my gaze were the two majestic towers above me, mighty, solid and altogether fascinating. The American realist artist, Edward Hopper, who painted the lighthouses of Maine, saw them as symbols of a refusal to submit to change or nature. Battered by waves, balanced on precipices and powerful enough to light up the dark. And for me, they also represented a sense of safety, reliability and solidity.
On some trips, when the weather allowed, Dad would go night fishing with long lines, setting up his fishing paraphernalia, his flask and his lamp on the shingle at dusk. But I had no interest in fishing. What I wanted more than anything was to meet the lighthouse keeper arriving just before nightfall, with his large bunch of keys that would unlock the heavy, arched wooden doors, ready for his night’s work. I had a vivid picture of him in my mind. He was immaculately dressed in a smart uniform, comprising shirt and tie, a formal blazer with brass buttons, or perhaps a jacket with gold trim that signified his rank. And definitely a cap. With hindsight he must have looked a lot like Captain Birdseye. But to me, he was a figure of authority and importance. However he never did arrive, a fact that mystified me, as come what may, the light would unfailingly start to flash as dusk approached.
That’s when my obsession with lighthouses began. My parents noticed, and presented me with a copy of Lighthouses of England & Wales by Derrick Jackson, a book that became my favourite companion for many years. I learned how they were built, when they were built, and that every lighthouse has it’s own distinctive light and flashing pattern. Some had white lights, others red; some flashed continually from one point, others rotated. But no two lighthouses on the same stretch of coast shared the same pattern, ensuring that they could be identified clearly, and never mistaken for other lights.
I suppose I could have become just as obsessed with steam engines, toy cars, football, sticker albums, or any other pastime that tended to attract boys of my age. But there was something about lighthouses that I fell in love with. Something about where they are built – in isolation, often at the top (and edge) of a cliff, and yet they appear to be safe and secure, a beacon for the vulnerable. They conjure up romantic notions of bygone eras, of a Golden Age. They are symbols of solidity and trust.
And then my dream was formed. When I was ten or eleven, and was enjoying some independence with the help of my bicycle, I formulated a plan for an adventure. I would take off on my bike one day, and cycle from lighthouse to lighthouse, ticking off each one that I’d read about obsessively in my book. I recently discovered five rusty-stapled pieces of paper in the back of a filing cabinet that outlined my proposed journey, how far I would cycle each day, which lights I would see and where I might stay.
Like many dreams or ambitions formed in childhood, I never made that journey. But nor did I forget about it, and it was always a trip that I planned to make as soon as I was old enough, could afford to do it, when I had the time, if I was allowed the time off work, once the kids were older … you get the idea. Nevertheless, lighthouses remained a constant feature of my life. I remember every family holiday not by the cottages we rented, or the food we ate, but by the lighthouses that were nearby. So summers in the West Country meant Start Point, The Lizard or Tater Du on the south coast, and Hartland Point, Lynmouth Foreland or Trevose Head on the north coast. The August weather had been so poor over the summers of 1974 and 1975 that my parents decided that we should holiday inland in 1976. So we rented a cottage in Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales and promptly sweated out the hottest, driest fortnight for a hundred years. My mum assumed that my quietness during that holiday was because I was missing the beach and a bucket and spade. But I knew it was because there wasn’t a single lighthouse within forty miles.
The summer holidays that followed Kettlewell were almost perfect for me. My aunt had bought a small cottage in Llanmadoc, on the Gower Peninsular, and we stayed there for three consecutive summers. From the cottage, I could walk to the ruined, wrought-iron lighthouse at Whiteford Point, and rainy days meant Swansea Market followed by a glimpse of the lighthouse at Mumbles.
It wasn’t only holidays that kept the lighthouse fandom aflame. By the time I left school I had no plans at all for the future and so I chose to go to university because it seemed as good an idea as any. I’m sure I justified my choice of university, Southampton, with reference to the huge investment it was making to its main campus, to its unparalleled student facilities and to its introduction of flexible, modular degree courses. But who was I kidding? I chose Southampton because it was on a stretch of coast I didn’t know particularly well, and which boasted at least ten lighthouses if you included the Isle of Wight.