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The Flat Cap on ... Lighthouses

Today The Flat Cap has been finding all about lighthouses, and whose idea they were in the first place.

Being a lighthouse keeper can be a lonely job. Because of their remoteness there’s usually no Wi-Fi, no mobile phone coverage, and it’s hard to get a decent television signal. Furthermore you can’t just nip out for a bag of crisps or a kebab if you get peckish. Also pizza outlets usually charge extra to deliver, and by the time they have negotiated remote coastal roads and rough seas your meat feast with extra cheese has probably gone cold anyway. Lighthouse keepers have to work mainly night shifts as that is when the light is on to tell ships to avoid rocks, and reefs and anything else that they might bump into. As anyone who has worked nights will tell you there’s not a lot on television during the night except shopping channels and roulette games, both of which drive you insane and cost you loads of money. Being limited for space means you haven’t got much room for exercise bikes, kitchen appliances, and home gyms anyway. Plus there’s nobody to show off your purchases to for weeks on end. The good news is you get plenty of exercise from walking up and downstairs a lot. As well as being physically fit lighthouse keepers also have to be good at weather forecasting and be able to use a radio. If you’re good at languages well that’s a bonus, as ships from all over the world will get in touch so you have to learn the phrase for “Watch out for the rocks / reef” in several different languages as well as giving directions to the harbour.

The Flat Cap on Light Houses

The first definite and documented lighthouse in the world was the Pharos of Alexandria, built in about 200 BC, whilst the oldest lighthouse in the UK was built by the Romans and still stands in the grounds of Dover Castle. In those days there was no internet so the lighthouse keepers would amuse themselves by reading a lot and practising the Latin or Greek for “mind the rocks” and “the harbour is that way”. Days were filled with making feather dusters from seabirds that they were able to shoot down with catapults. There were no vacuum cleaners so the dusters were the only way of keeping the lighthouse and its beacon free from dirt and grime. Apart from seagulls and fish the diet of a lighthouse keeper wasn’t that varied. Some did attempt to grow vegetables and herbs in window boxes but the practice wasn’t very successful as the boxes, and their contents, tended to blow away in bad weather.

The British musical duo The Lighthouse Family actually first met on a school trip to the Tynemouth lighthouse in Northumbria. They became keen lighthouse enthusiasts and would spend their holidays taking photographs of lighthouses. A lot of their best songs featured nautical themes and oblique references to lighthouses and the types of weather that you would tend to witness if you were cooped up in a lighthouse for a long time. So we had “Ocean Drive” which, as well as the sea related title, mentions the weather a fair bit (sun, clouds, the colour of the sky), “Raincloud” (rainclouds, tides, birds), “High” because lighthouses tend to be fairly high structures and “Lifted” (April showers, rain, clouds, and undisturbable peace). There’s a lot of undisturbable peace in a lighthouse; especially when you don’t have the everyday distractions of television and the internet, waiting for buses, or have to wonder what to buy for your tea.

The Flat Cap spoke to George who was renting a lighthouse in Scotland for his annual holiday and discovered the following interesting facts:

  • On one occasion, lighthouse keepers were forced to eat candles to survive when they were marooned on a lighthouse in bad weather. The candles were not wax candles, like we use today, but made from oil-based material that was digestible

  • The average lighthouse keeper will go up and downstairs at least 31,300 times during his or her working life (but you can double this for those keepers who keep forgetting or misplacing things)

  • The most unlucky lighthouse builder was engineer Henry Winstanley, who thought he had built the world’s strongest lighthouse. He was so confident of his construction that he wished that he might be inside it during “the greatest storm there ever was”. In 1703 his wish came true but his lighthouse did not survive the storm and he was washed away to his death

  • Conventional furniture doesn’t fit that well in a lighthouse

  • Many early lighthouses weren’t really lighthouses at all but simply lamps held in high windows by monks and hermits. Sometimes they would stand on a box to increase their height. Later, coal fires were used on the top of open towers, but they made so much smoke that they were frequently invisible from the sea

  • Nowadays all new lighthouses must have en suite bathrooms to comply with EU building regulations

  • During World War One, men who were not fit enough to be soldiers were employed as temporary lighthouse keepers. However, one keeper had to be replaced. The reason was because his wooden leg kept falling off as he tried to climb the stairs

  • Lighthouse keepers tend to make excellent parents because they’re not constantly going on at their children to turn off lights around the home

  • Probably the oldest lighthouse keeper was ninety four year old Henry Hall, a keeper on the famous Eddystone lighthouse. He met a remarkable death on duty. The lighthouse caught fire and, while he tried to put out the fire, he swallowed nearly half a pound of molten lead and died from lead poisoning two weeks later

  • In 1895 a new species of wren was discovered unique to Stephen’s Island, New Zealand. The Stephen’s Island wren was identified only from dead specimens: the last had been killed by the lighthouse keeper’s cat

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