To the Lighthouse: A Beacon of Both Past and Present on the Isles of Scilly

To the Lighthouse: A Beacon of Both Past and Present on the Isles of Scilly

Writer Anna Richards treads in her father’s footsteps as she explores the legacy of lighthouses on this archipelago just off the Cornish coast.

This article first appears in Vol. 34:

below, Bishop Rock Lighthouse looks like a brutalist
fairy-tale tower. Think pinprick windows, granite walls the same
colour as the churning sea below, a front door that must have once
been a vivid green, now a seasick grey. I imagine we must be the
same colour as our boat rolls wildly in the fierce easterly

What was once the smallest inhabited island in the world now
stands empty for most of the year. It has been this way since 1992,
when Bishop Rock became automated through the Trinity House
automation programme.

“It was like going down a tunnel that got narrower and
narrower,” former keeper Dave Appleby tells me. He was one of six
keepers to work on the last manned lighthouse, North Foreland
Lighthouse in Kent. “The lighthouses became automated one by one.
When Trinity House organised a ceremony in November 1998 to
celebrate the automation of the last manned lighthouse, it was 32
years to the day since I’d become a keeper.”

Lighthouses have worked their way into popular culture and
captured the imaginations of countless artists. My father used to
read me Ronda and David Armotage’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch at
bedtime, a story about a keeper who lives on a lighthouse with just
his pet cat for company. Day after day, his wife packs his lunch to
send on a pulley, and each day his lunch is stolen by seagulls.
Like most children, I was woefully ignorant of Dad’s life before I
was born. I didn’t realise that the book had bearings on his own
life. As a Younger Brother [a member of the maritime fraternity] of
Trinity House, he was a guest onboard the vessel that took an
annual six-week tour of the UK’s lighthouses. Unlike in The
Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, the towers were home to three keepers at
a time: a Principal Keeper, an Assistant Keeper and a
Supernumerary. I doubt any of them took their cat.

Our boat launched from St Agnes, the southernmost inhabited isle
of the Scillies, and home to Bishop Rock’s predecessor. The
island’s 17th-century lighthouse was the first to be built on
Scilly, whose treacherous waters had already claimed dozens of
ships. For the last century the lighthouse has been a private
residence. It’s homely looking, its hedges exploding with
agapanthus. We’d enjoyed a pint at the sole pub on St Agnes, The
Turk’s Head, the beer garden bathed in sunlight and the sea flat
and iridescent. Bishop Rock, in contrast, seemed to sit under a
storm cloud.

The legacy of the Scillonian lighthouses is everywhere. In Hugh
Town, the thimble-sized capital of the islands, tourists wearing
bucket hats and Breton stripes shoulder tote bags painted with
gaudy cartoon lighthouses. Pop-up stalls outside farms sell
greeting cards decorated with lithographs of lighthouses. Locals
quaff pints at the Bishop & Wolf, named after Bishop Rock and
Wolf Rock, between Land’s End and the Scillies. The stretch of
water between these rocks is a well-beaten path for Penzance
Helicopters, who had taken to the skies and flown us over that

On terra firma, visitors hire bikes to circumnavigate Tresco,
sipping cocktails at the Ruin Beach Café and marvelling at the
Abbey Gardens, kaleidoscopic with light and colour like a
stained-glass window. Locals catch shrimp in Hugh Town harbour. By
late autumn, only hardy locals and a handful of artists who stay to
paint winter storms will be left. Rewind 30 years, and there would
have also been the lighthouse keepers.

Bill Arnold arrived for his first, month-long duty at Bishop
Rock during the Christmas of 1988. His arrival coincided with one
of the worst storms that he was to experience. “The first wave hit
the tower and it trembled,” he tells us. “As it was designed to do.
The second wave came in so suddenly and hit with such force that
the whole tower shook. We ran up to the light room. It was awash
with mercury [it was common practice for mercury baths to be used
to reduce friction in the light-rotating mechanism]. There wasn’t
anything to clean it up with – you don’t take much to a lighthouse.
We swept the stuff up with a dustpan and brush.”

Before offshore lighthouses had helipads, keepers, technicians
and brethren of Trinity House alike were winched from their boats
into the lighthouse.

“I remember climbing 40 rungs up the outside of a tower in the
middle of the Irish Sea. It could be pretty physical,” recalls
Captain Sir Malcolm Edge. As Deputy Master of Trinity House and an
Elder Brother, he could take a guest on the fraternity’s flagship,
the Patricia. Several times, he invited my father.

“We’d be in full Trinity House garb for the winching,”
reminisces Bill. “And it was the messiest part.”

“When you were on the tower, there was so little space that I
almost forgot how to walk in a straight line,” Dave says. “You walk
in corkscrews the whole time, up and down metal rungs. When I came
ashore my jeans would have holes above the ankles where they’d
caught on the rungs.”

It wasn’t just the stairs that were curved – the beds were, too.
Lighthouses weren’t built to provide home comforts: the ‘shower’
was a washing-up bowl. The night shift (midnight-4am), when only
one keeper was awake, was the best time to shower – a strip-wash
using a flannel, standing in the bowl. Storing food was another
problem. With no fridges, fresh food was in short supply.

“Vegetables could last up to 10 days. We’d store them on the
windowsill so that the salty air kept them fresh,” explains Bill.
“We ate lots of roast dinners. Whoever was on the morning shift
(4am-midday) would cook. It was always served with inch-thick onion
gravy and followed by plum duff [pudding].” For Dad and Malcolm,
life onboard the Patricia was rather more luxurious.

“We had stewards who laid out our clothes for dinner,” says
Malcolm. “We always got dressed for dinner, and had drinks each
evening.” At breakfast, the spread included 17 different types of

Pre-lockdown, lighthouse keepers already had creative ways of
dealing with boredom in confinement. “Lots of keepers made ships in
bottles,” Dave recalls. “One man made model lighthouses inside
light bulbs.”

“Another keeper made his own kites for fishing using old lantern
curtains and rocket sticks,” says Bill. “He’d attach a line to them
and I’d hear a tap-tap-tap on the window as I was cooking. I’d reel
in the line and fry them straight up for lunch. On the Channel
Islands, there was a bloke who caught so much crab and lobster that
it was all we ate for almost two weeks. I was sick of crab and
lobster.” Tucking into fresh seafood at the Hell Bay Hotel that
evening, our picturesque hotel on Bryher’s wild and rugged west
coast, I wonder how anyone could get sick of crab and lobster.

When the keepers came ashore, they were very sociable. “I’d go
straight to the pub,” grins Bill. “And we’d always have big
parties.” I imagine them both with pints in Scillonian pubs,
laughing and struggling to walk in a straight line on their first
day back ashore, unsure whether it was a consequence of the spiral
staircases of the lighthouse towers or too much beer.

The lighthouses remain a significant part of both men’s lives.
Dave maintains a lighthouse at the end of Tynemouth Pier, while
Bill rents out holiday cottages at Cornwall’s Pendeen Lighthouse,
his final posting.

For the technicians who work on lighthouses today, working life
hasn’t changed much. Nick Chappell started working on lighthouses
in 1986, when many were still manned, and sometimes has to spend 21
consecutive days in situ. As with the keepers, there are three of
them onboard at any one time, a combination of technicians,
electricians and mechanics.

“It’s cold and damp when we arrive at an offshore lighthouse,”
says Nick. “In the old days, when the keepers were there, it would
be warm and inviting. The Aga would be going and they’d offer us
tea and biscuits upon arrival. Now the first thing we do is whack
on the heating, open the windows and clean off the mould that has
collected on surfaces.”

Round Island, which we see from the ruins of King Charles’s
Castle on northern Tresco, is Nick’s favourite to work at. There’s
space to walk around, unlike at Bishop Rock, just visible on the
horizon, which is as skinny as a toothpick.

“Occasionally, the weather is so bad that the helicopter can’t
get to you,” Nick tells me. “Once, in thick fog, we were stuck off
shore for 23 days instead of 21. We’d finished our work and packed
our belongings. Unrolling sleeping bags on our bunks again was a
horrible feeling.”

Confinement aside, life on a lighthouse has become more
comfortable. There are showers and flush loos. There’s a TV and DVD
player. I wonder if, in years to come, parents will read The
Lighthouse Technicians’ Lobster TV Dinner to their children with
the same misty-eyed nostalgia that my father had.

This story is dedicated to Anna’s father.

The Lowdown

A return helicopter flight from Land’s End to St Mary’s with
costs from £259pp, and boats with St Agnes Boating run regularly
to Bishop Rock. A night at the Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher costs
from £145pp in shoulder season.

To plan your trip to the Isles of Scilly head to

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A Pocket Guide to the Isles of Scilly