In June 2013, Sarah and I went to stay for a few days in one of our favourite places on earth, Anglesey. In this first post about our visit we manage to get into a place we have long admired, the South Stack Lighthouse. The post, as you will see, features a man called Gordon Medlicott, amongst the last of the Lighthouse Keepers here before all of the UK’s lighthouses were automated up to 1998.
In fact all lighthouses have fascinated us both for years. On our travels up and down the west coast of Britain we have always made detours to go and look at them. And I remember once when we were in Cornwall going specially to Penzance to visit the National Lighthouse Museum, only to find it had recently been closed down.
Imagine my delight then, when one Sunday in March 2014, I received an email from Gordon Medlicott, the Lighthouse Keeper featured here, saying how much he’d enjoyed the post. With Gordon’s agreement some of his words are now included at the end of the piece. After all, it’s not every day you hear from a Lighthouse Keeper!
Here in Liverpool on a grey, partly rainy Tuesday our blue, sunny weekend on Anglesey seems a world away already. But full of photographs, memories and opinions, we have lots to say about what we found, and will both be doing so in a few linked posts this week.
We spent most of our time on Ynys Gybi, the smaller island off the tip of Anglesey, and the majority of our time there exploring the heathlands and cliffs leading up to South Stack. And there’ll be much about that on Sarah’s Wildflower post. For now we’re going to visit one particular feature of South Stack, its lighthouse.
We’ve looked at the Lighthouse several times before, coming to South Stack to see its huge colonies of nesting birds, particularly guillemots and puffins. But the Lighthouse has never been open for us to go in. This time it is and Sarah persuades me to go and have a look. Persuades me? Yes, it’s so visually perfect I was reluctant to have it spoiled by any kind of ‘Visitor Centre’ blanding out experience. I needn’t have worried as it turned out.
There’s a good history of the Lighthouse at this link, so I won’t re-tell it all here. But as we walk on to the island we’re walking into a miracle of engineering from over 200 years ago. Built by hand in seven months.
And I’m no geologist but I can tell there’s something very special going on here in these folds of 500 to 700 million year old rocks. But now – To the Lighthouse. I love lighthouses. I’ve gazed at them and read about them for years. But their doors are mostly closed now, their lights operated remotely, rather than by small teams of doughty lighthouse-keepers. So I’m about to enter the first lighthouse of my life. And there is a bit of a visitor display, but it’s quietly done.
And yes, the light, that’s where we want to go.
And a bit more history.
Their families too, when families lived here and babies were born on the island. But from 1935 that was stopped and the keepers worked one month on the island and one month off, with their families.
So we arrive at March 2013 and Gordon Medlicott, the featured South Stack Lighthouse Keeper writes to us.
“Only just come across your site.Many thanks for the pictures of South Stack lighthouse, very nostalgic. Brought back many memories of my time there, especially with the link to the Post article covering the rescue. I am hoping to revisit there later this year.
Obviously I write straight back. It’s impossible to visit a lighthouse without trying to imagine what it was like to live and work in one:
“Delighted to hear from you and glad you enjoyed our blog post. Though it was from nearly a year ago I recognised your name as soon as I saw it in the in-box. First email I’ve ever had from a Lighthouse Keeper as you’ll probably appreciate. I’d love to include your note on the post if that would be ok? I’m sure it was no picnic working there. Unlike for us sauntering down the steps on a perfect spring afternoon.
South Stack has been a favourite place of our’s for several years, walking around up there, taking our binoculars to see the puffins. So I hope you do manage to get there this year.”
And Gordon replies the next morning, taking us further into the world of Lighthouse Keeping:
“Pleased to hear you were surprised to hear from me. I don’t normally respond to web orientated sites, but South Stack has always been a special place for myself and my family.
The working environment there was always calm (apart from the odd rescue!) and relaxed, and although weekdays in summer could be busy with tourists, I always enjoyed them. Sundays would see the bridge gate locked, so we got the island to ourselves and could sit and read the papers from cover to cover.
Each day, one or other of the keepers would go up those steps to fetch milk and papers which we had delivered to one of the local farms, so whoever felt the fittest, or decided he needed the exercise, was nominated!
That was long time ago, and I went on to do a lot more years in the service, being one of the last men to leave it after completion of the automation programme in 1998, however, I am still very much involved with lighthouses to this day through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers.
By all means use my comments on the post.
Trustee & northwest representative
Association of Lighthouse Keepers“
So this morning all thoughts of work have been put to one side as I’ve pored over the website of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers. Places to visit, lighthouses you can go and stay in, dreams still to be dreamed. Refilled with that same sense of wonder you can see on my face up there at the top of the South Stack Lighthouse. Thank you so much for getting in touch Gordon.
Favourite books about lighthouses? (Though I now have a much more comprehensive list from ALK)
‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’ by Bella Bathurst. ‘Between 1790 and 1940, eight members of Robert Louis Stevenson’s family planned, designed and constructed the 97 manned lighthouses which still speckle the Scottish coast, working in conditions and places which would be daunting even for modern engineers.’
‘Stargazing’ by Peter Hill. A wonderful book, telling the story of a young man who becomes one of the final generation of lighthouse keepers. ‘An enlightening book for anyone who ever dreamed that living in a lighthouse might offer them a quiet place in which to read, write, paint, meditate or do anything which requires peace and isolation.’
‘Lighthousekeeping’ by Jeanette Winterson. Her novel about growing up in a lighthouse constructed in 1828, just after South Stack. ‘There were two Atlantics; one outside the lighthouse, and one inside me. The one inside me had no string of guiding lights.’
And of course ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf.