To the Lighthouse (with the Lighthouse Keeper)

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.

Association of Lighthouse Keepers.

Association of Lighthouse Keepers.

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 stayed here, Anglesey Outdoor Centre.

We stayed here, Anglesey Outdoor Centre.

Idyllically situated by beautiful Porth Dafarch beach, Sarah was soon painting. To the lighthouse02 More art to come in Sarah’s soon coming ‘Wildflowers of Anglesey’ post.

'The sun shone all day, the sea sparkled golden and blue.'

‘The sun shone all day, the sea sparkled golden and blue.’

And off in the distance Snowdonia hovered in a heat haze.

‘I think heaven looks like this.’ Off in the distance Snowdonia hovering in a heat haze.

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.

The South Stack Lighthouse.

The South Stack 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.

First of all it’s down the 400 or so steps carved out of the rock face to get to the bridge across to Ynys Lawd, the tiny island where the Lighthouse is.To the lighthouse06 To the lighthouse07

Those bridge chains up close.

Those bridge chains up close.

DSC06490

We cross the bridge to Ynys Lawd.

We cross the bridge to Ynys Lawd.

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.

The winding platform used to pull up supplies from boats.

The winding platform used to pull up supplies from boats.

Ancient steps down to the boats, no longer in use.

Ancient steps down to the boats, no longer in use.

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.To the lighthouse10 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.

Including the uniform of Gordon Medlicott, one of the later lighthouse keepers to work at South Stack before it was mechanised in 1984.

Including the uniform of Gordon Medlicott, one of the later lighthouse keepers to work at South Stack before it was mechanised in 1984.

And here, Gordon Medlicott himself.

And here, Gordon Medlicott himself. Lighthouse keeper and brave man.

And yes, the light, that’s where we want to go.

Up there.

Up there.

Past the built in curved cupboards.

Past the built in curved cupboards.

To the light.

To the light.

The wonders of its mechanism are explained to us. The light held steady, in a lighthouse designed to move in the wind, on a bed of mercury.To the lighthouse16

A sense of wonder, the only adequate response to such skill.

A sense of wonder, the only adequate response to such skill and ingenuity.

And of course we want to go out there next.

And of course we want to go out there next.

Using this lovely hand-shaped handle.

Using this lovely hand-shaped handle.

But sadly, no.

But sadly, no.

So gaze around at all points.

So we gaze around at all points.

To the lighthouse22

Here seeing the cliff steps we'll have to walk back up before too long.

Here seeing the zig-zagging cliff steps we’ll have to walk back up before too long.

Back to ground level.

Back to ground level.

And a bit more history.

To the lighthouse25

Early twentieth century porter services down the steps from Tommy the Donkey.

Classic illustrations of birds around here by CF Tunnicliffe.

Classic illustrations of birds around here by C.F. Tunnicliffe.

Where the lighthouse-keepers lived.

Where the lighthouse-keepers lived.

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.

They would grow some of their own food in the walled plots now colonised by gulls.

They would grow some of their own food here in the walled plots now colonised by gulls.

Talking of which, any small fluffy baby gulls to show you?To the lighthouse29 To the lighthouse30We were the last to leave, other than the 3 staff looking after all the visitors. And we left reluctantly. This is a wonderful place.

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.
Best wishes
Gordon Medlicott”

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:

Keeping Lighthouse Heritage Alive.

Keeping Lighthouse Heritage Alive.

“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.
Best wishes

Gordon Medlicott
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.

See our other Anglesey posts from this visit:
Heaven in a wildflower and Half-life?

11 thoughts on “To the Lighthouse (with the Lighthouse Keeper)

  1. stan cotter

    Oh Ronnie, How do you find these things? That lighthouse keeper’s hat looked a big for him though!

    Reply
  2. Stephen Roberts

    Superb. I would like to have joined the sea-kayakers you can see going past the lighthouse in the 7th picture down. When I first went there, it felt like a different world – it seemed to take so long to get there and yet the information board told me that it is only about 75 miles from Liverpool – yet another important landmark for the hundreds of thousands of ships which have sailed to the great port over the centuries.

    Reply
  3. lindsay53

    Glorious photos, Ronnie. Real sense of presence there. Those lovely walled in bits of garden! Still, the gulls appreciate them! I adored jeannette Winterson’s book ‘Lighthousekeeping’ too. Look forward to the wild flower posts!

    Reply
  4. cheethamlib

    Yes there is a fascination about lighthouses and how the keepers and their families managed for long periods of time in those remote,mostly windswept places. The mechanics of the great lights shining with polished brass are amazing. Spectacular photographs and I wish I had been there….

    Reply

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