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Thursday, November 26, 1998 Published at 15:23 GMT


Lights out for the last keepers

Dermot Cronin: "I had no idea I would be closing the door of the last manned lighthouse"

The Duke of Edinburgh has presided over the closure of the UK's last manned lighthouse. The BBC's Dominic Hughes sheds light on a tradition dating back 400 years.

The forward march of technology means that the keepers at North Foreland Lighthouse in Kent are the last of their kind.

Watch Dominic Hughes report from North Foreland
For hundreds of years, the lighthouse at North Foreland in Kent, has both warned and welcomed mariners. For those who lived their lives on the sea, its presence has been a constant. Whatever the conditions, there has always been someone looking out for them.

[ image: North Foreland's light will keep up its signal]
North Foreland's light will keep up its signal
Lighthouse keeper, Dermot Cronin remembers starting the job 33 years ago. "I had no idea I would be closing the door of the last manned lighthouse in the British Isles," he said.

"To me a lighthouse was meant to be lived in. It was part of working life. And ships passing, day or night, knew there was somebody there, looking at them."

It is a poignant moment for Dermot that marks the end of a long career.

"I think its going to be harder first of all on my wife, having to get used to me being home for 365 days of the year. That'll be on both our parts I suppose. But yes, fitting into a job on the shore - that will be the difficulty, because here we have a watch keeping system.

"At night time you are your own boss, you can do whatever you like and you have your freedom. It can be lonely at times but that's part of lighthouse keeping".

[ image: Lighthouses have been around since Roman times]
Lighthouses have been around since Roman times
The lighthouse at North Foreland has witnessed the departure of armies and adventurers, the arrival of countless trading vessels and more than one shipwreck from sailors who failed to heed its warning.

With automation, the regular human activity that gives the building its soul will cease. North Foreland's light will keep up its signal - five times every 20 seconds - only now a computerised system will monitor it from 200 miles away.

But retired teacher and local historian Dr Alan Kay, a keen student of the life and times of the North Foreland, says its important to look to the future:

"From a historical point of view I feel sad. But for someone of my age I think one has to look forward to the 21st century, and to look forward to advances and not always look back to the historic past, wonderful though that may have been."

The automation programme, started in the early 1980s, is now at an end. Its completion means the job of watching over British shores passes to a new age.

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