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Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009
A lighthouse keeper looks back

Bill O'Brien
Bill O'Brien never found the life of a lighthouse keeper lonely

Bill O'Brien from Holyhead explains how he found his calling in his 34 years as a lighthouse keeper.

I was working in a solicitor's office in Ireland when one of my mates asked me to type out an application for a job as a lighthouse keeper. I had a look at it and thought, I wouldn't mind having a go at that myself. We were both called for interviews.

We went to the lighthouse school in London and spent two months having basic training; learning how to set the light and maintain it in the carpentry and metal workshops.

Then they sent us as trainees to various lighthouses round Britain. After 12 months you became an assistant keeper and joined a crew of three.

Trinity House ran the lighthouses from Cumberland to Milford Haven and Farnborough Point to the borders of Scotland. After we were promoted, we got appointed to a district and I got Holyhead.

If it was a tower lighthouse - a rock out to sea without any buildings attached - we lived in the tower itself. The bedroom was over the kitchen, beneath the engine room, and the bunks were curved with the walls. So if you were a tall chap, you had a bit of a problem! You had to lie diagonally across the bunk to get the full stretch.

On the island rocks or land stations, they did have buildings attached so the keepers had rooms to themselves.

I was on South Stack three or four times. It's where I met my wife. The principal keeper was entertaining some guests when we stepped outside to take their picture. These four girls suddenly came walking down the 400 or more steps to the lighthouse just as we were went outside. I got chatting to one of them, and we're still married 54 years later.

South Stack lighthouse
Keepers at South Stack lighthouse were never short of visitors

South Stack is a semi rock station because you do get access to the mainland. On a full rock station out to sea, you'd have to get in provisions for a month at a time, but at South Stack you could go into town every three days and meet up with people. You also get lots of visitors and schoolchildren. You definitely weren't lonely there.

The island rocks were much quieter. I spent five years on the Skerries and you only really had yachtsmen coming in to the sheltered lagoon there for a day or so, and sharing a cup of tea with us. But we were always quite comfortable there in the little houses, even in severe storms.

The Skerries, which consist of about five little islands, first had a lighthouse in 1715 and it was always my favourite. Just enough human contact to be happy without being inundated with visitors.

I was on Bardsey a couple of times, too. I liked it there. You could get away from it all; climb up the little mountain on your day off and, of course, there were the farmers on the island, too.

It was a strict routine that one of the keepers went to supper with farmer Wil Owen. I used to play draughts with his son, Ernest. He's still on the island and his son takes the boats over these days.

It was a hard place to get on and off, though, and we were delayed a few times. The longest I was ever delayed was a fortnight on Smalls lighthouse, 18 miles out to sea off Milford Haven. In the end, they changed from boats to helicopters to relieve us.

If you weren't interested in birds before you became a keeper, you got interested pretty quickly being so close to the guillemots and razorbills on places like Skokholm Island off Milford Haven.

The other keepers wouldn't have known what had happened to me - I would have just disappeared
Bill O'Brien

I've seen seals off the Skerries and once, on Wolf Rock just off Penzance, a group of maybe six dolphins had been coming by every day. Then one morning, we looked out and we were surrounded by hundreds of them. It was a fantastic sight.

You also quickly realise that you've got to treat the sea with immense respect. Once I was on Smalls Lighthouse and it was my turn to sleep, but it was a lovely, sunny afternoon so I took my lifejacket outside, put it under my head and lay down on the rocks.

I woke up with my hand in a pool of cold sea water. I could see this lump out to sea, moving slowly towards us.

I ran back up the dog steps to the lighthouse's outer door, just in time to see this lump of water hit the rocks where I'd been and wash right over them. Then the sea went back to being as flat and calm as it had been all afternoon. If I'd still been down there the other keepers wouldn't have known what had happened to me - I would have just disappeared.

Holiday homes

As the lighthouses got more automated, we learnt all about running them on computers. The technology was amazing, but it's not the same. There aren't any lighthouse keepers anymore. All the lighthouses are automatic and are run from Trinity House's depot in Harwich.

They rent out the houses as holiday homes and you can even take a holiday on the Trinity House yacht which goes round the UK doing buoy work and maintaining the lighthouse engines.

I read in a lifeboat magazine that many incidents out at sea were reported by lighthouse keepers, but there's no one out there now to do this.

I do miss it. It was a way of life and the type of job that if you didn't like it, you'd have to get out because it would drive you round the bend.

1809 lighthouse is burning bright
09 Feb 09 |  North west


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