RETIRED LIGHTHOUSE ATTENDANT
Michael was about to start a career in the merchant navy when he saw a job advert. ‘Would you like to be a lighthouse keeper?’ it asked. Michael liked the sea and enjoyed the idea of giving service, but he wasn’t sure whether he’d cope with the isolation of the job. He took up his first post at the lighthouse on Orford Ness and, he says, the following 45 years flashed past. In 1991, after spells on some of the most remote, rockiest light stations around our shores, he became the attendant at Anvil Point in Swanage. He and his wife, Doris, lived at the lighthouse but loved that Swanage was so close. When at Whitby, in the northeast, by comparison, he had to cross three farms just to get to a metalled road.
Before lighthouses were automated, offshore attendants had to spend 8 weeks on and four weeks off. Everyone was taught how to cook and how to bake bread, he says. There was no such thing as a frozen meal back then. In his early days, Michael would move regularly from one lighthouse to another to relieve the permanent keepers. It helps build up experience because no two stations are the same, he says. Eventually, he was stationed for longer periods. Some, like Royal Sovereign off Eastbourne, were modern and comfortable; others, such as Eddystone, were tight for space, with a circuit of bunk beds, each curved to fit inside the tower. On the so-called ‘rock’ stations, there would be three attendants. You soon learn how to get on with other people in such isolation, he says. It’s not always rosy, and it’s strange, but you get used to it.
When Michael fully retired, he and Doris decided to stay in Swanage, because they liked it so much. Doris had her own job and was well-known in the town. Sadly, she passed away in 2004.
When I ask Michael about memories of his time looking out to sea, he recalls seeing pods of dolphins and porpoises and then tells me a Razorbill once bit him on the nose. Michael had been trying to rescue the bird; it was lying halfway down the cliff, its feathers clogged with oil. He held the razorbill out in front of him, as he climbed back up, but did not realise how far it could stretch its neck. A Razorbill is well named: it took a lump out of Michael’s nose. Despite this, Michael carried it to the top of the cliff, but the bird was unfortunately in too bad a state to survive. Michael was more than touched by the experience. It seems to be entirely in keeping with his kind and generous nature.