Come up and see me some time…
PUBLISHED: 10:00 26 September 2016
Jan Etherington sees the light and goes for the top job
Every morning, as I walk down to the beach for a swim, I look across Southwold harbour and see the beam of the lighthouse, breaking through the early morning light. And I think, ‘that’s my office!’
All right, it’s not exactly a conventional workplace. There’s no salary, definitely no lift – but there’s no doubt I’ve got the top job, since I became a Volunteer Tour Guide for Southwold Lighthouse.
I’ve always loved lighthouses. There’s something magical about them, like guardian angels, in bright, white robes, spreading their guiding lights, out to those at sea.
So last year, when I saw an advert for Volunteer Tour Guides, there were two reasons why I applied. The first was that it was an opportunity unlikely to be available in many places in the world.
The second was that I thought I should try it while I could still make it up the stairs. There are 113 of them, curling up to the lamp room, in a very graceful, wide, spiral staircase. Walking up them is a fairly intensive workout, so I always head up the stairs at least five minutes ahead of the visitors, then I can get my breath back before I have to talk. Once or twice, sprightly youngsters have legged it up behind me, at a faster pace than expected and caught me leaning against the wall, glugging water and gasping for air.
Lighthouses in England and Wales are owned by Trinity House, a charity created in Henry VIII’s time to protect those at sea. They set safety rules – children have to be 1.1 metre tall and absolutely no flip flops allowed – which are, generally accepted good-naturedly by visitors.
With the arrival of satellite navigation, the lights have gone out for many around the coast, including Orford Ness. Southwold was ‘under review’ in 2005, but it was finally decided to keep it as ‘GPS systems can be unreliable’, as anyone with a car satnav can confirm. My feeling is they should stay because of the reassurance they give those at sea – the sheer physical presence of these sturdy monoliths, lights sweeping the horizon, telling sailors exactly where they are in relation to the coast. But how do they know they’re at Southwold?
Ah, I’m glad you asked me that. I’ve done my homework. It’s because each lighthouse has a unique ‘characteristic’ – the timing of the flash. Southwold’s is FLW10s which means it Flashes White every 10 seconds. Lowestoft is every 15 seconds. I’ve learned a lot about lighthouses in the last few months.
I’m good at remembering the fun facts – the lighthouse cost £6,700 to build in 1890 and the first brick was laid by the then mayor, the gloriously named Eustace Gubb. Also, Southwold Lighthouse is the home of Mr Mentor the Inventor in the CBeebies TV series Grandpa in My Pocket. There was once a lighthouse window cleaner, until his wife, walking past, saw him 102 feet up, hanging off the side of the lamp room, and refused to let him do it again.
But some things I have yet to master, like the complex history of the lighting – the prisms, the LEDs, the wattage. After once waffling on, in front of an electrical engineer, who looked at me quizzically and said ‘Really?’ a few times, I have learned to say ‘I don’t know the answer, but I know a man who does’, and refer to one of my fellow guides, who’s good on light bulbs.
Also, there’s no doubt that the cash till is out to get me. Like Arkwright’s cash register in the TV comedy, Open All Hours, I have to approach it warily, but still it shoots open, at speed, hitting me in the chest and causing me to yelp ‘Oooff!’ at surprised visitors.
I’m determined to conquer both the till and the technology by the start of next season. The lighthouse closes at the end of October until spring and there are two things I will miss. The first is my fellow guides – all volunteers – who have welcomed and helped me with practical advice and wonderful humour.
The second is the look on the faces of visitors who arrive at the top, panting and exhausted, and then take a look out of the windows. There’s always a ‘Wow!’ and then, as they gaze along the panorama of our stunning coast, there comes a huge smile, which gets wider. I call it ‘the lighthouse beam’
Southwold Lighthouse is open until October 31, check for times www.trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouse-visitor-centres