Norfolk’s lighthouses: History of our last lighthouse keepers

PUBLISHED: 13:58 04 August 2020

Cromer lighthouse keeper, Graham Fearn (photo: Paul Hewitt)

Cromer lighthouse keeper, Graham Fearn (photo: Paul Hewitt)

Archant

Thirty years ago this year the last keepr of Cromer lighthouse left the tower for the final time. Sebastian Oake looks at the history of Norfolks coastal guardians

Lighthouses are undoubtedly places to look up to. They are symbols of strength, longevity and reassurance in an uncertain and changing world. They are equally places of intrigue that appeal to the sense of the romantic within, with the job of lighthouse keeper elevated to the stuff of legend.

The lighthouse authority Trinity House operates more than 60 lighthouses around the coast of England and Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar in a wide range of settings. Southwold Lighthouse in Suffolk may sit quietly amongst the houses of the town but some, such as Bishop Rock beyond the Scilly Isles, are truly wild places, balanced on almost impossibly tiny rocks with the sea pounding on all sides and the wind howling overhead. Life at these tower rocks must have been breath-taking.

To the disappointment of small boys and children’s story writers everywhere, though, there are no lighthouse keepers in Britain anymore, the job having slipped beneath the waves into maritime history. All Trinity House’s lights are now operated remotely from its base at Harwich.

Cromer lighthouse (photo: Patrick Tubby)Cromer lighthouse (photo: Patrick Tubby)

This year marks 30 years since the automation of Cromer Lighthouse in Norfolk and the departure of the final keepers there. They were Graham and Audrey Fearn. Graham was a career keeper, clocking up almost 45 years by the time he retired and receiving the British Empire Medal in recognition. He was transferred to Cromer in 1982 and overall worked at more than 15 lighthouses.

He enjoyed his time at Cromer, always maintaining he lived in the most desirable residence in the town. Needless to say, it had wonderful views. Graham was something of a raconteur and also perhaps a survivor from days less troubled by detail. “I only got rudimentary training,” he admitted after retiring. “I never got all the certificates I should have had – I left after all those years essentially untrained.”

Graham’s anecdotes ranged over his many years and places of work. They included the story of the keeper at an off-shore lighthouse who kept a long line of empty tins of evaporated milk in the lighthouse larder, all carefully soldered up to make them airtight. On the final day of his month’s shift, he would stuff as many as he could into his coat pockets before boarding the relief boat, judging they would keep him afloat if the boat sank. He did not trust life-jackets.

Bishop Rock lighthouse (photo: Trinity House)Bishop Rock lighthouse (photo: Trinity House)

Then there was the one about the young keeper who ran out of tobacco and for a whole month had to smoke tea leaves, painstakingly dried after performing their main function in the teapot. His tea consumption rose alarmingly as he struggled to supply his needs.

Graham was, however, dismissive of children’s adventure writers. “All the stories you read in books where the keeper out at a sea tower sees the cup and saucer sliding up and down the table in a storm – that’s all rubbish. When I was at Bishop Rock, we tested this out. We worked out the tower would have to be at 45 degrees – half way over – to make the cup slide!”

During the time he was stationed at Cromer, Graham became a founding member of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK), set up to keep the spirit of lighthouse life alive at a time when keepers were disappearing rapidly. One person who remembers Graham well is Patrick Tubby, who manages a boatyard on the Broads and is active in the ALK.

Graham Fearn getting winched on to Bishop rock (photo: Graham Fearn Collection)Graham Fearn getting winched on to Bishop rock (photo: Graham Fearn Collection)

After Graham retired, Patrick and his wife, Joy, used to visit him for a quick cup of tea at his new house in Cromer. “Graham was always happy to share his lighthouse memories – often these visits would see us leave as much as six and a half hours later! I always thought that being a lighthouse keeper, you had to be a little bit of a special character. Not everyone could take the lifestyle. Graham, though, thrived!”

In truth, Graham and Patrick had much to chat about because Patrick was involved in saving a nearby lighthouse from being shut in the late 1980s. In 1988, Happisburgh Lighthouse was earmarked for closure by Trinity House but the local villagers revolted and after a concerted campaign they gained the right to run the lighthouse themselves. This year is the 30th anniversary of it becoming the only independently operated working lighthouse in the UK.

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Originally established in 1791, Happisburgh Lighthouse guided shipping past the treacherous offshore sandbanks and the villagers felt it still had a role to play. “We were looking to preserve it for the benefit of local fishermen and yachtsmen who didn’t have the electronic navigation aids that were coming out at the time,” says Patrick, who is now Chair of the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust. “We wanted to keep it as a primary navigational light.

Happisburgh Lighthouse (photo: Patrick Tubby)Happisburgh Lighthouse (photo: Patrick Tubby)

“In any case, this is the archetypal lighthouse. If you asked a child to draw a picture of a lighthouse, they would come up with something that looks like Happisburgh.” It certainly is true that this lighthouse is a tall tower on the edge of a cliff and painted with classic red and white bands.

“Cromer Lighthouse, on the other hand, is much more anonymous. It’s painted all-white and is not overly conspicuous from within the town.”

Inside the tower, Happisburgh is also impressive and perhaps more worthy of the spotlight than its relative. It is a largely hollow structure with a spiral staircase round the inside of the wall. As you climb the loose spiral, you do two full ‘laps’ of the lighthouse before arriving in the service room with the lamp control unit. Above is the lantern, a magnificent 150-year-old Victorian optic that Patrick refers to as “the jewel in our crown”.

Happisburgh lighthouse under the Milky Way (photo: Nathan Jermy)Happisburgh lighthouse under the Milky Way (photo: Nathan Jermy)

Cromer and Happisburgh are the last remaining full working lighthouses in Norfolk. The former lights at Hunstanton and Winterton were decommissioned as long ago as 1921.

In truth, traditional aids to navigation – including lighthouses, lightships and buoys – have become less important as mariners have increasingly turned to satellite-based navigation systems. Trinity House itself offers the Differential Global Positioning System, based on GPS funnelled through a series of ground-based reference stations. It provides precision correct to 5 metres and covers up to 50 miles out from the coast.

Accurate navigation will become ever more important. It all points to a very different world to the one the humble lighthouse was built to serve.

Patrick Tubby at Happisburgh Lighthouse (photo: courtesy Patrick Tubby)Patrick Tubby at Happisburgh Lighthouse (photo: courtesy Patrick Tubby)

So can there still be a role for lighthouses into the future? Trinity House says there is.

All satellite-based systems are susceptible to disruption or interference, while GPS and similar systems operate from outside the UK. Over-dependence on what could be vulnerable systems is a concern.

Trinity House says visual aids to navigation will continue to be essential both as principal aids used by traditional navigators and as a resilient complement to electronic aids.

That will be a relief not only to many at sea but also to dry-land mariners who see lighthouses as icons of our island. Happily, they seem set to shine on.

Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to the memory of Graham Fearn, who died two years ago aged 93. Happisburgh Lighthouse is regularly open to visitors, current restrictions permitting. Visit happisburgh.org.uk. To join the Association of Lighthouse Keepers – you do not have to have been a lighthouse keeper – visit alk.org.uk

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