Up all hours with the lighthouse family

ORFORDNESS lighthouse isn't in the most convenient of places. Yes, there are more daunting locations - such as Bishop Rock, which takes the worst the Atlantic Ocean can throw at it - but it's not handily placed in town, like Lowestoft's.

ORFORDNESS lighthouse isn't in the most convenient of places. Yes, there are more daunting locations - such as Bishop Rock, which takes the worst the Atlantic Ocean can throw at it - but it's not handily placed in town, like Lowestoft's.

You have to be ferried across the River Ore and then, really, take a Land Rover to the tower - standing lonely at the end of the spit.

If you're required to go, you don't want it to prove a wild goose chase - particularly if it's the middle of the night . . .

Picture Keith Seaman and wife Marlene, their oldest son, a policewoman, a boatman and one or two other folk standing on Orford Quay at 2am one morning. The lighthouse intruder alarm has gone off and Keith, as attendant and official key-holder, has to check what's up.


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In the early hours, on the flat shingle and with the beam flashing every five seconds, it can be pretty eerie.

“You go over there and you're all psyched up because you think you're going to find something,” says Marlene. “It's still dark. You approach the station and you don't know what you're going to find. Everybody crept round the tower. And then it turns out to be . . . a mouse!”

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Keith's worked for Trinity House - the body responsible for the safety of shipping off England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar - for more than 15 years. His part-time, but crucial, role as attendant involves looking after a trio of lighthouses at Southwold, Orfordness and Lowestoft. With lighthouses unmanned and automated, though monitored 24/7 from Harwich, he's the eyes and ears on the spot.

It was written in the stars that Keith would be involved with lighthouses at some stage in his life: his grandfather was the last official occupant of Southwold lighthouse before it was automated just before the war. Harry Sibert was born at Spurn Head, on the mouth of the Humber, where his father kept the lighthouse.

Harry's daughter Nesta - Keith's mum - was born on the Scilly Isles in 1913. Her dad was stationed on Round Island, nearly 30 miles off Cornwall and the most northerly outpost of the Scillies. Luckily, his family was able to live in accommodation on the main island of St Mary's.

Harry was later posted to Longships, a precariously-sited lighthouse marking a trap of lethal rocks one mile west of Land's End.

Sadly, when Nesta was 14 and about to leave school, her mother died. “Grandfather moved to a lighthouse in Wales. She was the older of the two girls and went with her dad to look after him,” explains Keith. Her sister went to live with an aunt. “He went to South Stack” - separated from Holyhead Island by 30 metres of raging sea - “and she moved round with him. Everywhere he went, she went. He did all land stations thereafter, rather than rock stations, so his daughter could be with him.”

Did she enjoy the unusual lifestyle?

“I think so. That was the way life was. She was a very good pianist. She had her own upright piano, which went everywhere with her when they shifted station. When they went to South Stack there was a big hoist on the rock. They were hauling her piano off the tender and one of the slings slipped, the piano swung round and smacked it into the rock. It took a huge great chunk of wood out of the side of the keyboard. But it still worked!”

Harry's transfer to Southwold, in about 1934, was momentous, as there Nesta would meet her future husband, Keith's father.

“Granddad was the last keeper at Southwold when they automated it in 1937 and he hoped to retire from there, but he had to go to Lundy Island.” It's at the mouth of the Bristol Channel and is a mass of dark granite, surrounded by reefs of sharp rocks. “I think he went for six or seven months; that was all. It was a bit mean! Mum had the choice: she either went to Lundy with him or stayed here, so he went on his own.”

Keith's mum would often talk fondly of her early life. “She always used to get out what she called 'The Lighthouse Book', which was grandfather's postcard album.” Men who had served together would often keep in touch by sending each other postcards of lighthouses. Their style of writing, oddly stiff for people who had worked at close quarters in remote locations, contrasts with today's informality.

Keith has also got the order books - operational logs in which the superintendent would write observations during his inspections - for Southwold, Lowestoft and Orfordness. Some of the entries date from the 1800s, and offer a fascinating window on the life and priorities of a keeper.

With the thunder of war in the air, Keith's father joined the RAF; his mother worked in a munitions factory in Swindon. After the conflict, Keith's dad returned to his job as greenkeeper at Southwold Golf Club, while Nesta worked in the clubhouse.

Keith was born in Southwold and today lives on the edge of the town.

It's no surprise that his childhood holidays invariably featured a visit to a lighthouse.

“And that's carried through into our own life,” smiles Marlene, who during their 30-year marriage has been drawn into this fascinating world. “I thought I'd got him one year because we went on a Nile cruise. I thought 'No way will he find a lighthouse . . .' But up at Alexandria on the coast . . .” Alexandria's lighthouse, built on the island of Pharos in the 3rd Century BC and now but a memory, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

“You can find a lighthouse almost everywhere,” grins Keith.

They've even been known to book a holiday cottage alongside the lighthouse at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire . . .

Being keyholder for three lighthouses invariably means the family getting involved when the balloon goes up.

“Sometimes, if we've been out for the evening and Keith has had a few glasses of wine, it's been a case of 'Can you take me?'” explains Marlene. “And then you have to sit on the quay, because I don't relish going over there at that time of night, clambering on a boat.

“I can remember one night waiting for him to come back and having a tap on the window from the police, wondering what a woman's doing sitting on the quay at three o'clock in the morning!”

It wasn't until 1990 that Keith became directly involved with this age-old profession. A friend's father, the attendant at Southwold, asked Keith to help with some bits and pieces at the lighthouse - some heavy lifting and moving tasks, and winding clockwork machinery.

A month or so later, he announced he hoped to retire. Trinity House was de-manning its lightships at that time, so staff losing their jobs took priority when other vacancies appeared. A man from London became the attendant at Southwold, but things didn't work out, and Keith learned just before Christmas 1990 that the role was his.

Marlene smiles at the memory. “New Year's Eve we were going away and got a phone call saying there was a fault on the lighthouse. Friends knew Keith was due to take over on the first of January and we thought someone was pulling a fast one at our expense! But it was actually a bona fide fault.”

Unexpected hitches aside, the part-time job required the attendant to go to the lighthouse once a week, for two hours or so, and Keith usually fitted in his duties in the evening. In those early stages he was head of grounds and gardens at St Felix School, then worked as a greenkeeper at Halesworth golf course for 18 months before starting his own business in 1992.

Today he's a grounds maintenance contractor, employing one full-time worker and having a couple of self-employed associates he can call on if necessary. His firm does a lot of work for local authorities, and Keith is county bowls advisor on matters horticultural.

In 1994 he was asked if he'd be interested in becoming the attendant for Orfordness lighthouse, following the incumbent's retirement. Lowestoft followed in 1995.

Attendants like Keith are on 24-hour call, 52 weeks of the year. “We do virtually the same job as the keepers used to, but we don't live there. Obviously the technology has advanced, so you need to be a little bit of a computer expert; to know a little bit of electronics. The keepers were used to oil lamps and wicks and burners - they pumped oil and wound weights - but it's all gone now. In the modernised lighthouses, which my three are, it's all low-voltage batteries and printed circuit stuff.

“The duties are primarily to keep the station operating; to ensure it works as an automatic station should - that the lights change over as they should - and to basically keep the place clean and in a sound condition.”

They also need to be on hand should anything untoward happen that the control centre at Harwich can't remedy from a distance.

“It used to be an immediate response to what was called a 'casualty' - anything that goes wrong - but nowadays the situation is such that there are so many fail-safes that you have six hours,” explains Keith. “Gone are the times that the phone would ring in the early hours of the morning: 'Can you go now and sort out this problem?' The only thing you have to attend for straight away is a fire alarm or an intruder alarm.”

There is, then, still the potential for the job to play havoc with your life.

“Christmas Day . . .” confirms Marlene. “About to sit down for Christmas lunch, and my family had all come over from Norfolk. There were about 20 of us and the telephone rang. 'Could you go over straight away?'”

That was Orfordness, which involved asking the boatman to turn out. Blame an electrical problem caused by old wiring corroding in the salty atmosphere.

Despite the occasional inconvenience, it's clear Keith - and Marlene, come to that - enjoys his role and values the colour it adds to life. “It's part of my heritage. And they're good to work for,” he says of Trinity House. “We get to meet a lot of people.”

It's taken them to London for the filming of an episode of Carlton's Strange but True show, examining the theory that the Rendlesham UFO lights were flashes from Orfordness lighthouse. A clutch of TV companies have used the East Coast's scenic lighthouses for filming purposes, too.

Keith himself is no stranger to the camera, and has been recognised as a result. Usually the attention is pleasant - he once got free fish and chips from someone who had seen him on TV - but can prove unwelcome if someone takes an inappropriate shine to you.

Cue Marlene.

“We did have one lady who persistently phoned up and said could she have a look at the lighthouse keeper's lunchbox.” It's a twist on the name of a children's book that's unfortunately open to double entendre. “She was being very suggestive. I soon put her right!”

There have been quirky duties to assist with: armed police with night-vision equipment, investigating reports of a shotgun being fired in a Lowestoft park, once used the lighthouse as a watch-tower.

Mail addressed to “The Lighthouse Keeper, Southwold” often finds itself automatically redirected to the Seamans's home. It's commonly from children who have seen something on TV and have questions to ask.

An attendant is also something of a PR ambassador, too. Keith and Marlene have forged strong links with the United States Lighthouse Society - a body of enthusiasts who travel the world in pursuit of their hobby. American visitors have been to East Anglia to view our particular brand of navigational aid.

The Seaman family link with lighthouses looks like continuing for some time - all things being equal, and allowing for the system by which the attendant's role usually goes out to tender every three years.

If the job vanished, “it would leave a gap in our lives, because it opens the door to so many things,” agrees Marlene.

“We have three sons - Nic, Martin and James - whom we hope one day, if they have not been bored rigid in the meantime, might want to continue in their father's footsteps!”

So, would Keith have liked to have been a full-time keeper?

“Given a different life, probably yes. It's in your blood. My grandfather died when I was five, but I can remember him talking about his life, and Mother was always talking about her life.

“I think if Grandfather had been alive when I left school, I would have gone straight in. I think I would have.”

What would have appealed about it? Keith pauses, a grin spreading across his face. The silence is broken by a laugh from his good lady. “The solitude! As long as he could take with him the kit car he's building, he'd be all right!”

LIGHTHOUSES exert a magnetic pull and a tremendous sense of affection. Keith Seaman notes how local people are wont to call them “our lighthouse”, while wife Marlene suspects they owe their mystique to the fact few people have ever been inside.

The couple were the first to open Southwold lighthouse to visitors.

“The first weekend we did that, I think we were getting through a thousand people a day,” remembers Marlene. “They were queued out of the gate, around the corner and on to the green. It's an iconic part of Southwold and even most of the locals had never been inside.

“We were having to shut the gate and say 'Sorry, we've been down here 10 hours; we really need to go home!' Eventually a charity took over.” (Southwold Millennium Foundation, under licence from the Corporation of Trinity House.) “We do work with the National Trust and open Orfordness to the public one Sunday a year.”

Lowestoft is opened to the public once a month. They also organise private tours at Lowestoft - averaging about one a month or so.

Not every visitor has a head for heights. A man at Southwold once suffered a panic attack, for instance, and froze on the way down from the tower.

“I actually walked all the way down the stairs backwards, in front of him, keeping him looking at the wall,” says Keith. “He had one hand on the rail and I kept hold of his other hand, all the way down the stairs.”

The poor chap was physically sick when he reached terra firma.

“We've had several bail out. Sometimes they come down on their bottoms - slowly!”

Keith gives talks and slideshows to groups and organisations, and can be contacted on his mobile: 07767662645.

SO, what does the future hold for our local lighthouses?

A spokesman for Trinity House said: “There are no firm plans to switch off the lighthouses in the next few years. Trinity House identified Lowestoft, Orfordness and Southwold as perhaps playing less of an important role in navigation in the next few years because . . . of advances in technology.

“However before a decision to turn any of the lighthouses off is taken, the local users and harbour authorities will be consulted, and if there is found to be a level of dependency on the lighthouse it will remain on, although the consultation may find that we don't need to provide so far-reaching a light, so we can reduce its range.”

Trinity House, along with the other general lighthouse authorities for Scotland and Ireland, is funded by dues levied on all commercial users of ports around the UK and Ireland.

“Some mariners complain that the amount is too much (although in real terms the amount has reduced by 50% in 10 years) so we have regular reviews to ensure that we are providing the service required by commercial shipping whilst safeguarding the needs of the local mariner who may not have access to the technology available to larger organisations.”

Flashpoints

Southwold lighthouse

Established 1889

Height 31m

Automated 1938

Lowestoft lighthouse

Established 1609 (present tower 1874)

Height 16m

Automated 1975

Orfordness lighthouse

Established 1637

Height 30m

Automated 1965

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