Light goes out on maritime history

NINETY-FIVE steps spiral to the top of the lighthouse at North Foreland, but at 54, Dermot Cronin bounds up and down with the energy of a man half his age.

Mr Cronin is the principal keeper of the lighthouse near Broadstairs in Kent, but by the end of November he and his five-man crew will have been replaced by a computer.

Their departure marks the end of 2,000 years of maritime history. One by one, the lighthouse men have been replaced by automation - leaving North Foreland as the last manned lighthouse in the British Isles.

On 26 November, the flag will be lowered for the last time and the door locked. It is one of the grimmer reminders of technology's impact on lives.

Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands, estimates that automation has brought savings of pounds 5m a year. North Foreland's old telescope and barometer will be sold to a museum, and the new equipment installed and monitored from a base station in Harwich. The only visitors will be emergency engineers and the occasional cleaner.

It is a far cry from 1634 when Sir John Meldrum secured the right to light bonfires at North and South Foreland to warn sailors off the hazardous Goodwin Sands.

For the next four weeks, Mr Cronin and his crew will continue to provide 24-hour cover. The 500-watt halogen bulbs will be checked twice a day, the lenses cleaned and the windows washed down. The radio beacon will be monitored, weather reports compiled, and the log filled in. The nightly shipping forecast is no longer obligatory, merely a "comfort".

Mr Cronin, a bearded Irishman with piercing blue eyes, is sanguine about his impending redundancy. "Trinity House stopped recruiting in 1979 and we knew by 86 that it was going over to computers, so we've had a long time to get used to it," he said.

"It is very sad because it is the end of an era and it does mean the sailors will lose an extra pair of eyes. Although we no longer spend all night watching out to sea, we have always complemented the coastguard by passing them information.

"We know the tides and peculiarities of the currents, and if we're outside doing something, we're always looking out to sea."

Mr Cronin has spent all his 33 working years in lighthouses. He grew up on the Howth Peninsula in Ireland, and became friendly with the Irish lighthouse servicemen. His sister later married one of them.

"In those days it was 56 days on and 56 days off, which was a long stint, but in 1974 they changed it to month on and month off, which was much better for everyone. I still live in Dublin and just fly over when it's my turn to work."

He has worked on 15 lighthouses, from Lundy Island and The Lizard to the Nab Tower, off the Isle of Wight. He was a junior at the latter in 1972 when an oil tanker collided with the lighthouse, which is built on the seabed and rises up from the waves.

"I was on watch at 4am. I saw the tanker, but I thought it was coming to deliver oil and water. Then I realised it was a bit close and woke up the PK (principal keeper), who told me to `feck off'.

"Mind you, when we heard the grinding noise you've never seen anybody move so quickly."

The tanker was badly holed, but the lighthouse received only superficial damage.

Mr Cronin came to North Foreland in April to oversee the closure. After spending years in isolated towers in the middle of the sea, the small, 26m-high tower made a pleasant change. "This is a very good posting. It's on the mainland, so you can go off to the shops if you need to and you're not so cooped up."

But he has had his fair share of lonely night watches. "You had to have a hobby to help pass the time. I used to make ships in bottles, but that seems to have died out now.

"I'm also a radio ham andmade contact with people all round the world. Some of the others did knitting or lacemaking - it's a question of occupying the hands really."

He has had to learn to get along with colleagues. "There are six of you cooped up in a small space for weeks on end and you have to learn to bite your cheek.

"But I've made some very good friends over the years," he added.

Working at sea is a way of life he will miss even though he will be able to spend more time with his wife, Hilary, and their two children.

"It's very hard on the wives and they have to be fairly resourceful when their husbands are away for such long periods of time."

The lighthouse keepers remain a close-knit band and take their duties seriously. They have never been on strike.

"There is a sense of loyalty and duty and the knowledge that we provide an essential service. There is a feeling that there is a special relationship between us and the sea. We are the guardians of the sea."

But Mr Cronin has a new job lined up - in computers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'