The lights go out on the loneliest profession

A handful of men have spent their final Christmas guarding the beacons that guide seafarers through Britain's turbulent waters. In the New Year, the few lighthouses that remain manned will be automated. Kathy Marks reports on the end of a centuries-old tradition.

When the winter storms blow in from the Atlantic and the howling winds gust to 110mph, Lizard Point in Cornwall is an inhospitable place. Many a ship has been wrecked there over the years. But for Eddie Matthews, principal keeper of the lighthouse, the elements are a source of never- ending theatre.

Mr Matthews is one of a reclusive breed of men for whom home is a granite tower surrounded by seagulls and crashing surf. For nearly 400 years, keepers have tended the lights that warn sailors off treacherous stretches of coastline. Now their lonely and romantic profession is to be consigned to history.

A programme to mechanise all the lighthouses around the British Isles is nearing completion. Of the 150 once manned around England, Scotland and Wales, only nine remain occupied. By next autumn, all the lighting systems will be controlled and monitored by computer from base stations in Harwich and Edinburgh.

With 39 years in the job, Mr Matthews is Britain's longest-serving keeper. Last Wednesday he completed an eight-hour watch before settling down to Christmas dinner. In March he will be made redundant. He is stoical about the advance of progress, but believes technology cannot replace the human touch. "It's going to be a sad day when I leave," he said. "To me this is a way of life, and the way of life is gone. We are a sea- going nation and the keepers are the heart of the support system. If you take out the heart, you're left with a cold slab of granite. We are the eyes; if anything happens out at sea, we will spot it."

Mr Matthews, who was born in The Lizard, has served at some of the most isolated lighthouses, including Bishop Rock, off the Scilly Isles, and Wolf Rock, off Land's End, where ferocious storms can engulf the tower in a wall of sea. Ten years ago he was posted back to Lizard, at the southernmost tip of Britain..

Much has changed since he started out. "Back then we only had a steam radio and you pickled the meat after the first two days. Now it's like a floating hotel. We've got TV, video, stereo, you name it. The only thing I miss is my pint of beer."

Each lighthouse has two teams of three men who work one month on, one month off, covering a 24-hour day. As well as operating and maintaining the light, they supply weather reports, activate the foghorn and alert coastguards if a ship is in difficulty.

Cost-cutting is the driving force behind the automation programme. With the advent of modern navigation aids, the beacons have grown less important to the shipping companies that fund them. Trinity House, the authority responsible for England and Wales, says that pounds 1.5m per lighthouse will be saved during the 15-year life of the new equipment.

The five remaining manned Scottish lights, which include Fair Isle South, between Orkney and Shetland, will be evacuated at the same time as Lizard. The last lighthouse to be left alone with the wind and the tides will be North Foreland, Kent, next October.

Trinity House stopped recruiting keepers 15 years ago, but still receives applications.

Mr Matthews is not surprised. "I love the solitude of it, the slow pace," he said. "When I'm off duty, I often sit up in the lantern and look out at the ocean. It's open sea to the horizon 29 miles away. It's a terrific view; I can watch it for hours."

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