Technology ends lonely watch over treacherous Atlantic: Automated systems are replacing the lighthouse keepers at Bishop Rock.

FOR MORE than a century, lighthouse keepers at Bishop Rock have been crucial to the task of warning seafarers of the dark and swirling waters which have claimed countless lives off the Isles of Scilly.

In that time the job has hardly changed. From that first day in September 1858 when the lighthouse beacon was lit, resident keepers have routinely endured an isolated existence while perched precariously on the edge of the stormy Atlantic.

But as from today, this rather formidable job description ceases to exist. The last ever keeper to reside at Bishop Rock is being airlifted from the lighthouse heli- deck, a modern-day addition built on top of the beacon, leaving automated controlling and monitoring systems to fill the vacancy.

Colin Jones, a keeper who completed his final stint at Bishop Rock just over a week ago, described how he was struck by the eerie atmosphere which engulfed the lighthouse during his first experience of treacherous Atlantic weather. 'The whole structure shook. You couldn't fill a cup to the brim with hot coffee because the table shook so much.

'When I first went there, the crashing of the waves kept me awake at night. Even when I did nod off, I would wake with a start not knowing where I was.'

Mr Jones, 41, and his two colleagues kept themselves occupied with work and cleaning chores, but a recurring sense of isolation inevitably broke through. 'I'd sometimes look across longingly to the Isles of Scilly. They were not far, but they might as well have been a million miles away.'

Keepers while away the hours reading, talking, sometimes telling each other ghost stories. 'I've had a few laughs winding some of the others up. If they're not used to it, they can get a bit jumpy while the wind is rattling the door,' Mr Jones said.

If they do exist, there can be no shortage of ghosts haunting the area around Bishop Rock. Razor- sharp rocks lying just beneath the ocean surface, combined with currents so strong that they seem to make the sea water boil, have scuppered hundreds of ships and taken thousands of lives.

In the early 18th century, before the lighthouse was built, the casualties were piling up at an alarming rate. One of the most notorious incidents, in 1707, involved Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was returning to British shores with a treasure trove of gold bullion wrested from foreign powers. Having dodged Spanish cannonfire and French patrols, Sir Cloudesley failed to avoid rocks on the Gilstone ledge. Nearly 2,000 hands, who were manning the fleet of five ships, were lost.

But even when the authorities decided that a new lighthouse was essential to stem the loss of life, the elements conspired to dog the project. Work began in 1847 to sink cast iron legs into the solid granite base of Bishop Rock. But shortly before the final stages of its completion in February 1850, the whole structure was swept into the sea. It was eight more years before a light finally shone from Bishop Rock and strengthening work to ensure the structure stayed in place was only completed in 1887.

But even after the lighthouse was in operation, shipwrecks continued to occur, though less frequently.

Local boatmen have long profited from salvaging the abundant wreckage. David Stedeford, 47, still has the nameplate of the Falkland, a four-masted barque, which was recovered by his great- grandfather after it went down in broad daylight in 1901.

The figurehead, which was also recovered, was passed on to a collector who did a kindness in return. Mr Stedeford said: 'It was quite a good deal. After handing over the figurehead, my great- grandfather's thatched roof was replaced with tiles.'

In spite of its gruesome reputation, Mr Jones said he would miss some aspects of life at Bishop Rock. He believes automation cannot replace the human touch. 'We used give fishermen tips on the weather and have a bit of a joke with the tourist boats passing by,' he said. 'I don't know of any machine that can equal that.'

(Photograph omitted)

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