Remote working: What the UK’s last lighthouse keepers can teach us about isolation

If there is anyone that knows what it’s like to spend long periods of time alone, it’s lighthouse keepers. Serena Coady gets advice from former custodians about how to weather the loneliness of the pandemic

Tuesday 23 February 2021 01:04 GMT
<p>For former lighthouse keeper Neil Hargreaves, the job wasn’t as melancholic as art would have us believe</p>

For former lighthouse keeper Neil Hargreaves, the job wasn’t as melancholic as art would have us believe

It’s 1976. Neil Hargreaves is 28 years old and already familiar with the rigours of isolation. He doesn't know that one day, millions of people will be in a situation similar to his. He doesn't know that making sourdough and exercising in front of a screen, 1984 style, will become the pinnacle of leisure. However, he knows the ache of being away from loved ones and the joy of finding a good book. As the former keeper of one of the UK’s most remote lighthouses, his work has been a unique training ground for lockdown. Only with more elemental havoc.

Twenty miles west of Marloes Peninsula lies the Smalls Reef, a volcanic bedrock ridge where tidal rapids generate violent rips. Being stationed here as a first-time keeper was like being a junior doctor during a global pandemic. It was the job at its most extreme. “At the Smalls, the sea could come right over the lighthouse. You would get a total blackout, then it would all wash down again and daylight would return. You would feel the lighthouse shudder, but it was built to last. I was more scared when I worked on the trawlers. The boat once rolled near Iceland and half of it was submerged in water. So, when it came to lockdown, I was sort of used to isolation. On tower rocks, you couldn’t leave when the seas were washing over the landing,” says Hargreaves. He spent two years at the rocky outpost, 28 days on, 28 days off. In preparation, he attended a six-week course that covered radio signals, first aid, weather reading and bread making.

In 1772, 26-year-old violin maker Henry Whiteside was tasked with designing a lighthouse that would help mariners navigate around the Smalls. The appointment was not a success. Scottish lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson later referred to Whiteside’s beacon as “a raft of timber rudely put together”. It weathered years of environmental beatings until it was replaced with a granite lighthouse in 1861, the second tallest in Wales.

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