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  • Gemma McKell

Coastal Wanderer


Oh to be a Lighthouse Keeper. A romantic, solitary life, of turbulent, thundering storms, charging loose across the bay like the enduring advance of an invading battalion. To view the empty abyss of the night from the lantern room as waves of white horses crash & break against the sea shaken walls. I fearfully yearn for life in a lighthouse. In the chaos of the sea there is solace. A deep comfort can be found in the methodical, trustworthy turn of the lamp. An inner guiding light.



I long to learn and master the trade, to know the workings and mechanics by hand. I would wear itchy fisherman jumpers with drenched sleeves and fish from the side of the gallery in late summer.

At night I would stand to observe the clarity of each star in their truest form, away from the tainted skies of the urban sprawl and the incessant chatter of the restless town. In the mornings I would rise early, with little sleep and watch the world wake in lonely silence from the ledge of the widow's walk.






My walks somehow always lead me to the coast. Years of living surrounded by water has secured a deep-rooted attachment to the sea. Spending time there is a natural remedy for the soul - a soothing balm that helps nourish & repair a weary mind. There is certainty at the shore, it bolsters and strengthens, keeping one afloat like the many buoys that can be seen anchored on the shoreline. I wanted to write about my journey on the beach and the inspiration I find when I'm there. I have chosen lighthouses for this post, I think my interest in them is so ingrained it felt the most obvious choice.


There is something so incredibly fascinating about lighthouses. Inside, their walls are steeped in deep mystery. To the outside world they present a lonely, melancholy figure - martyr like, steadfast and endlessly poised through a myriad of untold storms. Underneath this romantic idea, lies a sombre undertone, with a hint of sorrow. It's as though they are doomed to be eternally unhappy in some way. Enigmatic, dark and curious in equal measure. How many secrets do they hold? What stories are concealed inside? How many troubled ships have they steered to safety? If a lighthouse could take human form I imagine he would be a tormented sort of fellow; a recluse with an insufferable disposition. Headstrong, stubborn and handsome, he would be weary and desolate from the many years of solitude.Yet, underneath in the very heart of him there would be a warm, gentle trustworthy light. Dependable and loyal.


Living on the coast seems to gift a deep connection to all things nautical and maritime. I often say it is the place that grants the greatest contentment. The colder months on the shore bring turbulent, choppy waters and blustering gales. Even though the weather is occasionally unbearable, it's my favourite time of the year to visit. Spending time looking out to the bay, with my boots rooted in the sand, I often chase the lace hemmed waves as they crash against the sea wall bringing with them the briny, saltiness of the tide. I stand to observe the gulls, swooping and diving; their wings like paper dolls blowing mercilessly in the wind, bobbing loose against a ceaseless storm, unfettered and eternally free. A visit to the same place in the evening will enable you to see the bright lamp of Walney lighthouse across the bay. I stay and count the seconds between the light, 1 2 3 4.....15 flash, again and again.


There is a lot to be said about the influences lighthouses have on people. Situated on the northern point of the Isle of Unst in the Shetlands, the endearingly named Muckle Flugga is the most northerly lighthouse in Britain. Nearer to Bergen in Norway than to Aberdeen, Muckle Flugga was established in 1854.

It was designed and built by Thomas and David Stevenson, the father and uncle of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. The writer visited the island as a young man and it is believed that it influenced him in his creation of Treasure Island.

In literature and poetry, lighthouses represent several themes. They may indicate some form of guidance is occurring in the work. They may suggest a character will somehow persevere to reach a safer station in life after enduring some tragedy. Lighthouses can symbolise a focal point of morality as well. For instance, they may demonstrate strength and resolve in the face of adversity when a character is trying to do the right thing. Perhaps, this is why some religions borrow the lighthouse as a symbol.


Sat at the southern end of Walney Island, off Barrow in Furness, this was Britain's last lighthouse to be automated in 2003.



This day winding down now

At God speeded summer's end

In the torrent salmon sun,

In my seashaken house

On a breakneck of rocks

Tangled with chirrup and fruit,

Froth, flute, fin, and quill

At a wood's dancing hoof,

By scummed, starfish sands

With their fishwife cross

Gulls, pipers, cockles, and snails

Dylan Thomas


I finished reading a book last year, called Seashaken Houses (A history of lighthouses with its title taken from this wonderful Dylan Thomas poem) Here is a little extract from the intro...

Ahead, their destination comes into view on the darkening horizon. Though by now they are used to it, the sight still initially defies the eyes. A building in the sea, standing where one shouldn't, with a light shining at its summit.

I adore reading books that captivate the spirit and soul of a subject, compelling me to read the same passage over and over.



The Needle - The lighthouse on the foreshore at Rampside was built in 1875. It was number 4 of 13 leading light navigation beacons built in the late 19th century, which aligned to guide vessels safely into the port. The lighthouse is Grade II listed.

I've visited this place so often throughout my life it feels like an old friend. It inspires me greatly and I have written about it many times. My talented friend Rachel @mayandjuniper https://www.instagram.com/mayandjuniper/ illustrated The Needle to accompany my prose. It captures the magic so perfectly.





“The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can't.”

Christopher Paolini, Eragon


I find the majority of my inspiration by the sea. It offers a wealth of diverse landscapes and perspectives. Living on a peninsula means we have the choice of seven beaches to visit and each one has something different to offer. It is important to remember to choose a focal point when photographing the beach as the shoreline can be scant and sparse on details. We often take a basket to collects shells, this adds to the storytelling of an image. Blankets, shoes, shells & people can all add context to a photograph. Depending on the time of year, I try to visit the coast towards the end of the day, when the light is warm and diffused. With the sun low in the sky, there's less risk of strong highlights and overexposure. However, in the Winter I go when the tide is high and the wind is strong to capture the mood of the water & the drama of the waves. Capturing the movement of the water can be tricky. Different techniques can create very different results. Using a slow shutter speed can make the water look calmer and more dreamlike. This again adds to the storytelling aspect of your imagery which I find the most important. I want to feel connected to the scene and by adding details you can build a creative narrative within your work.


“There are times when the ocean is not the ocean - not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.”

M. L. Stedman - The Light Between Oceans


References

https://letterpile.com/poetry/Lighthouses-in-Poetry-A-Poem





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