Monday, July 12, 2010

When Home is... a Lighthouse

We recently stayed in a lighthouse. Well, an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage to be exact. And it was like no where we have ever stayed before: perched on a cliff top with views of immense ocean in every direction made us feel a million miles away from Sydney, work and school.

And did I mention the whales? One morning we counted eight stretching out to sea.

The cottage was, like all lighthouse keepers’ cottages in Australia, built around Federation: large stone walls, ceilings perhaps 14 ft high, huge thick wooden doors, fireplaces in every room and wide dark floorboards. I was a bit surprised at how substantial the cottage felt. For this lighthouse, there were two Assistant Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottages and one Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage. The word ‘cottage’ seemed much too small and cosy to properly describe such houses.

It wasn’t until I started reading about the lighthouse families that lived here from 1875 that I understood why the housing was so important. What was a lovely, isolated, escape from the city for us was a very tough and lonely life to live full time; even before thinking of the responsibility of keeping that light beaming 40km out to sea every night.

To be a lighthouse keeper, you had to be a married man. Wives were responsible for creating a ‘nurturing family unit’ which supported the stressful and physically taxing work of keeping that light shining. It was because of this awareness that a light was only as reliable as it’s keeper that such spacious family houses were built here. A comfortable family home would be a happy one, it was thought.

The three keepers shared four hour shifts between dusk and dawn every night and during the day would be busy bookkeeping, maintaining the light and lantern housing, practising signalling by morse lamp or flags by hand or on mast.

While we relished the thought of being cut off from the rest of the world for 48 hours – arriving with a boot full of food, wine, warm clothes, board games, books and magazines – living here in the 1880s would have been quite different. The families then needed to be self-sufficient or get provisions off passing ships (which would mean rowing out through the rocks and rough sea to receive them).

The family who first lived in this cottage had 13 children (!) and the visitor’s book of the time apparently comments on the excellent housekeeping and hospitality from them. It seems wives have forever been judged on their ability to keep a home and to entertain. How would this be possible with 13 children, is all I can think; although, maybe with a family of this size your job would simply be to delegate?

With this many children living on an isolated cliff-top it’s amazing to think that no lives were lost from falls. Unfortunately though, one of the children did fall ill and needed to get to hospital. She was seven-years-old and her father signalled for a ship to stop, take her aboard and get her to a doctor in Sydney. He rowed his sick daughter out to the ship and would have had to leave her and get back to the lighthouse. She never made it to Sydney, dying on board. In the documents I read it sounds like she was alone on that ship: her mother had all those other children and babies to look after and her father had to get back to his job.

I watch my daughter, also aged seven, healthy and glowing, running around this cottage garden, delighting in the fresh air and sense of adventure that living on a cliff top brings and feel such sadness for that mother of another era. For staying here now is to be isolated out of choice; it’s a treat and a luxurious option for a weekend away.

Our only reminder that we are cut off from the rest of the world is a note taped to a laundry bucket: in case of storms we should make sure the kitchen lantern is charged, the bucket is filled with water for flushing the toilet and the kettle is filled with filtered water for drinking. We did have some heavy rain both nights but the only sign of that was a dodgy digital television reception and no mobile phone coverage. How times have changed.

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