Researching ‘The Sentinel’: Lighthouse visits

The Wilson’s Promontory Lighthouse is easily my favourite lighthouse, not only because it was a visit here nearly four years ago that gave me the idea for ‘The Sentinel’, but also because of the wonderfully dramatic landscape that surrounds it.

Wilson’s Prom Lightstation

The lighthouse itself is a prize – it takes a whole day to walk from Telegraph Saddle, a distance of over 16 kilometres across the undulating interior of Wilson’s Promontory. By the time you get to the end of the Telegraph Track, the blisters and exhaustion are witness to the reality of this ‘undulation’. But you haven’t finished yet! There is a further 3km track from the end of the access road that winds around the headlands towards the lighthouse. This is a pretty straight forward track with stunning scenery and seeing the lighthouse drawing closer makes you feel like you are so very close and you’ll soon be able to ditch your pack, take off your shoes and have a cup of tea.

However…

Just as you reach a delightful lull in the headlands, cross a sandy stretch where rocks and shrubs dot the path, and make your way to the final few steps, just when you think the 16km walk was all worth it and you are there…

Suddenly there rises before you a 100 metre climb up the side of granite cliffs, straight up! No twisting around the headland in a series of gentle ascents, no, you must tackle this final, punishing climb in one last hurrah. It calls on great reserves of strength to pull yourself up the last few steps but it is oh, so worth it.

Stretching ahead is a small path leading to a fairly squat lighthouse and beyond that, the coast stretching to the horizon in a line of green forested mountains that take your breath away.

Wilson’s Prom Lighthouse December 2016

The story of the short-lived Wilson’s Promontory lighthouse school forms the basis of my novel. (You can read more about how I wrote ‘The Sentinel’ here and here).

I visited other lighthouses as well. I wanted to locate the characters in details of the lighthouse keepers’ lives and to do this, I needed to visit the places they lived.

I visited the Cape Otway lighthouse station. (I wrote about reading the journals Henry Bayles Ford kept whilst a lighthouse keeper in the mid-late 1800s here.)

Henry Bayles Ford – keeper at Cape Otway – his journals

I also visited the Cape Schanck Lighthouse which is close to where I live.

My husband and I booked a lighthouse tour one Sunday morning. We arrived early and explored the dramatic coastline surrounding the lighthouse. These lighthouses are built in the wildest but the most wonderful natural landscapes. I think my main character really appreciates the dichotomy between the incredible beauty of the natural environment and the suffocating isolation such landscapes can create in those who live within them.

We met the ‘Lady of the Lighthouse’ tour guide at the bottom of the startling white lighthouse tower. The thick stone walls kept any sliver of sunlight and warmth from penetrating the interior and I shivered. The lighthouse didn’t feel like a sanctuary then but, as we climbed and rose up the echoing chamber, beams of light began to warm my face. Then we stepped up a small ladder and into a room that was warm and bright. This was the Lantern room – written with a large ‘L’ because the light dominates everything and it must be kept lit.

Considered to be the most original lighthouse under the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s jurisdiction – Lighthouses of Australia

Right above our heads the Chance Brothers Lantern spun quietly in a soft mercury bath.

The mercury bath in which the light spins and the golden Lantern room at the top of the lighthouse.

I based much of ‘The Sentinel’ lantern room descriptions on what I’d seen here on our visit to the Cape Schanck Lighthouse. The room’s warmth was like an embrace. I loved looking at the polished portholes, the log book and other paraphenalia of the Lantern room. I had already done quite a bit of research at my local library and at the State Library of Victoria on the mechanical operations of lighthouses but seeing these beautiful instruments in action helped me write about them with more authority.

The clockwork mechanism is crucial to the operation of the light. The mechanism is also part of the climax to my novel and I needed to understand how it worked. The clockwork mechanism needed to be wound every 90 minutes so that the light kept turning. Every hour or hour and a half, all through the night, from dusk to dawn, the keepers had to keep the light burning bright. Lives depended on them.

The crucial clockwork mechanism.

Outside, my husband and I visited the lighthouse museum. This small museum had such a wealth of information, from keeper’s stories to how the lighthouse operated but it was looking out at the wild coastline on this bright, sunny day that I was reminded of how important these structures were. Even more important though was the keepers and their families. They put their lives on the line and lived in service to the light.

Until next time…

Jacqui.

@digitalinkspot

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