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Peter J Hill

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Saints & Angels
by Peter J Hill
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Recent poems by Peter J Hill
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Part II of the trilogy Saints & Angels

Saints and Angels

The Building of Bell Rock Lighthouse

 

I am of good fisher stock like the kinsfolk all before me

Our daily battle with the sea to land what bounty lord provides

The North Sea is such an unforgiving place where nets are cast and laid

And in our prayers; hope that the yields are equal to our efforts made.

The war with France takes heavy toll

When pressgangs make so dearthly a patrol

Widows and orphans come cheaply like the price shot and grape

Then in the barrels bottom with nothing more to scrape

Old men and young boys scarce strong enough to land the meagre catch.

 

A new century is upon us yet I fear we’ll fare no better

And even weathered wrecks like me will take King Georges shilling

Yet fortune spares me from that plight as I open up a letter

An important pressing of a different kind with words to make me willing

I am noted for my seamanship and knowledge of the hazard

For none knows the Inchcape better.

Save for the poor souls that sleep within her depths.

To Robert Stevenson I will answer when I land him on the reef

Of his youth and skills I’ve heard much but I have yet to see his measure

 

He is going to survey the reef to build a lighthouse on

What kind of madman is this Robert Stevenson

Does he sample he the amber liquid that flows so freely hereabouts,

but barely does the Cape stand high enough to land a boat

let alone for long enough to build anything upon it.

I’ll give him his due for I have seen his light at Frazerburgh Port

and it still shines after a score of years but was founded on a fort

It does not face the North Sea swells

Or battered by ferocious gales

 

Yet when I take measure of my own tasks, I find that I too must be afflicted.

For seldom does man venture to such a place even if so gifted

The Bo’sun of the barque from which our skiff was bound

said “None but Saints and Angels on Inchcape tread”.

I feel no wings a sprouting nor a halo o’er my head,

three times my feet have trod on that less than hallowed ground.

This Rob’s a man of purpose, though barely half my years,

he stands like a cocky midshipman with his foot upon the prow.

One hand grasps an upright oar while the other wipes his brow 

 

The gully mouth it starts to close as swell into it fills.

With fenders out to halt the clash with rocks

But not protection from the boat to spill

The movement now was over swift, I give counter to the action,

“ Back oars “, I cry and the oars are braced,

the forward oarsman extend the un-feathered end in a fraction

and heave with  all their might

till stroke and boat are reversed

to spare us from some predecessors plight 

 

Rob gives up his careless stance for a safer standing,

humbled by the whims of nature yet still steadfast in his ambition.

Five times we tried and five times were repelled from landing

Destined we were to try once more for expedition

Or on the morrow if in weathers favour finds us better grounding

As if by grace and favour brought a break in force of swell

brimming with new found confidence he deftly leaps ashore

He tippy-toes on every rock like a ballet dancer without an orchestra

all the rocks on footfall lands as slippery as ice

 

We have a pair of Smithies who have fashioned mooring rings,

should we e’re return  and the endeavour  be undertaken.

Robert measured every surface of this most inhospitable of places.

Drawing every detail and every outline that he traces

My doubts increased with every stroke that Rob marked with his pen

For such an undertaking would need qualities rarely found in men

The work by weather and tide’s permission take,

would make the building slow in progress make

How ever noble a cause as this; the cost would prove too much.

 

It was in the year of our lord 1807 that Robert came to me.

I had retired and spent most my time mending nets not casting them.

Yet God had been kind and had granted me

with the strength that younger men envied

but not the will to continue fishing for so meagre a catch.

So once more with the added praises of one Robert Stevenson,

I took up the challenge just to see to fruition this young mans vision.

Now with rank of coxswain, and new Captain too

I was in the pay of Stevenson but part of the Pharos crew 

 

To be retained as senior till the Lighthouse Light

was lit by Keepers trained to do.

Captain Reid was as mad as Rob, and not daunted by his mission

to moor his ship within two miles of Cape,

fool-hardy for any mariner not under commission so to do.

Then while he was moored he must show the light.

Naked flames and ships just do not go together, however well protected

the threat of fire in bad weather all to present

my task would be to act as ferryman twixt the two

 

The working season would be short,

the Pharos was to keep its beacon lit

then the Inchcape lighthouse would replace us

and I could go back  to my nets;

I doubt that I shall be spared to see the lighting of its light.

Or gaze upon its brilliance as the day turns swift to night

My knowledge of the Inchape Reef would be passed down through the ages

But there’s scarce the men to pass it to, though two are brought to mind

who’s worthy-ness is up to scratch should the mantle fall on them.

 

I watch in awe as masons chip away at rock forming a foundation

The heavy stones that as yet were still on paper

Or in the minds of their creators

I see another structure built I mistook to be for the light

It was erected at a pace before the seasons finish.

On it a beacon was mounted and at some height

it would provide better light than the torches used at night

Its spindly iron legs seemed unlikely to stand a storm

and we feared that when we returned nought would be in place

 

Robert a religious man though not pious to the extremes

gave Sabbath blessings on all the crew before any work began.

Before too long all work had ceased

and to my other duties on Pharos I must attend.

Next summer when our Rob returns

the Lighthouse work resumes again.

Yet more masons, builders and Smiths set to the task.

A track is laid to carry stone from gully up to site,

and derricks loading stone on bogeys like those of mining sites. 

 

Rob looks on with pride as the work takes on a pace

Yet the work was to be hampered as bad weather set its course

and only twenty two days toil could be produced.

July 10th was a momentous day as the first of the stones arrived,

by the end of the season four courses now were laid.

I am no engineer and I could only stand in awe

as every surface of the stone was shaped

locking it to it’s neighbours side to side ,from above and from below.

So the weight of stone would simply have nowhere left to go.

 

I am but a simple man not learned like our Rob

but now I see his vision clear and know his wisdom right,

for all the stresses when its built will be equal and throughout.

My wonder at this bright young man

and the admiration lavished on him by his crew,

I am drawn to the Bosun’s words and believe them to be true .

For if ever Saintly or Noble deeds surpass;

then this man’s effort should in canonising find just rewards;

Or in heaven find his grace.

 

The men have grown to love him and respect all of his commands

only perfection will serve him right and that’s what he demands

the masons in Arbroath turn out work of the highest order

No stone has been returned to them or re-fashioned so to fit

April 1809 and work began again.

I had misjudged old spindly for she still stands, for her beacon to be lit

we each took wager as to how long she would last.

Our Captain holds the purse;

he holds it still and so now silent is our curse

 

The beacon became a barracks and my work lessened by degree.

It was Rob’s design for me to stay though idle I may be

The base in stature grows to tower thirty feet,

Yet still not safe from tempest swells that it had to meet

By start of work in 1810, completion was not certain.

Tremendous was the effort made that soon it was the vision

Soon even the iron watch-room and light-room were in place

Encompassing  the all important light and lense

capped by a big brass dome to give her added grace. 

 

It was tears and cheers that resounded around the Inchape Reef

The lighthouse now stood her ground defiant but as yet unlit.

All gazes turned toward our Rob though his plaudits shore-side yet to come,

it was with his beloved crew that he let his emotions slip.

Only two men had lost their lives on this brave endeavour,

Clasping hands gave; praise to the Lord for all his favour

Praising too his gallant crew

Close was the call that there were so few

Twice I could have been in their number. 

 

One of the boats had broke her lines

stranding thirty men with only boats for a score.

It looked like short straws were the order of the day

Rob in traditional style thought it his right to stay.

We tried to explain the custom but Rob insisted and got his way.

I had seen many years so broke in twain my stick.

The boats were cast away and for the Pharos bound,

no chance for a return trip

before the water has us in its grip.

 

With water lapping at our feet we prepared to meet our maker,

 then the sight of sail was heralded and we looked for our deliverance.

The Arbroath mail boat had come just in the nick of time

and had turned her duty into that of saviour.

The second time though not so obvious a plight;

was when I was standing on the platform perched high at thirty feet,

a mischance took the grip away of a labourer on his climb.

His last effort for a purchase he grabbed at my boot

but then it was gone and so was he

 

Rob his work all finished has gone to other ventures

I glance at his eighth wonder of the world

and still wonder at its creation.

I am still with Pharos till the Keepers are all trained;

The Principal is our Captain Reid

though quite a different quarterdeck with just a crew of two.

I start to feel my age now but before my duties done,

I will walk upon Inchcape’s not so barren rocks,

as token for my servitude and respect from lighthouse crew. 

 

I take in the magnificence of the tower now before me

and remember the first day and the sceptic sneering

of Rob’s great leap of faith as he set his foot

and his other in engineering.

Her bell like skirt does justice for I hear that what she’s called

Bell Rock Lighthouse has ring to it, let it shine for all eternity

As I make my way down grating to the awaiting boat

a sudden pain racks at my chest like crushing weights upon me

The pain subsides but darkness now encroaches and I see no…………

 

 

 




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Reviewed by Dallas Stone (Reader)
It's as if we were there. A "first-hand" account of the building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. As an ex-lighthouse keeper myself I can empathise with the fisherman made lighthouse builder. We are there through all the excitement and endeavour. We feel his fright and exhilaration along with his love and admiration for the designer and engineer of this monumental creation. We are there when the final stone is laid and the lantern placed and completed. We are there... at the timely, untimely end which, to me, represents not only the end of our hero and the build but the end of an epoch, a way of life, a rare, romanticised vocation of men for centuries, the lighthouse keeper himself.
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