As a child, I wanted to be a coastguard when I grew up. We lived only a couple of miles from a coastguard station on the cliffs, east of Hastings. My brother, sister and I would go roaming all day over these cliff tops, creating complex imaginary games that made use of the terrain that is now Hastings Country Park. The sight of the high-tech station, bristling with other-worldly antenna, was always inspiring.
Mum once took us to visit the station and we were shown around. I was about 10 years old. I loved all the equipment; the crackling radios picking up shipping communications and forecasts, the radar screen showing vessels in the English Channel in multicoloured clockwise sweeps, and the spinning weather station gathering precise information. I watched the big, burly, bearded coastguards on duty, searching the horizon with their binoculars. Silent, alert, important - spending their watches looking out on what, to my mind at that time, was the greatest view on the planet.
I wanted to be them.
I sometimes wonder if this was the origin of my lifelong interest in meditation, and of my appreciation of philosophical phenomenology. I was drawn by the discipline of focusing only on what appears in the field of immediate experience, tuning-out mental chatter and narrative in order to see what is actually there. It seemed worthwhile. Noble, even. I thought these men were awesome. Their focus and discipline fascinated me. I didn't think much about what they were actually doing - the twin activities of preserving life and prosecuting the law. I wasn't interested in either. I just wanted to gaze out to sea and to know, with unassailable competence and confidence, what, precisely, I was looking at, and, occasionally, to glance down at some clever instruments to confirm my knowledge. Just like they did.
I had already drawn a picture of a coastguard in a coastguard station at primary school when we were invited to draw what we wanted to be when we grew up. I had my own telescope, my most prized possession, a birthday present from Mum and Dad, and I would spend hours with it trained on the shipping heading up the coast for the Port of Folkestone, or further East into the forbidding North Sea.
On our visit inside the station, with Mum's hand pressed into the small of my back to encourage me, I managed to ask how I could become a coastguard. What would I need to do? Which subjects would I need to be good at at school? My heart pounded with the effort of speaking, combined with a terrible expectation they'd say, 'Maths'.
A reply boomed down to me from a majestic beard.
"You can’t be a coastguard. You’re a girl."
To be a coastguard, at that time (1979), seagoing naval experience was required, and that did not become open to women for at least another decade. I didn’t want to join the armed forces (strong pacifist leanings, even at 10), so gender was not the only barrier, but any other barrier was irrelevant anyway. I couldn’t do it.
I walked away from the visit dejected. I figured that I would have to try to develop a desire to be a hairdresser or a nurse, something ‘appropriate’, same as the other girls in my class. For several years, I got by on the fiction that I wanted to be an animal vet. That was never going to happen with my poor science grades, but it wasn’t genuine anyway. I secretly wanted to be a coastguard right up until the time at university when I realised teaching, too, felt like a calling.
In early adult life, I learned of a possible ancestral source for my, by then free-floating, desire to gaze at the ocean. I didn't know this as a child, but my paternal great-grandfather had actually been a coastguard. During the English occupation of Ireland, he had been deployed to the West Coast, to the remote and beautiful Blacksod Bay - Cuan an Fhóid Dhuibh - in County Mayo. He was accompanied to the posting by his wife, my great-grandmother. In those days, the coastguard, as an instrument of the Crown, was tasked with controlling local smugglers and troublemakers.
In 2015, shortly after my father’s death, John and I went to Blacksod Bay in search of this history. It's deeply uncomfortable to think of my recent ancestors as complicit in the brutal occupation of Ireland. There is a modern, though so achingly mournful it feels thoroughly contemporaneous, Irish folk ballad, called The Fields of Athenry, strains of which are heard at international rugby games. It tells of the impact on local people of the relationship between the twin oppressors, The Famine and The Crown. The knowledge that my great-grandfather was a cog in the military-industrial machine of an Empire of which I am a beneficiary chills me, no more so when I enter the desolate emotional world of that song.
Blacksod sits at the end of the Mullet peninsula, in stunning surroundings.
There is something about the green and heather-purple hills, the glittering, lapis ocean, frothing with white horses, and the buffeting wind charged with negative ions, that blows my heart open, like in the Heaney poem.
As for the village, there's not much there. A small harbour shelters bobbing fishing boats from the wild Atlantic. There's a few scattered houses, a little shop and a pub. Outside the village there's a sacred spring associated with the Saint, Deirbhile. In line with the grand-narrative of female Celtic Christian Saints, open as they are to conflicting modern readings about sexual purity or consent, Deirbhile was pursued by an unwanted suitor who adored her beautiful eyes. To protect her chastity, she plucked them out, threw them on the ground, and healing waters sprang from where they fell.
Also in Blacksod, there is a large, foreboding, abandoned coastguard station. It includes the officers' quarters as well as the watchtower itself. It's one of the very few buildings in the area that is more than one storey high, evidence of unequal housing conditions, preferential for the occupying force. Some of the building has now been converted into homes, but this has done little to ameliorate the ominousness of the structure as a whole.
Just down the road from the coastguard station, on the harbour arm, there's a still-operational lighthouse.
Wandering round outside the lighthouse, with fantastic serendipity, we bumped into the lighthouse-keeper. He was all too happy to chat. We explained why we were there, and he painted a picture of life in my great-grandfather's time as vivid as the one painted in The Fields of Athenry.
The English administration kept the locals in abject poverty as absentee landlords exported crops for profit, crops that were desperately needed to feed the local population. During the Famine, an Gorta Mór, many residents of Blacksod left in despair for the New World. Those who remained tried to eek out a living against the odds and to outwit their rulers in the service of that end. All along the West Coast, the coastguards were English and the lighthouse-keepers were Irish. Unbeknown to the coastguards, the lighthouse-keepers were facilitating, via complex signals used in all the lighthouses up and down the coast, the very smuggling trade that the coastguards were charged with stamping out. It was a trade that kept locals from the precipice of starvation, and retained for them a dignity and solidarity against a common enemy, in otherwise wretched conditions. Frustrating the coastguards and disobeying them right under their very noses became an artful form of resistance to occupation.
The chatty lighthouse-keeper suggested that if we went to the pub, we might omit to mention my ancestry, as memories were long in these parts. We did later go to the pub, in search of some food, and it felt like news of my great-grandfather had, perhaps, already arrived. There was none of the typical Irish warmth in the welcome. I didn't blame them.
According to my father, my great-grandmother had been desperately unhappy in Blacksod, and it is not difficult to see why. When she fell pregnant with my grandfather, she wanted to go home to London for the birth. They made the difficult journey to Dublin, but the baby was born early with health problems in the old maternity hospital on Parnell Street, before they could make the crossing.
I don’t know whether my great-grandfather was a reluctant instrument of the English Crown. I hope he was, but motivations are always contextual. Perhaps, as a Londoner, a rural life in Ireland would have been the last thing he wanted. To be trapped there during an Drochshaol - the Bad Times, would have been awful. I imagine the horrible demands of his job would have sucked any joy from the beautiful setting. But equally, perhaps he was an English patriot. Perhaps he had internalised a sense of imperial righteousness. Perhaps, like many of his compatriots, he viewed the Irish as morally inferior and in need of a strong hand. I don't know, but it seems likely. As I gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean from the shore at Blacksod, I felt a joy that can be felt only by those thoroughly insulated from hunger or oppression and in the presence of wild, natural beauty. Unlike my great-grandparents, I could have stayed there endlessly, looking out to sea.
Back in the present day, a couple of months ago, our usual café was unexpectedly shut, so John and I found ourselves walking on the front at Llandudno Penmorfa (West Shore), having stopped at the café there instead. We spotted a small, smart, navy-blue hut at the top of the shoreline that we'd never noticed before. With a little thrill, I saw it was topped with a spinning weather station. We went to investigate and chatted with the volunteer who was staffing it. He told us about his work there. The station was an extra set of eyes and ears for the coastguard at Holyhead, watching over this popular, yet dangerous, stretch of coast, with its hidden sandbanks and ripping currents from the Menai Strait. The work involved monitoring VHF-radio traffic and interacting, where necessary, with the Coastguard, the Coastal Rescue Team and the Lifeboats at Conwy and Llandudno. He told us, too, about his earlier career in the armed forces. I sighed and said that coastguarding was something I would love to do, and in fact had wanted to do as a child, but, of course, I lack the relevant background and skills.
He said "Oh, you may well qualify anyway. It's worth looking in to." He told us about the organisation - National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) set up in the mid 1990s after a spate of coastguard station closures, to assist with marine safety. All the NCI stations are staffed by volunteers.
"Thank you," I said.
And I thought, 'Yeah, right. They won't want me. I'm not military. I don't have any navigation or lifesaving skills. I just want to look out to sea. I can do that anyway.' The words, 'and I'm a girl,' didn't form in my consciousness, but they were there, beneath it.
Back home, I didn't even look into it.
But John did.
"You know, I think you could do this," he said. "Looks like they train you on the job."
So, I am now a Trainee Watchkeeper!
I have a month of 'watching' under my belt at NCI Llandudno on the West Shore. I learn so much that by the end of each watch my brain is bursting. I've passed my first navigation course. I'm looking into getting VHF-radio trained. I won't be watching alone until I'm deemed ready, some months down the line and with several further trainings passed. For now, I'll be paired with an expert Qualified Watchkeeper. I'm enjoying mixing with people I wouldn't otherwise meet. Volunteers come with many different motivations and backgrounds. A few are ex-forces. Some come with search and rescue experience. Some, like me, have none of that, but are motivated simply by wanting to do something worthwhile with their time on a beautiful, beloved, yet dangerous stretch of coast that has seen many unnecessary accidents.
At the moment, I'm the only active female volunteer at our station, and the organisation itself is male-dominated. But more than 40 years on from that day at Hastings Coastguard Station, at least the barriers to involvment are not absolute. When I called the Holyhead Coastguard yesterday to log that my fellow watchkeeper and I had completed our watch, a female-sounding coastguard responded. There's a part of me that wants to celebrate that things have come so far in my lifetime, and part of me that feels it's wrong that my heart is doing excited back-flips just because a woman took my call. Gender diversity should be unremarkable.
I'm awed by the responsibility of acquiring the kind of expertise that could potentially save someone's life. It's a serious business. But, oh my goodness, it's also wonderful gazing out at the sea towards Penmaenmawr to the south, watching craft navigate their way out of the Conwy estuary from its two marinas, looking out beyond Ynys Seiriol (Puffin Island) to Point Lynas on Ynys Môn straight ahead, across Liverpool Bay in the distance, and along the flanks of Y Gogarth, the mighty Great Orme, to the proximal north. We watch out for the swimmers, paddle-boarders and kite-surfers, and for people walking on sandbanks that can so quickly get cut-off by the rushing tide. We log all the vessels in the bay, and we scan the rapidly changing sea-scape, in all weathers, for anything that looks like a vessel or person in difficulty. We pay attention, consistently, in each present moment, to precisely what is right in front of us.
As a friend recently pointed out, there's a ten-year-old girl inside me dancing around and waving her telescope for joy!