Since joining the Navigation team in December 2022, I have enjoyed getting to know everyone and learning about the work the department does. In getting to grips with my role as Navigation Requirements Advisor, it is also important for me to understand the context of what I do within the team and wider organisation.

As part of this familiarisation, I was given the opportunity to join the Inspector of Seamarks, Jon Kidd, on a few days of his annual inspections of local lights. As the General Lighthouse Authority, Trinity House has superintendence of local aids to navigation (AtoN)—such as lighthouses, buoys and beacons—established by local authorities. Jon’s job is to inspect the condition and performance of all local AtoN within Trinity House’s area of jurisdiction.

Being that my usual place of work is at a desk, it was good to get the opportunity to get out and about for a few days. Although Jon’s job involves a lot of time on the road, he gets to visit some beautiful places and see the diversity of our coastal landscapes. Jon prepares an inspection schedule at the start of the year to plan each week of inspections. Having not been to Cornwall before, I chose to tag along on the Penzance to St. Ives leg of inspections in June.

It took a good few hours to get from Essex to Hayle, which is where we were based for the next few days. The weather was mostly cloudy while we were there, but it was still warm and the views were still pretty. We started our first day of inspections with a quick visit to a beach in St. Ives to check the condition of a power cable sign, visible from a short walk down the beach. There were a few of these on the inspection list, just one of a few types of AtoN that we inspected. They are yellow diamond-shaped signs that signify an underwater cable route in the area.

It was great to see the beaches around St. Ives and Penzance, some of them reached by pretty coastal paths. Some of them reached by deathly coastal paths like the one in Sennen Cove. We made our way down a dodgy, almost-vertical path to check a power cable sign located further down the cliff. As much as I struggled on the way down, it was much easier than going back up. I don’t think Jon was fazed, but I was fighting for my life barely a quarter of the way up. By halfway I was re-evaluating my career choices and by the time I got to the top I’d even considered giving up smoking.

While the main purpose of the inspections is to check the condition of AtoN, if the harbourmaster is available Jon will also stop by for a catch-up. It was good to visit some of the harbourmasters; as my work requires an understanding of the physical dangers to mariners, it was helpful to see in person how AtoN fit into the safe operation of a port. One of the topics brought up at these meetings is now LARS (Local Aids to Navigation Reporting System), the recently-launched online reporting tool for authorities to log incidents relating to their AtoN. Not all users are currently on board so hopefully these face-to-face conversations will help engagement with the system.

The harbourmaster at Newlyn was particularly welcoming and treated us to a viewing of the Newlyn Tidal Observatory, something not many people get to do, apparently. Sea levels were recorded here at Newlyn from 1915 to 1921. The average sea level from these recordings was established as the Ordnance Datum Newlyn (ODN) in 1921, and became height zero on British maps, used to determine the heights of all elevations in the country. The Observatory itself is a small room at the end of a dishevelled pier, but the original equipment such as the tidal gauge are still kept there. There is also a brass bolt fixed into the floor of the room, which marks the level at which the datum was taken. I always appreciate the chance to see a piece of history but it was particularly good to see something of navigational importance.

During the day we were able to check the condition of daymarks, however we would have to go back after dark to check the condition and characteristics of any AtoN with lighting features. In the summer this is obviously later than other times of the year, meaning some AtoN can only be checked after around 2100hrs. These lights can range in purpose and characteristics, something that is checked on inspection. One lighted beacon at Newlyn was incorrectly exhibiting a white light which the Harbourmaster informed us was due to the red Perspex being recently stolen from the light. Fortunately, most of the AtoN we checked were in good working condition, but these are the things that Jon would typically note in his report and on LARS.

The highlight of the trip came during a visit to Porthleven. We had been to the chip shop and sat on a wall overlooking the harbour to eat the chips, when a seagull the size of a child swooped in from behind and snatched Jon’s sausage.

While we were in that part of the country we took the opportunity to stop in and see the team at St. Just. I had not been before so it was good to have a walk around the offices and depot and meet everyone in person.

We also took a little detour to Padstow on the way back to meet with a small company seeking advice on marking requirements for a proposed seaweed farm. This was following on from an application they had made for a marine licence through the MMO. Part of my job is to process these applications and as discussions are usually via email or video call, it was good to talk to the applicant in person.

All in all it was a busy few days, lots of sights to see and places to be! I can definitely see why Jon enjoys his job and I learnt a lot about what he does in the context of the team. It was great to see so much of Cornwall, I’ll definitely be going back – maybe with a bucket and spade for the beach next time!

This article originally appeared in the autumn 2023 edition of Flash