My family come from Co. Kilkenny in Ireland and
have passed on to me a love of literature and
storytelling. Many years ago I began to write short
stories after spending draughty evenings at various
I found some early success when a number of my short
stories were published in magazines. My confidence
was further boosted when I was shortlisted in
several writing competitions.
By this point, I desperately wanted to make writing
a bigger part of my life, but I found I was
struggling to find the time for it. What I really
needed was a focus for my writing, and signing up
for a recognised writing qualification seemed like
the ideal solution.
It turned out that Roehampton University had just
added a new course – an MA in Creative and
Professional Writing. It sounded perfect. I had no
undergraduate qualifications but luckily for me, I
was offered a place on the strength of my published
I had not written an academic essay in over 20
years, and the course was much more challenging than
I had expected. I was very grateful for the unending
patience of my tutor Susan Greenberg and with her
support, I proudly graduated in the summer of 2007.
It was Susan who first inspired me to write about my
passion for lighthouses. Little did I realise, this
fascination would soon set me onto the journey of
writing my book, Untold Stories Beachy Head.
It began innocently enough – a curiosity for what it
must have been like for the lighthouse keepers
watching over the coast, looking out for lost
My research took me to Beachy Head, an area of
outstanding natural beauty on the South Eastern
coast of England, renowned for having one of the
highest chalk cliffs in Britain. Tragically, behind
Beachy Head’s magnificence, lies its reputation as
one of the world’s most notorious suicide spots.
Keeping a silent vigil, the
keepers remained devoted to the task of saving the lives of
seafarers. Their isolation was rewarded whenever the ‘thank you’
horn sounded in the distance, from grateful passing ships, no
longer tolled a penny per lighthouse by Trinity House for their
safe passage. When the keepers were commissioned to the
lighthouse, they knew little of the rare nature of the building
but few would fail to be touched or disturbed by the tragic
history of Beachy Head. When more ships were wrecked at the foot
of the cliffs, engineers worked tirelessly to improve the
location and efficiency of the candle lamps, helping them to
send warning messages deeper and further out to the ocean. Yet
the land held no such change. Year on, year out the saddened,
the mournful, the unlucky and the pitiful would find their way
to Beachy Head. The light unable to touch them, warn or deter.
In the dark of night, the lighthouse does not illuminate the
cliffs and this darkness is bleak and lonely. Sinister mists
descend, shrouding and blurring the cliff edge. Late at night
the atmosphere somehow feels different, more isolated. The
lighthouse turns its back on you to do its work.
Led on by Beachy Head’s dark romance, I was drawn
to unearth the untold stories of the lone rescuers,
the search and rescue teams and bereaved families.
To reveal the coroner’s decisions and the true
statistics. To uncover the myths, the ghostly
sightings, the murders and the smugglers’ tales. All
the while I was working on the book, more stories
would emerge as each passing year yielded more lost
lives at Beachy Head.
It wasn’t an easy process to say the least. For a
start I was working frontline for The London
Ambulance Service, responding to 999 calls. In
addition, at home I was raising five sons of various
ages. Now, anyone who has children will know that
they like a lot of attention! I had to find a way to
defend my writing time from the pressures of a
hectic family life. In a moment of genius, an idea
came to me. Headgear.
A red headband was a signal to my family that I was
not to be disturbed for anything that was less than
imminently life threatening. A pink-feathered
fascinator meant it was OK to approach me - but make
it quick. And a purple ribboned headband meant that
I was looking for any excuse to escape the keyboard.
It worked like charm.
After three years of hard graft, Beachy Head Untold
Stories was finally published.
I now live in Surrey with my partner and three
youngest sons, plus a new edition to the family – a
German Shepherd called Romeo. I am also an editor
for LAMP, a specialist magazine for lighthouse
enthusiasts and retired keepers.
You can read more about Sheila and catch-up on
the latest news and information about Beachy Head by