Sheila Ryan Home PageAbout Sheila RyanContact Sheila RyanBeachy Head Untold Stories

 
 

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 writing classes.

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 short stories.

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 sailors.

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. www.alk.org.uk

You can read more about Sheila and catch-up on the latest news and information about Beachy Head by visiting her blog.

Sheila Ryan and Family 

 

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