‘What made you set your story in a lighthouse?’ I’m often asked. The truth is, it wasn’t intentional. The story was inspired by my unexpected, Twitter-initiated friendship with a well-known flamenco guitarist – and I just found myself exaggerating our true-life locations: his comfortable house in outer Madrid became a penthouse apartment in the vibrant city centre, and my (then) near-coastal bungalow became my local lighthouse… at Beachy Head.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter follows Imogen, borrowing her Aunt’s renovated lighthouse while recovering from the break-up of her marriage, and, thirty years earlier, her lighthouse keeper father on the nearby Beachy Head lighthouse – until he mysteriously drowned there in 1982. She discovers that he was intensely corresponding with a young female penfriend – just as she is, with (you’ve guessed it) an actor-musician Twitter friend in Madrid. They learn that these unexpected, irresistible connections can have wonderful – but also possibly tragic – consequences.
I think it’s common to want to run away to the coast; there’s something energising about it, as if reaching the edge of the land makes you face up to things. But Beachy Head is no ordinary edge: towering 530 feet above the sea, it’s the highest of the series of chalk cliffs undulating between Seaford and Eastbourne in the South Downs National Park. It takes Imogen a while to get used to the ‘the earth dropping and swaying beneath her’. Many years ago, as a heart-broken twenty-something, I escaped to Beachy Head myself – not to go anywhere near the edge, but just to stand there like some French Lieutenant’s Woman and feel sorry for myself. I didn’t know then that the area has always been a renowned suicide spot. Although numbers have been much reduced by the Beachy Head Chaplaincy team patrolling the cliffs to help despondent people, about twenty to twenty-five poor souls each year still lose their lives here – some unintentionally (the chalk cliff edges are notoriously unstable). Although there’s an awareness of this sadness, and danger at the cliff inevitably finds its way into the story, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter mostly celebrates the invigorating beauty of the area, just as local people and a million or so visitors do each year.
One of the reasons I chose the Beachy Head area for Imogen’s coastal escape was because it has not one but two lighthouses. The squat little Belle Tout was built in 1832, but the cliff top was often so foggy that its light flashes couldn’t be seen from the sea. It was decommissioned in 1902, a few days before the new lighthouse in the sea below Beachy Head was ready to take over. The Belle Tout has passed through the hands of a number of private owners, including two physicians, so it didn’t seem unreasonable for Imogen’s aunt and physician uncle to have bought it. It’s now a beautiful little B&B, and it was wonderful to be able to stay in the original keeper’s bunk room that became Imogen’s in the story.
I never got to see inside the Beachy Head lighthouse, but I was lucky to be able to spend a magical afternoon with lighthouse expert Rob Wassell (author of The Story of… books about the two lighthouses and Birling Gap) on a boulder-strewn low-tide walk to it. As Imogen says, ‘from the cliff top, it was an endearing, little red and white striped ornament; on the beach it is shockingly tall, its colours majestic, a sad and mysterious presence.’ Like many lighthouses at the time it became automated in 1982, making the keepers – and their profession – redundant; this impending change, which must have been very distressing for many of them, is an important element in her father’s story.
Given the novel’s theme of communication, I wanted to include the viewpoint of Imogen’s Twitter friend Santi in Madrid. His setting is as contrasting as possible from hers; the land-locked capital city and the seaside cliff top initially make them feel like they might just as well be on different planets. My research in Madrid included the delightful but Spanish-taxing company of flamenco musicians, many weeks walking around the city, observation (and being asked to take over) a community English class, and a nerve-wracking audition for a television drama!
For someone with a fear of heights and a frequent dislike of capital cities, researching my two main settings for The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter could have been a challenge, but I surprised myself by quickly falling in love with both places. I still visit my friends in Madrid whenever I can, and particularly enjoy all the flamenco venues, the Sorolla Museum, the Retiro, Jardines de Sabatini and numerous other glorious parks. As for Beachy Head – well, I now live five minutes from the lighthouse.
You can get a copy of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter from any good book shop, or online from various sites e.g. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lighthouse-Keepers-Daughter-Cherry-Radford/dp/1911583646/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1532207378&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=cherry+radford&dpPl=1&dpID=51yBWY3XBwL&ref=plSrch