Here’s what it’s like to step out of the Lantern Room at the Belle Tout lighthouse near Beachy Head in Sussex, in the South Downs National Park, and walk around the platform on the outside of the tower. Yes, the outside. A long way above the ground, and beside a four hundred foot drop. I’m afraid of heights – my children still laugh at the way I clung on to the inside wall of the Eiffel Tower for dear life, genuinely scared, so this was a challenge. The heavy breathing is because I was frightened! Worth it though, for the astonishing views. Enjoy! It’s the setting for The Light Keeper, my first novel, published this August. If you want to know more about the book or read the first three chapters for free, just let me have your email here. You’ll automatically get the chance to win a night in the lighthouse.
Hello you. How’s it going? Last night we stayed at the Belle Tout lighthouse. This is a Georgian lighthouse on the edge of a four hundred foot drop on its own hill near Beachy Head in East Sussex, The Lantern Room is a wonderful space with 360 degree views of the South Downs, the Seven Sisters and the sea. Here’s a video, taking you around the room.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? David and Barbara Shaw bought the place a decade ago and they’ve spent more than a million doing it up, so it’s a really beautiful bed and breakfast. Here’s the website. It’s not like that in the story, which takes place when the lighthouse is still semi-derelict, as it was for a while before they took over. Next time I will show you what it was like to go out on that balcony, on a windy day. Brace yourself.
As you may well know by now, this is the setting for my novel The Light Keeper, a story of love, hope, faith and longing, which comes out on August 15. I’ll be telling stories from it and singing songs inspired by it at the Greenbelt Festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Then I’ll be doing the same in Alfriston on September 14 thanks to my friends at the wonderful Much Ado Books and at an exclusive, very-limited-numbers performance inside that same Lantern Room, the one in the video, on September 15. Do you want to be there? I’d love you to. Only a dozen people can come, but for the chance of a pair of tickets – or even, separately, the chance to win a night for two staying at the lighthouse – sign up here.
I’m also up for telling you stories and singing you songs wherever you are, if you can get some other people who want to hear. Let me know firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for now, thanks for reading. I’m going to try something new and write a little note every Friday to share what I’m up to and how you can get involved too, if that’s okay. Get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
I live on the coast. I can hear French radio on the car stereo. Ferries leave for France every day. The fishermen here are related, way back in time, to families from Normandy and Spain. We’re nearer to France here than we are to Westminster … yet my town voted for Brexit, by a large majority. The same goes for other towns all along the edge of England, for people living by the side of the Channel. I was fascinated by that and wanted to explore what was going on, in real life, way beyond the headlines and the B-word balls up. I do believe, in general, in the words of the late MP Jo Cox:
“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
I wondered if that was true here and now, in this fraught and divisive moment. And I was lucky, even blessed, that the perceptive Mohit Bakaya at Radio 4 was prepared to commission radio on this theme.
So I got together with my partner in radio, the producer Jonathan Mayo, and we devised a two-part documentary that would take us walking through Calais first then Dover, talking and listening to people who live, love, work and play beside and on the stretch of sea that the French call La Manche and that can seem like a bridge on a beautiful clear day, but is almost as often a barrier.
The model was the programme we had done for Radio 4 called The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer, walking through Kensington meeting the very rich and those who were struggling.
The Walk: Across The Water was floated, if you will forgive me, in the Autumn, just as the first reports began to come through of migrants trying to cross the Channel in small boats, having been told by people traffickers that they should try to get here before Brexit closed the doors for good. Men, women and children nearly died in the attempt, but they were rescued by the admirable servants of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the Border Force, the ferries or the fishing fleet. Even as we were researching the programmes, the Home Secretary Sajid David sent more boats to the Channel and declared the migration a national emergency.
I went across to Calais in early January for a research trip with my son Joshua, who has good French. We went to the top of the Calais lighthouse on a terrifyingly windy day, saw the White Cliffs of Dover and met Sebastien, the guide, who turned out to be a fan of Doctor Who and as a cosplay enthusiast who dressed up as David Tennant’s Doctor. On the way back I got terrible toothache as the result of an infection under a tooth on the lower left side of my mouth, which screamed to be taken out. I didn’t dare do that though, for fear that having it removed would make me sound like Daffy Duck right in the middle of making two radio programmes that were increasingly coming to mean a lot to me, personally. I waited until after they were made before having the tooth out, which meant suffering the pain for a couple of months. It’s gone now, which is a relief.
Anyway, I returned to Calais with Jonathan later in January and we met up with Sophie Tritz, a French journalist who turned out to be a brilliant fixer and great company. You can listen to the results here, but let me just say that the love story between Beatrice and her partner is extraordinary. So are the jaw-dropping, hardline things the Deputy Mayor of Calais says about migrants. Dover proved equally full of surprises. If you’d like to read more about either programme, I wrote a piece about Calais for the i newspaper and another about Dover here. The Walk: Across The Water was made by TBI Media on behalf of the BBC, with excellent sound work by Andy Partington. Thanks for your interest. I’ll post some photos of the trip below.
I have a new story to tell. It’s about a young woman called Sarah who is caught up in the stress of trying for a baby, through fertility treatment. The cracks are showing in her relationship with her lover Jack. They’re in that terrible moment between having the last cycle of treatment you can afford and finding out whether it has worked. I remember it all too well.
Their nerves are shredded. Sarah needs to be alone, away from him, to face the moment of truth. So she runs, out of the city and down to the coast, to the high cliffs and beautiful down land around Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters.
When he finds her gone, Jack sets off in a hurry to find Sarah, convinced he must do so before it’s too late. But she doesn’t want to be found. Not by him. Not yet.
And there’s someone else seeking answers too, up on the cliffs where the seabirds soar. A man known only as the Keeper, living in an old lighthouse right on the cusp of a four hundred foot drop. He’s only too aware that love sometimes takes you to the edge.
This is the situation at the beginning of my debut novel The Light Keeper, which comes out in August. It’s about love, loss, longing, faith and hope. I hope you’ll want to read it. Matt Haig has. The author of Reasons To Stay Alive and Notes From A Nervous Planet loves The Light Keeper, as you can see below.
I’d love to send you the first three chapters as a taster. Will you give me your email address so that I can send them, please?
There’s more to come. I have a brilliant publisher, Marylebone House, but getting a story out there and heard by people who might really love it is a challenge. Right now, the story and I need friends. People who will read it, tell their mates, spread the word. Could that be you?
If you sign up you’ll also get exclusive access to a load of good things, including videos, readings, podcasts, competitions and the chance to win a book, a walk and lunch with me in that stunning landscape or even a night at the lighthouse for two people.
You can also ask me anything, any time. If you have a book club, a group, a church or a bunch of mates I’ll happily come round and talk about The Light Keeper and the themes within it, which we’ll explore together over the coming months.
Billy Graham came to England in 1954 and again in the Eighties and had a huge impact. He offered a new deal, a contract that was simple to understand and act upon. Believe in Jesus, accept Him as your personal saviour and you will be forgiven, your life will be transformed. The old ways of faith through tradition, culture and community were no longer enough. But the trouble with offering people a new deal is that if – or in this case, when – they eventually find it wanting, or if the thrill doesn’t last, they give up and walk away, losing trust in the people who sold it to them. For a while it looked as if Billy Graham was saving the Church in this country, but maybe he should take some of the blame for its demise. Here’s an extract from my book looking at the changes in British culture and spirituality since the Eighties, ‘Is God Still An Englishman? How Britain lost its faith (but found new soul)’ Continue reading “Did Billy Graham break the Church?”