“Our social life is the ship.”
What Steven asked Päivi Seppälä and Gary Weston, co-directors of creative lightship LV21.
In a distressing turn of events, Steven had to travel to Gravesham to visit Päivi Seppälä and Gary Weston onboard LV21, their lightship that has been converted into a creative space and performance vessel. They discuss meeting within Rochester’s music and art scene, just what a lightship is, and why it is no longer moored in Medway.
Where were you born and how did you end up in the Medway Towns?
Päivi: I was born in a small harbour military town called Hamina in Finland. I was studying product design in Finland at a university, and I came to do an Erasmus exchange, in those good days when we could do those. That was in 1999. I came for three months to study at the Kent Institute for Art and Design. After that, I was supposed to go to Milan, but then I met somebody who is sitting next to me, and the rest is history. The Medway magnet got me.
Gary: I was born in Belgium. My parents moved to Chatham after we lived multiple places when I was growing up. Then they settled in Chatham and I was of college age, so I needed somewhere. I lived with them for the first couple of years, and then I stayed in Medway. Although I went away to study, I came back to Medway to settle.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
Päivi: I come from a kind of traditional crafters family from my dad's side. We come from generations of wooden traditional boat builders. My dad was a boat builder but also then for extra income worked in the local port, in terms of the logistics and how to put the loads on the ships as a stevedore. My mum was a housewife but also a weaver, and still is very good at traditional red rag weaving, recycling old rags and making beautiful objects out of them on the floor.
Gary: My father was in the military and my mum had multiple jobs in different places, from working in a cafe in London to being Des O’Connor’s housekeeper.
How did you find school and university?
Päivi: I did enjoy school in a way. I came from a very small town, where me and all of the neighbouring children went to the same school for the first six years, so we were very much a larger family. Traditionally in Finland in terms of education, you're not just your parent’s child, you are everybody's child, so everybody's looking out for you, but they're also trying to catch you out from doing anything naughty so that that's quite good. But I did once start a rebellion, when I was 12, at school because we didn't agree with our head teacher, and that wasn't great. It was a great experience for a bit, but I think after that I calmed down.
When you say a rebellion?
Päivi: It was a kind of a march about how in Finland most of the population is Lutheran, it's a state religion, and in those days at school you had to say praise for your food and after you had eaten, and I didn't believe in that so I staged a right to banish that, and it led to quite heated conversations between parents and other young people. It involved all of our class hiding in the girls’ toilets at one point so nobody knew where we were. We were all missing, and I’d had enough and had to vent my anger, but the following year I did get the traditional, smiling statues. The girls and boys had the smiler of the year, so I think had it out of my system, I’d had my say and I calmed down again. I think it was it was a good experience in the fact that it was we had the same class teacher throughout. Everybody had the same opportunities and I think that's the great thing about the Finnish education system, that whether you were academically excelling or not it didn't matter. My favourite subjects were woodworking and art. I wasn't really into the others but I loved English.
Gary: Mine was a bit different because we moved so much. At a younger age, I was in a different school every two years and that could be anywhere from Belgium, Germany, Leicester. We were pretty much on the move quite a lot. Secondary school wasn't my favourite. Academically I was pretty good, at sports I was pretty good, but I kind of bucked the system because I didn't like the environment. My school reports were usually referring to my dyed hair, extravagant dress and lackadaisical attitude. When I did my O-Levels, I did quite well, but after I opted to go to college. With university, I wanted to go somewhere different. I just decided to go quite far away from where our base was, which was at the time in Medway, so I went to Hull to study English and Film and later on after a couple of years in the work environment, I went and studied at the University of Greenwich and did a PGCE.
What was your first full-time job?
Päivi: In a local supermarket, where I worked summers stocking shelves and all that at the meat counter. I knew so much about meat that the butcher taught me. I didn't really eat any of it myself. We also had lots of fish and from that, I graduated and worked in the café. It was a great experience to learn the basics of animal body parts and you met everybody in town. Small town, one supermarket, so everybody would come. You really knew all the characters, plus we had the most amazing Christmas parties. Those things probably don't exist anymore. I was probably the youngest there, I got to see a lot of things.
Gary: Working in a photo processing lab, in Maidstone. That was between college and university. I took a year out, and then when I graduated, my full-time job was as a dispatch rider, doing freelance stuff on a motorbike. My first job out of university, I was the sound engineer for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, working in Great Portland Street, running a studio, and recording audiobooks.
What is your official occupation?
Päivi: What do I put in my tax thing? I’m a company director for LV21, but for my freelance business, my interest lies in textile art. When I'm very lucky I get to do some of that every now and again. I do that as a creative producer.
Gary: I am also co-director of the ship. I have another business which I am co-director of, running a very small production company. I'll do everything in digital production, from films to websites, photography, and some motion graphics.
What is LV21?
Päivi: A big red ship. It’s a landmark. Light Vessel 21. Historically the light ships in the UK never had names, just numbers, and just to mess things up they're not in chronological order.
Gary: The original 0-20 are well gone because they were wooden. In the 30s they were riveted ships, probably a bit before that, but in the 1800s they were wooden. There are very few light ships left. There are perhaps six still in service, but they are being retired. They were a navigation aid. They were moored at locations that were perilous for other seagoing vessels. They would warn vessels of the danger of that area, and originally, they would have a crew of seven and then in the 80s they automated all the light ships.
Päivi: Like a floating buoy, they don't have any engines. They've never had any, which means they've got lots of space for the after-use, which is perfect for us. With LV21, the great thing about this particular vessel is that it was mostly moored on the Kent coast.
Gary: This ship’s history is mostly Goodwin Sands, the most famous sand bank of the Kent coast. That's where lots of ships were lost, and this ship was there too to keep other seagoing vessels safe.
Päivi: My favourite book as a child was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and I love the illustrations. They were really dark and I reread the number two book, and that book starts with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang being on the Goodwin Sands, and listening into the fog coming in and the fog horn of lightship. It was written and published in the late 60s, so it might well have been this ship then is referred to in that book.
How does one start a conversation about buying a light vessel?
Gary: This conversation went on for some time. There was a period when we were both in our creative businesses, we're looking for something else because we had done the things we wanted to do and we had a bit more ambition to do something different, a bit more exciting and a bit more unknown. We were looking at opening a venue in a historic building, or an old industrial building. Some building with character, something that had history. But we didn't have any money. We couldn't afford anything that we saw. It was way beyond our spend. Around the same time, I was looking at houseboats and the possibility of maybe buying one to do up or live on. There was a lightship for sale at Borstal. It was a wooden one. I've never owned a boat, let alone a lightship, or something of that size, and being wooden it just looked beyond my skill and our budget to actually get it anywhere. But the idea of a lightship, which we hadn't really considered before, or even really known that much about the idea of what a lightship had been or what its history was. But also the industrial heritage, the shipbuilding, the engineering and the whole thing about the lightship inspired us.
Päivi: We looked at River Medway and we always felt that the place is called Medway, but the river was very overlooked as an asset. Nothing was happening on the river.
Gary: Not many people would necessarily do what we have done, but we wanted to do something that was unusual and nobody else is doing. Yes, it is a challenge and every now and again there is a challenge that we need to overcome, but we are unique. I don't think there's anybody else doing what we're doing, and we've been doing it for 14 years and still people are interested.
Päivi: We celebrated the 60th anniversary of the ship this year.
Gary: It was launched on my birthdate, which is another random.
Päivi: Gary never has a birthday, it’s always the ship’s birthday. It’s why he looks so young.
Why isn’t LV21 anchored in the Medway Towns?
Gary: When we left Medway, we came to Gravesend to support the Estuary Festival. It was Essex heavy, north Kent didn’t have a lot to balance. As a ship we are a movable venue, we can basically rock up somewhere and tie up. Gravesham were always keen to get us to come here, but there was never a place. Because of the festival and the opportunity that brought with it, it made coming to Gravesend easier for us, and because we had been at Gillingham for six years previously, we did feel like it was time for a change. We did feel, in terms of the morning opportunities in Medway, we were always knocking our heads against a brick wall, and it felt like whatever we were doing was always made a struggle when it shouldn't have been, and Gravesham opened the opportunity here and supported us by putting in the mooring. We wouldn't be here if they hadn't invested in the quayside. That's why we're not in Medway, because there's no investment in the river or the quaysides or the piers. There is nowhere for us to moor in Medway at the moment. It wasn’t that we wanted support, we just didn’t want the resistance. There is so much potential on that river.
Päivi: I would say LV21 is not in Medway, but we are still very much in Medway. We live there and love working with creative partners there.
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