Seashaken Houses: A Lighthouse History from Eddystone to Fastnet by Tom Nancollas

When I was ambling around Waterstones a few weeks back, as you do, my eye lit upon the rather lovely cover of this book; and since the subject matter was something in which I have an interest, I was very tempted… I resisted for a couple of weeks, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I finally succumbed. Why, you may ask, do I have such an interest in lighthouses?? I can’t really say, if I’m honest. It may have something to do with the fact that my grandfather was a sailor, and so no doubt found these noble buildings to be essential; it may be that I’ve always lived within a reasonable distance from the sea (not difficult on our Island Nation); or it may be that I was scarred for life as well as intrigued by reading Wilfred Gibson’s “Flannan Isle” when I was a teenager! Whatever it is, I find lighthouses endlessly fascinating and romantic, standing as they do at the edges, giving warnings of danger, and speaking of isolation and danger and heroism and madness and all those sorts of things…

Anyway – I was keen to pick this one up soon, and having been egged on by Ali and Liz who want to know what the book is like, I shall get on with it. A quote on the front of the book describes it as a “personal, lyrical journey” and that’s not really far off it. Author Tom Nancollas is also a person fascinated by the sea, torn between the Cornish and Wirral coasts where most of his childhood holidays were taken. As a building conservationist he studied lighthouses as the subject for his dissertation, a decision sparked by childhood memories of distant structures in the sea. As he explains in his introduction, 27 rock lighthouses were historically built around the coasts of Britain; 20 of those survive, and the book relates his journeys to explore just some of those lighthouses, whilst telling the history of lighthouse building in this country.

Despite the sea’s instability, we have achieved permanence there. Between 1698 and 1904, a total of 27 rock lighthouses were constructed to mark the most dangerous hazards to shipping in the seas around Great Britain and Ireland. Of these, twenty survive today, a panoply of exquisite buildings that are the descendants of fabular prototypes. Taking the form of tall stone towers crowned with iron lanterns, they appear to rise, mirage-like, straight out of the sea, the circular foundations often unseen.

The book opens with the Eddystone Lighthouse, off Plymouth on the south coast, and closes with Fastnet, below the Irish coast. These are the first and last lighthouses constructed on our coasts, and in between he covers other enigmatic and dangerous structures such as Wolf Rock, Bishop Rock and Bell Rock. Woven in with the narrative of his visits to these sites (some of which are completely inaccessible, and one of which can only be visited in the mind, through recollections of a former keeper) is the history of lighthouse building in Britain; in particular the families who were involved in their planning, development and construction.

This latter aspect of the book makes fascinating reading, as it does seem that lighthouse building often turned out to be a family business! And interestingly the Stevenson family seem to have been mightily important, with even Robert Louis getting a mention at points in the story. The same names keep recurring in connection with different structures, and it does seem to be that lighthouse building is something of a calling.

Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, swelling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that that will never end.

Set against the history of these maritime beacons is Nancollas’ visits to the various locations on the coast he can reach, as well as his encounters with former keepers and those involved in the maintaining of the lights. There are some fascinating musings on what it was like to actually be a keeper, and tales of high jinks on some rocky outposts, as well as tragic stories of shipwreck. Inevitably, there is a sense that Nancollas is looking back to a time of progress and invention; the Stevensons for example were responsible for so much new ‘technology’ of their time; and I couldn’t help but feeling that we no longer have that vision of experimentation and the determination to take on such huge tasks. When you think about sheer audacity of trying to build in the sea and the massive achievement of those who did, against all the odds, it’s quite breathtaking. And Nancollas has a wonderful sense of the dramatic, relating stories of metal towers that went wrong, stone towers that were badly constructed, and the hard work and time it took to build the final structures which still stand today.

So the book is a pleasing balance of history, fact, personal reminiscence and the author’s visits to lighthouses (when he can). Nancollas is an engaging narrator, a joy to spend time with, and at one point he discovers an intriguing family connection to a particular lighthouse. What comes through very strongly, too, is a sense of respect; not only for the men who designed and constructed what could have been considered impossible buildings but which got built and survived until today; but also for the sea itself, and its power. Despite being surrounded by it, Nancollas thinks that few of us really understand it, and as we come to rely more and more upon digital navigation and the like, we lose the ability to read the natural world. That applies to more than just the sea, I think, and on the day all the electronic systems go dark, many of us may struggle to survive… On the Scilly Isles he contemplates the constant threat over the centuries to humans from the sea, and it’s a useful reminder that we’ve become a little detached from the natural world, taking it for granted and forgetting its power.

In a sense, rock lighthouses are monumentalized by their unfamiliarity to most people. We’re not quite sure how to behave in their presence, so reverence fills the void.

The final lighthouse visit in the book is a very special one, as Nancollas embarks on a week long stay at Fastnet, the last of the great rock lighthouses to be built. Here he gets a real glimpse of what it must have been like to be marooned on one of these places for months at a time. He also muses on what’s to come in the future for these structures that stand sentinel in our waters. Fastnet is one of last surviving mechanical lights; most lighthouses are now run by solar power, and with sat nav and the like, will there really be a need for lighthouses in years to come? Nancollas thinks and hopes so (and I’m with him); seafarers he encounters still use the lights to aid navigation and it would be a great shame to see these buildings fall into complete disuse.

A rock lighthouse is a symbol of tolerance and altruism, of assistance made available to those in need regardless of their nationality. Taken too far, nationalism can lead to division, but a rock lighthouse offers a message of fellowship. It is the type of building that is not introspective, but outward-looking.

“Seashaken Houses” turned out to be a marvellous book; it’s a fascinating and compelling read, with a lovely mix of the history and the personal, and I was sorry to part company with Nancollas at the end. The book is beautifully presented with illustrations, notes and a handy map of the lighthouses and their dates of construction (it’s worth noting that although the Eddystone was the first, it went through several different attempts before reaching a stable version; Bell Rock in Scotland is the oldest working building to remain on its reef). For me, lighthouses are enigmatic and compelling structures, a testament to the great inventors and builders of the past, and I loved reading about them in this book. But, after reading “Flannan Isle” again, I’m not sure you’d get me to make an overnight stay on one of them… ;D

*****

My old and battered Gibson collection – the first poem inside is “Flannan Isle” itself…

If you want to know what I’m rambling on about, “Flannan Isle” can be read online here; wonderful and very chilling poem!

(Although I’m not formally taking part in any challenges this month, I can’t help but count this one for #nonfictionNovember!!)