My recent reading has been nothing if not an exercise in contrasts; Calvino, Camus and clothes, for example, have all made recent appearances on the Ramblings! And today I’m going off at another little tangent! I was eyeing up the stacks and wondering what to pick up next when I caught sight of the gorgeous coffee table book Mr. Kaggsy presented me with at Christmas. It’s on something I’m rather fond of, and that’s lighthouses! I’m not entirely sure why, although my grandfather was a merchant sailor so I’ve always felt very close to sea (and would one day like to retire closer to it). Whatever the reason for the attraction, Mr K did a bit of research and decided this would be the perfect book for me – and he was right!!

Rock Lighthouses of Britain” is written by pharologist Christopher P. Nicholson, and has a long publishing history. First issued in 1983, it’s been updated and reprinted over the years, and my edition comes from 2006. This means that it now includes full details of the final years of manned lighthouses and the changes brought on by automation, so it’s very up to date with the fate of those rock sentinels.

The narrative focuses specifically on those lighthouses built offshore, and in difficult circumstances, on chunks of rock attacked regularly by the forces of the ocean. These, of course, were the places where there was most risk to shipping; and with the increase of sea trade from the 17th century, some kind of marker so that vessels could avoid dangerous reefs and the like became increasingly essential. Nicholson traces the development of lighthouses from early attempts at wood structures through to the massive stone towers we now know, drawing in the achievements of the famous Stevensons, as well as pioneers like Winstanley, Douglass and Smeaton.

The story is fascinating; humanity against the elements, and the struggles to construct something in almost impossible conditions. There was, of course, a financial incentive to do this, as the loss of ships meant loss of cargo and money. But it feels like there was more behind the drive to construct these signals, an altruistic need to help ensure all ships were safe, and that does add an interesting angle to the story. So Nicholson covers the building of the various lighthouses, the trouble and dramas surrounding them, myths and legends (Grace Darling inevitably makes an appearance) and also the politics behind who built them and who controlled them. It really is an absorbing read.

An example of the kind of illustrations this lovely book features!

Where this book excels, of course, is with its visuals. There is a range of absolutely stunning shots of the lighthouses, often being besieged by the elements, but also historical ones of lighthouse construction, showing just what those intrepid builders had to cope with whilst assembling the towers. The icing on the cake, for me, were the reproductions of plans for the various lighthouses, from the earliest ideas through to the final definitive designs. These usually took the form of beautiful little watercoloured drawings and they were so lovely and so evocative. It’s obvious that Nicholson has raided the archives of Trinity House and seeing these designs reproduced was such a treat. He’s also looked widely for the remarkable photographic images and the results are as definitive a guide as you could get. Pleasingly, the author has visited many lighthouses and builds in personal memories, as well as many of his own photographs, and that added much to the telling of the tale.

The site of the mysterious happenings on Flannan Isles… (photo via Wikimedia Commons – JJM / St. Flannan’s Cell and Flannan Isles Lighthouse / CC BY-SA 2.0)

I mentioned earlier legends such as that of Grace Darling, and I was rather thrilled to see inclusion of a location which doesn’t really fit the criteria – that of Flannan Isles lighthouse. To be honest, although the name is familiar to me I hadn’t actually been sure it was a real place! You see, when I was at school we read a wonderfully spooky poem entitled “Flannan Isle” by Wilfred Gibson, all about scary Marie Celeste type events taking place on an isolated rock. I love the poem still, so imagine my delight to discover that the book covers the lighthouse, despite it being relatively accessible, and Nicholson explores the legend in detail. This was one of my favourite chapters – and if you want to read the poem, you can find it online here!

“Rock Lighthouses…” was pure joy from start to finish, and I absolutely loved it. A mixture of interesting and erudite text, combined with the most wonderful illustrations, it’s absolutely the perfect book for any pharologist. I can’t applaud Mr. Kaggsy’s book-finding skills enough – this was indeed the ideal find for me!!!