Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

A lyrical voyage of discovery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

If there’s one thing I love more than most things, it’s being told all about a subject I know nothing about by someone with an enthusiastic passion for it and the ability to write in a way that brings it to life. I knew nothing about the various rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to them than Tom Nancollas.

He starts with a brief introduction of himself – he is a building conservationist who chose to study rock lighthouses for his dissertation, giving him a lasting interest in the subject. Having regularly visited as a boy both the Wirral coastline and Cornwall, where his family originated, he tells us he grew up feeling an affinity for the sea and a fascination for all its many moods. For this book, he set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them.

Shipping off the Eddystone Lighthouse
Attributed to Vilhelm Melbye (1824-1882)

He begins with Eddystone, off Plymouth as a way of showing how what became the standard design for rock lighthouses developed. Eddystone has had four lighthouses over the centuries – the first rather whimsical structure unable to withstand its first storm, the second, a part timber building destroyed by fire. The third, (above), built of interlocking stone blocks which provided the strength and stability required to stand up to the sea’s constant pounding, became the model for future lighthouses, and lasted for many years until it too eventually began to shake. It wasn’t the lighthouse at fault though – the rock it was built on had eroded. And so the Victorians built a fourth, the one which still stands, still warning ships to steer clear.

The chapter is a great mix of explaining the building techniques in language easily understandable by the complete layperson, together with vignettes about the architects and builders which humanise the subject. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.

Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm by John Horsburgh
Illus. in: Robert Stevenson, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Each subsequent chapter takes a similar form, gradually leading us round the coasts: to Cornwall’s rocky shores to visit Wolf Rock lighthouse; over to the Scillies to Bishop Rock; up to Scotland to the Bell Rock off Arbroath, built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson; to the now disused and decaying Perch Rock in the Wirral; over to Ireland to Fastnet off Cork; and to Haulbowline on Carlingford Lough, in a kind of no-man’s-sea between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own story and its own history, and Nancollas extends out to tell us something of the places near which they’re situated.

For example, while discussing Bishop Rock, he talks about the Scillies, once one landmass and perhaps even attached to Cornwall, now divided into somewhat isolated islands by rising sea levels. He doesn’t specifically mention climate change, but talks of how the Scillies will eventually be completely submerged and, as the highest point, the Bishop Rock lighthouse will be the last thing in that seascape to be seen above the water. It’s beautifully written, and I found it both moving and frightening.

Haulbowline Light on Carlingford Lough
Photo Credit: Keith Ruffles

Or another example – Haulbowline. The troubled history of the divided island of Ireland means that all records of its building have been lost, if they ever existed. The lighthouse is now unmanned, but Nancollas visits it and tries to visualise it as it once was, with the help of stories from the men with him – the ferry pilot, the lighthouse mechanic, and the grandson of a previous keeper. He tells of how during the Troubles, the British Navy patrolled the lough, stopping and searching suspect ships for contraband, smuggled weapons, etc. He describes the lighthouse as liminal, belonging to neither one side nor the other but standing as a kind of symbol of humanity amidst this disputed and often violent zone.

Tom Nancollas
Photo Credit: Phil Fisk

I have one criticism of the book, which is the lack of adequate illustrations. There are some black and white on page photos, but the book is crying out for glossy sections of full colour pictures: of the lighthouses themselves first and foremost, but also of some of the many men we learn so much about along the way. (I nearly deducted half a star for the lack, but in the end couldn’t bring myself to do it.) That aside, I loved Nancollas’ writing, when he is explaining technical stuff simply, or when he is musing more philosophically about things past and future, or when he talks lyrically of the power of the sea.

I had time, from the elevated perspective of the tower balcony and lantern, to study the sea, really look at it, and watch it behaving in a way you don’t really see from the shore. It breaks around the reef in repeating patterns that reflect the submerged geology around the rock’s waist. There is a point to the south-west, in the path of the Atlantic, where the sea gathers itself up and splinters over a submerged reef on a long, horizontal plume that looks like the scaly neck of a giant beast. On a smaller piece of rock nearby it breaks into a perfectly contained white cloud, always the same size and shape. Engulfing the Little Fastnet, the sea falls back and dribbles in thousands of streams down crevices that will deepen over the centuries. Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that will never end.

A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life, I highly recommend this one.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All the lighthouse illustrations I’ve used are from Wikimedia Commons.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

53 thoughts on “Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

  1. Fascinating! I’ve just gone to my bookcase and pulled out Lighthouses of the Atlantic to check out Bishop Rock. It has the story of the versions being built, along with the rescue stories of builders being swept away by waves. The idea that it will one day be under water is sad. If you come across Lighthouses of the Atlantic, grab it, the photos and text are wonderful, although it is more of a coffee-table book than yours sounds. The excerpts from Seashaken Houses are beautiful.

  2. I love lighthouses although I don’t think I would have enjoyed being a lighthouse keeper! The book sounds really interesting and, from what you say, I’d have been disappointed by the lack of illustrations/photos. Half the fun is a visual.

  3. I’d like illustrations, too, for a book like this, FictionFan! But it does sound both interesting and enlightening (If you’ll pardon the pun). I know just what you mean about learning more about something from someone who loves that something. It’s magical, isn’t it? And it sounds as though all of these places have their own stories to tell. Fascinating!!

    • I always think a book like this needs illustrations, but thank goodness for Google! Yes, a real enthusiast who writes well is rare, but when they do, they can interest me in almost any subject and make me share their fascination. And they teach me something along the way… 😀

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it, if you get to it sometime! Thank you – I love reviewing books as interesting as this one. So much easier than trying to find something original to say about the 900th crime novel of the year… 😉

    • Ha – yes, I sometimes fantasise about being a lighthouse keeper too… or a hermit! It’s a shame these jobs are becoming obsolete. I bet these old lighthouse keepers didn’t have to attend team-building conferences… 😉

  4. Add me to the growing list of folks who love lighthouses (perhaps because I’m an inland gal and never get to see them unless I’m traveling!). This sounds like a wonderful read — glad you found it so enjoyable, though I’m with you on the photos!

    • I only see them when travelling too, and I’ve only ever seen ones built on land. I’d love to go on a bout trip out to ones of these rock lighthouses… with my camera!!

  5. Yes, I love lighthouses for that mysterious quality and the knowledge they have stood up to some storms that could have bent and broken even the most stouthearted of men’s efforts. There is a beautiful network of them down the US Pacific Coast as well with equally fascinating stories. But pictures, particularly color, an absolute must. Great review, FF, thanks!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I still find it incredible that people were able to build them in the middle of the seas perched on little rocks – what a feat! And I’d love to be able to spend a night or two in one and get the sensation of the power of the sea…

    • It’s so well written too. I’d love to actually spend a night or two in one of the lighthouses, especially during a storm – it must be terrifying and wonderful at the same time…

  6. I love your review and its subject. It’s a stunning thought to consider how these sea-surrounded lighthouses were built and lived in. It sounds like Nancollas gives a very evocative account. It made me wonder about the lighthouses on our island nation and I discovered that of the 23 we have, there is only one rock lighthouse but it’s not seaswept. Fascinating subject!

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m still in awe of the fact that they were able to build these at all – what an amazing feat, and of course so many tragedies during the building of them. I’m surprised there’s only one rock lighthouse on your coasts – I wonder why? Maybe by the time NZ was becoming heavily settled they’d already moved on to different kinds of navigational technology? Though I can’t think what. We should send Nancollas over to do a companion book about it…

      • The NZ lighthouses are built on land or on smaller islands off the coast. Only one is built on a very small island that is just rock (though photos today show it now has a some green on it). Many were very isolated and away from the mainland but there weren’t any built ‘in the sea’ so to speak. And of course our earliest light houses (starting 1858) can’t match the earliest built UK and Irish ones.

        • Ah, maybe we don’t have lots of little islands around the coast. Although the pictures I’ve used show them all with their bases submerged, apparently all the rocks are above the water line at certain tides and times of the year, so that sometimes the builders actually lived on the rocks in temporary houses while building them. But even today getting to them can be tricky – some have helipads built on the top now, but that sounded nearly as dangerous as getting there by boat!

  7. I have never been to a lighthouse. In fact, I’m not even sure how many we have along India’s 7,500-km long coastline. But I can see why the guardians of the seas would make a fascinating topic for a book. I recall reading, some years ago, a couple of mystery stories set around lighthouses..

    • Because our country is so small, you’re never further than about fifty miles from the sea here and we all grow up going to the seaside for days out and holidays. That, combined with our maritime history, makes us all feel like seafarers even if we’ve never set foot in a boat! Oh, lighthouses would be a great setting – atmospheric! I reckon they’d work well for ghost stories too…

  8. This does sound fascinating! I too love ‘learning about new things through someone passionate about the subject’ and this fits the bill wonderfully. Definitely a missed opportunity with the lack of photos I will say…

  9. I am taken with your enthusiasm for this book and the subject although I have to admit to an appreciation of light houses and those who manned them in years gone by. I imagine that it wasn’t a job for everyone. The book sounds fabulous although it is surprising that it doesn’t include more colour illustrations. Great review and well done on having new specialist subject.

    • I suspect most book-lovers have occasionally dreamed of a six-month stint on a lighthouse! But getting on and off these ones sounds terrifying, even the ones that now have helipads attached…

  10. Wow this looks so interesting! It’s a book I might have not necessarily been drawn to but your review has definitely changed that. I love the images you’ve used too! 😍

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