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.

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