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Seashaken Houses: Tom Nancollas on the Romance of the Lighthouse

Posted on 29th July 2019 by Mark Skinner

Seashaken Houses, Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month for August, tells the fascinating tale of the architecture and characters that make lighthouses such an iconic facet of the British coastal landscape. In this exclusive essay, author Tom Nancollas gives an evocative taste of the structural marvels that his book examines.

Few buildings are as romantic in aspect or as dramatic in setting. They are strong, reassuring presences at the nation’s periphery which most of us never see up close. And they have a role which affects the lives of us all: guiding shipping safely through our waters, traffic which still brings us over 90 per cent of everything we own.

I wrote Seashaken Houses to explore the rock lighthouses of Great Britain and Ireland. Taking the form of graceful stone towers standing many miles offshore, these buildings were among the most extraordinary engineering achievements – and, better still, homes – of the Georgian and Victorian ages. They make us consider not only what it means to build in the sea, but also what it means to preserve that which we cannot see.

Through the book, I wanted to build word-bridges between the land and these towers. I wanted to breathe a new life into their totemic names: Eddystone. Bell Rock. Bishop Rock. Fastnet. So, I visited seven of these inaccessible buildings so that you don’t have to: from wading out at low tide to an abandoned Merseyside tower to a dramatic landing on a wave-spattered helipad in the Atlantic.

For a week I lived on the Fastnet lighthouse with two Irish lighthouse engineers. Getting under the skin of this remarkable building – flawless masonry, mosaic floors, exquisite metalwork – revealed how, far from being functional works of engineering, these buildings are perfectly considered machines for living in. And they have a way of making the ordinary feel extraordinary. Above the kitchen sink is a window framing sunset over the infinite Atlantic, making doing the washing-up an unusually transcendental experience.

If the facts of the architecture – all hard masonry, virtuosity and calculations – are the bones of the book, then then stories of the people who used, resided in and were captivated by these towers are its substance. And the best part is that its publication generated ripples of reminiscences. Letter upon letter has revealed just how deeply a passion for lighthouses is woven into the fabric of the country. 

From a Home Counties village came a note from a yachtswoman who confessed to being in love with lighthouses ever since, when a young child, her Grandmother had entranced her with readings from Robert Southey’s poem Inchcape Rock (about the legendary Bell Rock reef upon which a celebrated lighthouse now stands) in an Aberdeenshire burr. 

From west Wales came a long missive from the son of a lighthouse scholar, in the twilight of his years, passionately detailing his father’s crusade for lighthouses to be better recognised as historic monuments. From a Manchester suburb came a short letter from a lady who, although previously holding only a passing interest in the subject, felt moved to write of the deep impression on her the stories of the lighthouse builders had made. 

And from a small town nestled deep in the Yorkshire countryside came the fascinating reminiscences of an ex-keeper of the notorious Wolf Rock in the 1960s, enclosing a photograph of his younger self on the balcony rail of the lighthouse. He spoke of learning to have faith in the work of the masons who had built the tower, which trembled in winter storms; but his best story was how on one Christmas Day in the lighthouse, eight miles offshore, he tuned into the emergency radio channel and was greeted with a tipsy French voice – a similarly lonely French lighthouse keeper – singing, in a deep bass, snatches of Charpentier’s Christmas motets.

I had thought that their automation in the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with our pivot from travel by sea to travel through sky, made the rock lighthouses invisible to people on land. These letters revealed the opposite. In writing the book, I had wanted to bring the heavy seas into living rooms across the country, but in truth it was already there in some of them. Though it sometimes feels like we no longer have any meaningful connection with the sea, the recollections generated by Seashaken Houses show how deeply it moves within us.

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