Seashaken Houses – Tom Nancollas

‘Imagine a time-lapse film of this patch of sea, reaching back three centuries and rewound at speed. It would show four towers falling and rising upon the Eddystone reef: one disassembled, one combusting like a firework, one destroyed in a storm, their material cycling back from stone to wood, their forms regressing from engineered simplicity to experimental folly, the types of ship darting around them devolving from diesel to steam to sail, until the time-lapse halts at the first Eddystone lighthouse of 1698, a thing of outlandish fantasy.’

Nancollas’ fascinating history of the rock lighthouses around our shores is a gem of a read. Taking these incredible constructions in turn, Nancollas provides their history, attempts to visit a couple, and charts the changes that these buildings have undergone as automation rendered the need for occupation for weeks or months on end unnecessary. He makes the point that rock lighthouses are very different from coastal lighthouses, both in the difficulty of their construction and in the lives their keepers were forced to lead. Whereas a semblance of ordinary family life could be found in coastal towers, the rock lighthouses, miles out to sea led to a ‘strange intimacy of three men confined in a granite tower.’

There’s no doubt that the engineers and architects of the last three centuries were a) working in almost impossibly difficult conditions, and b) were men of incredibly vision and fortitude. I particularly liked the sound of Henry Winstanley, entrepreneurial creator of the first Eddystone lighthouse 13 miles off the shore at Plymouth. His first attempt using stone and wood, in 1698, used 60 candles and was topped off with ‘an extraordinary finial, a tangle of decorative ironwork with an ornamental weathervane.’ With further bolstering, Winstanley’s tower made it through the next four winters. The Great Storm of 1703 finally took it out, but he had proved that the seas around our coast could be lit.

The towers all have their different stories and atmospheres. Wolf Rock, eight miles off Lands End, is the one keepers didn’t want to be posted to because of the size of the rooms and the severity of the conditions outside; another, Smalls Rock, saw a Nineteenth Century keeper sent mad after his colleague died suddenly. He couldn’t leave the body in the tower (the relief boast wasn’t due to arrive for a fortnight) and so he lashed the coffin to the outside of the building. The wood broke up, leaving the corpse’s arm to bang against the window in the wind. Elsewhere, even the more mundane details about the routine work carried out in such treacherous conditions is a reminder of just how difficult but essential this job was.

This was bought for the beautiful cover, but it turned out that reading about isolated spaces often far from land was what I needed in the final weeks of 2020. This is one of those marvellous books that Penguin does so well – books about subjects you’ve never thought about but suddenly need to read up on. Absolutely fascinating.

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