An il­lu­mi­nat­ing his­tory of rock light­houses

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - HEN­RI­ETTA MCKERVEY


The to­tal loss of life to ship­wrecks is in­cal­cu­la­ble. An es­ti­mated three mil­lion wrecks lit­ter our ocean floors, some thou­sands of years old. And without light­houses, the seas would con­tinue to claim many more lives. Yet light­houses weren’t al­ways viewed as be­nign, hard­work­ing de­fend­ers of life. In his metic­u­lously-re­searched and fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of rock light­houses around Great Bri­tain and Ire­land, Tom Nancollas re­counts that some early projects were greeted with dis­may: an 18th-cen­tury light­house scheme was met with in­dig­nant op­po­si­tion from Land’s End res­i­dents, un­will­ing to be de­prived of ship­wreck booty.

Be­tween 1698 and 1905, 27 light­houses were con­structed on des­o­late and per­ilous footholds of rock to mark the most dan­ger­ous haz­ards to ship­ping in the seas around Great Bri­tain and Ire­land. Twenty sur­vive to­day. The ma­jor­ity were built dur­ing a 19th-cen­tury flurry of ac­tiv­ity: “the proud­est ex­pres­sions of the way that nav­i­ga­tion, and by proxy the sea, had been ‘re­formed’ and its most per­ilous reefs ‘neutered’”.

Seashaken Houses be­gins with the pi­o­neer­ing Ed­dy­s­tone. Thir­teen miles off Ply­mouth in the English Chan­nel, it was built by ec­cen­tric en­tre­pre­neur Henry Win­stan­ley in “the age of gen­tle­men ama­teurs”. In 1703, a fe­ro­cious storm car­ried the light­house off, Win­stan­ley un­for­tu­nately in­side it. Nancollas ends with Fast­net, con­structed in 1904 eight miles off the coast of Cork. He jour­neys there via Ed­dy­s­tone II, Bell Rock, Perch Rock, Wolf Rock, Bishop Rock, and Haulbow­line in Car­ling­ford Lough. Rock light­houses be­tween 1811 and 1904 had a com­mon con­struc­tion: formed wholly in stone, with com­pli­cated joints and taper­ing pro­files, rem­i­nis­cent of oak tree trunks. Nancollas is a build­ing con­ser­va­tion­ist, and his love for struc­ture and her­itage, for in­tri­cate de­tail­ing and fin­ishes, shines through in the tech­ni­cal de­scrip­tions.

The book is ar­ranged light­house by light­house. The writ­ing fully comes alive in the asides and anec­dotes (in­clud­ing one about a Bri­tish navy raid on Haulbow­line dur­ing the Trou­bles: the co-op­er­a­tive keeper handed over the keys, but his wife “gave the armed Royal Marines a piece of her mind, say­ing they ‘could not tell her hus­band what to do’”) that there is the sense of an­other text float­ing be­low the sur­face, one which would have ex­plored by theme rather than place.

The chap­ter In­ter­lude: Black­wall, about ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, is a good ex­am­ple. Bright­ness is mea­sured in units of can­dela, each equat­ing to the flame of a sin­gle can­dle. In 1698, Ed­dy­s­tone was il­lu­mi­nated by 60 can­dles. Just over200 years later, Fast­net’s light was a “stag­ger­ing 750,000 can­dela in strength, a star be­yond any mag­ni­tude then achieved”. Con­stant ex­per­i­men­ta­tion was vi­tal, but given the dan­ger­ous lo­ca­tions and con­fined spa­ces, wasn’t pos­si­ble on site. Black­wall, in a built-up in­dus­trial area by the Thames, was a light­house pur­pose-built for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

Nancollas glee­fully re­lates an early 19th­cen­tury anec­dote from a light­house off the coast of Wales: the sud­den death by nat­u­ral causes of one of its two keep­ers placed the other in a macabre dilemma. With relief a fort­night away, the corpse would pu­trefy if kept in the tower, yet an im­pro­vised sea burial could look as though he had mur­dered the man. The sur­viv­ing keeper lashed his dead col­league to the tower’s ex­te­rior. Heavy weather broke open the im­pro­vised cof­fin, “dan­gling the corpse’s arm against the win­dow as if it were knock­ing to come in”.

His visit to Perch Rock gives a tantalising glimpse of the for­mer do­mes­tic life of a light­house. At the mouth of the river Mersey, Perch is a cu­rios­ity: re­dun­dant and close to shore, its vis­i­ble rocks, “Ozy­man­dian, half-cov­ered by the sand and ly­ing close to the prom­e­nade”. It wasn’t up­dated dur­ing its work­ing life, so re­tains a sim­ple, late Geor­gian in­te­rior, though in com­plete dis­re­pair and lit­tered with bird car­casses in all imag­in­able stages of de­com­po­si­tion. In re­turn for an overnight stay, Nancollas prom­ises to clean it, but dis­cov­ers that he and his friend have “slept off the nov­elty of ad­ven­tur­ers and are now the tower’s hum­drum in­hab­i­tants”. Such anec­dotes aside, the prom­ise made by the word Houses in the ti­tle never fully de­liv­ers on what do­mes­tic­ity was re­ally like for keep­ers or their fam­i­lies.

In 1982, cen­turies of off­shore liv­ing ended when Ed­dy­s­tone be­came the first of Trin­ity House’s rock light­houses to be au­to­mated. When I left Fast­net af­ter an overnight stay a few years ago, its vis­it­ing at­ten­dant Neilly O’Reilly – who fea­tures in Seashaken Houses – said they had to make a lock for the door when the light­house was con­verted to un­watched in 1989. They’d never needed one be­fore be­cause Fast­net had never been empty.

Un­in­hab­ited and au­to­mated, light­houses work just as hard as they ever did, and our col­lec­tive fas­ci­na­tion for them ap­pears undimmed. Yet, as Na­col­las wryly ac­knowl­edges, “to as­sem­ble their in­ter­lock­ing gran­ite pieces is to com­plete one puz­zle; to con­sider their post-nav­i­ga­tional fu­ture is to be faced with an­other”.


Fast­net light­house, 12km off the coast of Co Cork.

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