Review of ‘Seashaken Houses’ by Tom Nancollas

An atmospheric and fascinating book about the history of rock lighthouses (i.e. those built on rocks in the sea, rather than on coastal land). It took me a while to get into, as the writing style seemed a little old-fashioned and there was more history than personal narrative in the earlier chapters. However, the more I read, the more I liked it.

The book examines several of the rock lighthouses of Britain and Ireland, built between 1698 – 1904: Eddystone, Bell Rock, Haulbowline, Perch Rock, Blackwall (an experimental one), Wolf Rock, Bishop Rock and Fastnet. The author looks at how they were built, who designed and built them, what they were made of, how they withstood the elements, what it was like inside and the experiences of lighthouse keepers before the lighthouses were automated. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds and I had a strong sense of the isolation endured by the keepers, the rushing and roaring of storms battering the lighthouses, the smell of salt and machinery, the heroic efforts of masons constructing the lighthouses while at risk of being washed away, etc. The topic is obviously a passion of the author’s and he managed to visit a few of the lighthouses, including staying in a couple of them. He also links it to his Cornish heritage and even discovers that an ancestor was a mason working on a lighthouse.

It’s not the kind of book to read quickly cover to cover, due to the densely packed historical information, but take your time over it and you’ll find it a rewarding read, particularly if you’re interested in the architecture and technology of old lighthouses.

This edition published by Penguin, 2019.

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