Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Rock Lighthouses of Britain and Ireland


Rock Lighthouses of Britain and Ireland (Fastnet on the cover)

Way back in the halcyon days of 1983, when lightkeepers still roamed the earth, a young man named Chris Nicholson brought out a remarkable book called "Rock Lighthouses of Britain." Instantly regaled as a classic and the seminal work on the subject, it was remarkable in both the detailed research on all the lighthouses featured and the stunning photographs, many of them never seen before.
Such was its success that it has been reprinted - a very rare thing for a lighthouse book and one that lesser writers such as myself can only yearn for - more than once and two further editions were brought out in 1995 and 2006, both with updated information and even more stunning photographs.
Despite this achievement, the book had one slight drawback to Irish lighthouse enthusiasts like myself. Only featuring maritime navigation off the coasts of one part of the archipelago, the main part of our shared island group - Ireland - was ignored. It did not affect the readability of the book but it should have sparked somebody into bringing out an Irish edition of the book. It didn't. So, seventeen years since the last edition and forty years since the first, Chris - no longer a young man, except in spirit and enthusiasm - has brought out "Rock Lighthouses of Britain and Ireland."

2006 edition

The book arrived at the start of the year. I'm glad the postman knocked as I would have feared for the laminate on my hall floor if he had managed to squeeze it through the letter box. Believe me, this is one heavy book. Over 300 A4 pages. It was probably a wise decision to make it softback as a hardback could have resulted in all kinds of back strains.
If I had been preparing to flick through a myriad of stunning photographs in a few minutes, I was wrong. There is a lot of text, a huge amount of detailed research put together with the same attention to detail and painstaking labour as the subjects of this book, though I doubt Chris was in danger of being washed away by a freak wave in putting it together.
The book features twenty of the rock lighthouses around our combined coasts, each included, not just for its skill of construction or its isolationist beauty, but because each had a story to tell. Yes, the incredible engineers - Winstanley, Smeaton, the Stevensons and Halpins etc - all faced similar challenges but the details of each read like a compendium of Stirring Stories for Boys. These are gripping tales of despair and triumph, heroism and tragedy. I regularly had to stop and wipe away the salt spray from my glasses, so vivid was the prose. All of which builds up into a book that you only want to put down due to aching arms. (Hint - read it at a desk.)

First edition 1983

The twenty lighthouses selected are presented in chronological order (except one) beginning with the incredible saga of the Eddystone and ending, somewhat incongruously, with the Irish island of Rockall (sorry, folks!) which, despite no longer having a light on it, has a story worthy of inclusion. The one exception is the South Rock lighthouse, whose story is placed at the end of the book because of its "remarkable place in the history of British and Irish rock lighthouses," to quote Chris. It is actually the oldest wave-swept lighthouse still standing in these islands (despite the claims of Bell Rock!), yet frequently goes under the radar, even among Irish lighthouse aficionados.
The lighthouses featured are Eddystone, The Skerries, The Smalls, Longships, Longstone, Bell Rock, Tuskar Rock, Skellig Michael, Skerryvore, Bishop Rock, Fastnet, Muckle Flugga, The Calf Rock (and the Bull), Wolf Rock, Dubh Artach, Chicken Rock, the Flannan Isles, Rockall and the South Rock. (Irish lighthouses highlighted) Whereas I previously knew a little about a lot of these beacons (and nothing about some), Chris brings their complete wonderful stories to life, from conception to automation, in an eminently readable fashion and, as mentioned previously, to a degree of detail that could not be matched in a strictly academic work (with no pictures) And the photographs, well over 300 of them - both historical and current - are sublime.
I managed to make the book last for three weeks, savouring each delicious chapter, day by day and was genuinely disappointed when I finished it. But I know I will be taking it down from the specially-reinforced bookcase many times in the future, not only for reference, but also because it is such a damned good read.
Incidentally, a symbolic I-Spy Lightkeepers Gold Badge to anyone who can name the keeper who served on four of the twenty lighthouses above and lost his life on the last of them. 
"Rock Lighthouses of Britain and Ireland" is available from Whittles Publishing for the ridiculously low price of £24.95. And doubtless in a decent bookstore near you too.

1995 edition - End of an Era?

1 comment:

  1. That's a fabulously written review, hats off to you Pete. Now Where's the tissues till I wipe the salt spray from my eyes