His book isn’t a compendious overview but a selective and more personal account of eight particular rock lighthouses, in nine chapters... It’s a well made and well ordered book, in keeping with its subject... Inevitably, though, Nancollas’s story is of men’s efforts, men’s obsessions, men’s sheer pig-headed determination to save lives by achieving what seemed impossible... There’s something almost Crusoe-like in how lovingly a comfy domesticity was replicated in these lonely pillars far out to sea... This book is a hymn to the almost superhuman ingenuity, expertise and labour of the men who worked to made the wild seas safer.
Tom Nancollas has visited seven rock lighthouses in Britain and Ireland, from the relative tameness of Perch Rock on New Brighton beach to the godforsaken Fastnet, Ireland’s most southerly point, where he spends a week with engineers on a maintenance visit.
His accounts of these journeys, and his dealings along the way with boat skippers and owners of decommissioned lighthouses, are the best thing in the book...The parts of the book dealing with the history of lighthouses are less compelling, and seem tonally cut off from the first-person segments. Stories about John Smeaton’s success in taming the Eddystone Rock in the 1750s, and Augustin Fresnel’s refinement of lighthouse lenses, feel like well-trodden ground.
It’s a book to make you feel safe on a cold winter’s night. Pour yourself a glass of something warming, sit back and feel thankful you’re not in one of the bizarre structures. Twenty of them survive, sitting on reefs that lie off the coast, guiding ships away from the dangerous rocks lurking beneath the waves... Nancollas accompanies an engineer to Fastnet, where the boiler needs fixing — a job so complicated it takes five days... He brings James Joyce’s Ulysses to while away the hours but, even in these extreme conditions, he can’t be bothered to persevere with the famously impenetrable book... Instead, he marvels at the revolving lantern, a mechanism that weighs six tons, but which, because it’s housed in a trough of frictionless mercury, can be moved with your little finger... Fastnet sits well in this book of unsettling and sorrowful tales.
... you don’t have to be a lighthouse nut to enjoy this story of British and Irish towers. All of the structures bar one in Nancollas’s book are what is known as rock lighthouses, built on “jagged sections of reef, left jutting up in the seas… [rising] mirage-like, straight out of the sea, their circular foundations often unseen”. Thanks to their remote locations, getting to them is usually tricky, making for an enjoyable read as Nancollas climbs aboard heaving boats in roiling seas – memorably, in one case, with a regretfully hungover friend in tow...These monumental structures have saved countless lives and survived unimaginable natural forces, as well as the currents of political and governmental change. Their stories are more interesting than even I could have imagined.
Nancollas is intrepid and persistent — he bothers to go out to Perch Rock in the middle of the Mersey, puts himself through the discomfiting helicopter safety drill required before visiting Fastnet, and dissects the geometry of optics. His account flits between direct reportage, history and anecdote, but the one great USP he does have — his background as a buildings conservator — he sells surprisingly short.