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The lighthouse

Both a hardy navigational tool and a poeticised monument to isolation, the tale of the lighthouse is retold as a question of why we build at all

Eddystone winstanley oil painting © trinity house.

Eddystone winstanley oil painting © Trinity House.

The first rock lighthouse, Henry Winstanley’s 1698 folly at Eddystone featured florid protrusions suited only to the silken seas portrayed. Image © Trinity House

Old man walking, salt man, lonely hero; look at him!
out prowling this dreary coast. He is drawn down to the wine-eyed brink to gaze at the sea. Declares her fathomless arcane. Describes longing, and futility. Gives her a body, a heart, and ascribes into her a mute question. Displaces so much woman into ocean that her sides spill open.

He describes dread, too, his watch fixed at the delightful horror of such infinity. At this outer limit of the earth his mind can meet no check; he is driven towards such awful surfeit, such ache as might approximate death. 

Under the levelled plain, this great opaque expanse, deep land surges up to breach the surface and break boats on unseen crags. 

Here salt man makes much of myth and siren seals, souls shattered and sent to Davy Jones – much less the financial flows that swell and eddy round these rocks. Whole cargo holds of enviable goods regularly spread along the shore with more than mudlarks to pick them apart, wreckers that took the warning bells and unmanned braziers now waiting to liberate the dead men of their ornaments. 

Better to have a bastion. A charitable gesture!
Aid granted to any vessel. Toll the passing ships of course, for their lives and the pleasure of their passage. 

So reel a rower out to reef, hew the founds at great effort and dovetail slowly down these stones. Salt man sets each one by hand, eschewing land relief. Narrow the courses as they climb, and round off; give the waves no purchase on its back. Garnish it with gunmetal fittings, brittle storm shutters to eke in the day. Fill it with so many circular furnishings, apartments elegantly appointed as any in the town. 

Civilise this corner of the ocean. Burn a hundred candles at its eye, a winking face at the gate of the land. The light edges empire into sea. A triumph of dominion; a symbol of a 19th-century nation ascendant.

It is the most extreme of follies, to attempt such a taming; and why else, if not an emblem?

Souls saved, to be sure, but permit me a salt man’s melancholy. To have the world at my back, and before me nothing but emptiness. To watch the earth’s slow turning into dark. 

Permit me also desire of an elemental kind. To throw down these stones at low tide, that may not stand the season; to enclose at such extreme. Let me be my smallest animal self. To circle up against the storm is pure shelter: a building of the first kind.

Build 9.006 web

Wolf Rock Lighthouse Tom Nancollas Seashaken houses

Tom Nancollas’s book Seashaken Houses traces a history of rock lighthouses from the vainglorious extravagance of Winstanley’s Eddystone through stoics such as Wolf Rock, shown here standing aged over 100 years in this 1971 photograph. Image courtesy of Morrab Library

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today