So what is it about lighthouses? I mean, it’s not just me, is it. I don’t think it’s the lighthouse’s popularity as a symbol of spiritual, physical and moral guidance, however much it delights me that my GP surgery is called The Lighthouse Practice. I get nearer to the answer when I watch the Beachy Head lighthouse flash out into the night; part of the attraction must be the childish love of a night-light.
Then you have to admire their permanence. They’re built like fortresses, unbelievably resistant to the horrors nature throws at them. On a tour in Jersey’s Corbière lighthouse I’ve jotted down ‘You can’t forget the sea, not for a moment. It resents the impudence of this impervious concrete structure.’ With few exceptions – notably the Eddystone lighthouse, now in its fourth edition – the sea has to put up with them.
So, comforting night-light and fortress – but I can get these from the Eastbourne seafront’s illuminations and Martello towers, without the same intake of breath. What else is it about lighthouses? The architecture, of course. Glistening white, candy-striped, tall or short: they are beautiful. Even the cliff-top Belle Tout, a grey squat little lighthouse only its mother could love, but stunning from a distance – and inside. Inside! How we all want to go inside. Imagine the cosy minimalist living, the view from the top! (In Part Two I’ll tell you where you can do this).
But architecture: why don’t I view the local statue of the Duke of Devonshire, or even the glorious Pier, with the same primitive adoration? Let’s take a look at a lighthouse. Hm. Remind you of anything? Particularly one with a couple of outbuildings round its base. Let’s face this head on: lighthouses are phallic. Are you with me on this? I hope so, because I’ve got my protagonist’s ex-husband visiting her converted lighthouse and saying ‘God, I didn’t realise you live in the actual shaft of this thing!’ – but now see there’s not a single lewd lighthouse comment on Google. Ah, unless you count the academics discussing the lighthouse theme in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse – even though she herself skirted the issue with ‘I meant nothing by the lighthouse, but trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions.’ They quickly move on to explain that the phallus-lighthouse represents the father’s authority in the traditional family.
There’s certainly no getting away from the masculinity of lighthouses and the profession; despite the famous story of Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who heroically saved lives after a shipwreck in 1838, female keepers are vanishingly rare – and usually just taking over after the death of a lighthouse keeper husband.
Perhaps this manliness is part of the nostalgia: we picture the practical but gentlemanly lighthouse keeper on his watch, looking out from his lantern room, painstakingly ensuring (it was quite a palaver) that the light is always shone. A dependable man, mindful of the safety of unknown souls on passing ships. ‘A lighthouse doesn’t do anything,’ comments a modest keeper in Tony Parker’s book Lighthouse, ‘it’s just there if you need it.’ Since 1998, when the last of the UK’s lighthouses became automated, the keepers are sadly no longer needed. But mariners still need lighthouses, dotted round perilous parts of our coastline, as a visual back-up to satellite navigation. As beautiful symbols of humanity, strength, dependability and fatherhood – so do we.