The British and the French were the most prodigious builders of lighthouses as they both had empires to run. Did they bring national characteristics to bear in how they went about the job?
The French benefitted from a rational central bureaucracy that co-opted scientists into the business of systematic technological development. So in the 19th century they worked to a rational plan that would line the French coast with lighthouses at regular intervals and they financed scientific development of the Fresnel lens which provided the powerful beam that lighthouses needed. England proceeded in a chaotic and ill-organized fashion, preferring tradition and experience to science. Penny-pinching authorities were unwilling to put up cash and initially depended on the profit motive and private enterprise to stimulate lighthouse building. Yet if the English way was a mess, it got there in the end. There was finally little to choose between the achievements of the two countries. Incidentally, neither built as many lighthouses as the United States.
The iconic lighthouses of the British coastline have long since stopped being manned. Do you regret the march of progress which has brought that about?
I do regret it. Being a lighthouse keeper was hard, monotonous work and probably it shouldn’t be romanticized. But nonetheless, it always was one of those jobs that people fantasized about, like being an engine driver in the days of steam trains. There was a joy to looking at a lighthouse at night and thinking of the keeper up there in his rather splendid solitude. Something in the imaginative life of the world is lost through this automation, inevitable as it may be.
Could you bear to nominate a favourite lighthouse and explain why you’ve picked it?
My favourite lighthouse is one that disappeared three centuries ago. The first Eddystone lighthouse, built on an almost inaccessible reef by the crackpot inventor Winstanley and looking like ‘a pagoda in the sea’, must rank as one of the most extraordinary buildings ever made. The fact that it was swept away in a great storm with its creator inside it adds poignancy to its slightly mad glory.