On a freezing cold day in Michigan, Outer Lighthouse on St Joseph North Pier cuts a striking figure.
Thanks to the harsh Midwest winter, it’s morphed into an icicle sculpture – a grand, crystalized lookout illuminated by the light of a full moon.
It’s just one of many eye-catching sights featured in “Lighthouses: Beacons of the Sea” – a stunning image collection published by Amber Books.
The new book showcases lighthouses across the world – from the traditional, nautical-striped Happisburgh Lighthouse in Norfolk, England, to the quirky, leaning Gadeokdo East Breakwater (West End) Lighthouse in Yeondo, Changwon, South Korea.
“The appeal of lighthouses, I think it’s quite a mixture of things. It’s partly because usually they are very striking structures in their own right,” author David Ross tells CNN Travel.
“And, of course, they embody a particular kind of aspiration as well – in that they’re among the few buildings perhaps that exist only for the benefit of other people.”
Ross is a historian who specializes in the stories behind historic buildings, ships and transport.
Growing up in the coastal far north of Scotland, the author remembers lighthouses capturing his imagination from an early age.
“I think I was 10 years old when I first climbed the hundreds of steps up to the top of a lighthouse,” he recalls.
“And, at night, from where we were, it was possible to see, I think, probably the lights of three different lighthouses, each maybe 20 or 30 miles away from each other, but each sending out a beam.”
Ross was recruited to help tell the stories of 150 iconic lighthouses – from rugged reminders of seafaring days of yore to modern reimaginings that take lighthouses into the 21st century.
“We wanted to […] try as far as possible to show the development of a lighthouses from certainly from around the 16th and 17th century, right up to date,” says Ross.
For coastal communities across the globe, lighthouses are integral features of everyday life. They’re altruistic pieces of architecture, as Ross puts it.
It’s this symbolic significance that means lighthouses still have a heady grip on our imaginations in the days of GPS.
“The image of the lighthouse as either a warning of danger or guiding you into a safe harbor, is a very strong one,” says Ross.
“So I think that that’s why so many lighthouses that have been made redundant by satellite navigation and so on have been taken over by their local communities and still provided with a light in the tower – because of that kind of significance that they have.”
Lighthouse history is long and varied, with early versions of the structures popping up in ancient Egypt and in Roman times. It was in the Victorian era that they became ubiquitous.
When working on the book, Ross turned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – “the great center of lighthouse studies,” as he calls it – to illuminate his learning.
“There are many other sources as well, historic sources, you have to look at places like the British Library for example, the National Maritime Museum [in London] and a few other archives in order to try to make sure that one’s got a good and reliable set of information,” he adds.
Despite being a lighthouse expert, Ross admits he hasn’t visited every tower in the book. The images were sourced from a variety of photographers and global agencies.
“I’ve probably been to, passed by – or in some cases sailed past – probably most of the British ones or some of the Irish ones,” says Ross.
But his favorite type of lighthouse is in Brittany, in northern France, across the water from his homeland.
“The coast is very wild and rocky, mostly made up of granite, and the lighthouses are built of exactly the same material, great strong granite towers that just seemed to rise out of the rock,” he says.
This labor of love allowed Ross to add a few more lighthouses to his bucket list. He’s attracted to the uniqueness of some of the structures featured – particularly a pair of South Korean towers in the mold of giant horses and a Thai lighthouse that’s built to resemble a temple.
“In the late 20th and 21st century there’s been far more freedom for designers using very modern materials to produce quirky and distinctive designs that are a bit more than functional,” says Ross.
“It’s probably got something to do with people’s feelings about about lighthouses that they can represent almost the spirit of the place.”
Freedom and hope
So which of the 150 lighthouses spotlighted in his book is Ross desperate to visit?
His answer hints at how the lighthouse has come to symbolize exploration, remoteness, hope and freedom.
“There’s an American Lighthouse right at the end of the Florida Keys called the Dry Tortugas which is about the most remote lighthouse in the United States,” he says.
“I’d rather like the idea of getting onto a boat and sailing around that area and looking at that lighthouse from the sea, which of course is probably the best way to view a lighthouse.”
All images taken from the book “Lighthouses” by David Ross (ISBN 978-1782746591) published by Amber Books Ltd (www.amberbooks.co.uk).