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The phone call from my brother came in December. "We've rented a house for a week in July." Oh, how nice. "On Lundy." I tried not to snort, and somehow managed to keep my composure. "It sleeps five, so would you come to make up the numbers?" Umm...I think I'm busy that particular week, yes very busy, such a shame. "Well, if you change your mind..."
Lundy, that little speck of land in the Bristol Channel, famous for being part of the shipping forecast and home to lots of puffins. Why would I want to spend a week there? I mean, don't get me wrong, the idea of being marooned on a small island in the middle of nowhere does appeal, but given the choice I'd opt for an island a bit further away, perhaps somewhere a little warmer. Palm trees, white sand, that sort of thing. And anyway, why would I want to be marooned on a small island with my family? My friend joked that if I did go, one or more family members would be coming off the island in body bags. No, this didn't sound like a holiday for me.
I'd been to Lundy twice before, on day trips, and they'd been enjoyable days. I was 12 years old at the time, so the whole boat trip thing was an adventure, and it really was quite pleasant to see a seal in the wild for the first time, albeit from a distance through cheap binoculars from M&S. The first day trip was sunny, and we'd walked the length of the island, seen the lighthouses, bought postcards, spotted seals, had ice cream. The second trip a year later was less successful, as it was foggy, we saw practically nothing at all and returned cold, wet and miserable. That too had been July. So, having exhausted all the sights in a few hours ashore, what on earth would I find to do for a whole week?
But they're persistent, my family, and by June I'd been worn down, bludgeoned into saying yes, although far from convinced that this was a good idea. First of all, I had to get there, not easy for someone with no car living in the north east. National Express got me as far as Milton Keynes before breaking down, and when finally a replacement bus did take me to London, I was left with a mad dash to catch the last train from Waterloo to my brother's house in Surrey. Day two was a cross country drive in a westerly direction in the company of someone whose taste in music is firmly stuck in novelty records of the 80s. It was a long journey, and I wasn't in the best of moods when I met up with my other brother that evening in Ilfracombe, having spent two hours in a traffic jam between Stonehenge and a pig farm with Modern Talking as the soundtrack.
After a quick trip to the supermarket for provisions, we had an hour or so to walk around Ilfracombe in the rain. I climbed to the top of a hill, from where Lundy should have been clearly visible, lying only 20 or so miles off the coast. Where Lundy should have been, there was just mist.
Loading the bags onto the ship is the first sign that you're heading off to a different era. Bags are placed in fishing nets, then hoisted up by a crane and a man with a beard and a yellow sou'wester. Without much ceremony, we doggy-paddled our way out of Ilfracombe harbour, a few hardy holidaymakers waving us off from underneath umbrellas. An hour and a half later, there was a commotion on board. People were leaning and pointing, binoculars appeared, heads nodded. Couldn't be sure, but was that a flashing light up ahead? A patch of grey on the horizon began to look a little more solid, like an island almost. Indeed, it was a confirmed sighting. Lundy was out there still...but not really getting much closer.
Gradually, the island loomed larger and larger, and it became just about possible to make out buildings. First a lighthouse, then a church, then a white manor house in a valley. Then people, lots of them, all waiting in a queue in the rain on the jetty. How very British. Disembarking, we passed all the day-trippers and strangely I couldn't help feeling just a little bit smug. You're just here for the day, I'm here to stay, so there. Never mind that it had taken me three whole days to get here...getting to Iraq had actually been quicker!
Luggage is loaded onto the back of the island's one vehicle to be driven up the hill, but humans are made to walk. It may only be a small island, but Lundy can certainly do hills very well, and this one is not for the unfit. Somewhat out of breath, we reached the village and made our way to the accommodation office. "No need for keys," said the cheery volunteer at the desk, "the door'll be open." And it was. We could have been anybody as we just sauntered through the front door of Government House. Well, no, I suppose it was fairly safe to assume we were the ones who had booked it, as only people who were staying on the island were allowed to board the ship, but it still felt very relaxed.
Government House is one of a handful of properties on Lundy rented out by Landmark Trust as self-catering accommodation, each one unusual and quirky in some way. You can opt to stay in the 13th century castle, or the Old Light, or the former schoolhouse. There's even a property at the far end of the island with no electricity and no other buildings around to spoil the views. Ours was one of the newer properties, having been constructed using odds and ends from other ruined houses on the island, supposedly for the governor to live in, but he chose to live elsewhere for some reason. My brothers had chosen wisely though, as the house had a semi-private garden in a sheltered position, sea views from every room, and enough bedrooms not to have to put up with any sibling snoring competitions. The best thing was perhaps the fact that it was just a hop, skip and a jump from the Marisco Tavern, the heart and soul of island life.
That first night, we headed over to the tavern for a meal, and quickly discovered that it's not just a pub. It may be small, but it's a library, a games room, a cafe, an information centre, a restaurant, a bar and a work of art. The walls and ceilings are covered in flags and lifebelts and other nautical bits and pieces, all salvaged from ships wrecked on Lundy's rocks. A hearty portion of scampi and chips arrived, and once that had been washed down by a pint or two of Old Light bitter (Lundy's own, although no longer brewed on the island), I was beginning to forget that I wasn't supposed to be enjoying myself. Maybe Lundy wouldn't be so bad.
I read somewhere that Lundy attracts three types of visitor. First there are the divers, attracted by the clear, pristine waters of the island's marine park. Then there are the twitchers, here to stare through binoculars for hours on end, retiring to the pub at night to compare notes on kittiwakes, puffins and lesser-spotted winged things. The third type are the terminally lazy, those who come to do nothing at all. Now, here's where I take issue with that. I'm no diver, and certainly have no real interest in watching birds, but I don't think any of us were particularly lazy on Lundy. It may only be three and a half miles from end to end, but Lundy packs in a lot of paths and monuments to explore. I ought to mention that I am no stranger to walking, as I walk to work every day in Durham, a round-trip of just under eight miles, so I assumed I'd be walking to the northern tip of Lundy with ease every day. It can be done, if you stick to the main path down the centre of the island, but it is so easy to be distracted, to follow a hidden path and end up scrambling down a cliff face to get to a secret beach. You can spend days walking on Lundy and not use the same path twice, so it often feels like a much bigger island.
During the week, three day trips from the mainland were scheduled, so on our first day, we decided to try and fit in all the "sights" while the island was fairly empty, leaving the hidden paths as our plan to escape the crowds. Our first stop was St Helena's Church, which seems enormous considering the size of the community. Doors are always open, although services are rare as the vicar lives on the mainland and hardly ever visits. Judging by the visitor book, not many tourists do either, unless they are escaping the rain or recovering from seasickness. Then it was on to the Old Light, Lundy's most iconic building. Slap bang in the middle of the island on its highest point, this handsome stone lighthouse was built in 1820, a major achievement at the time. However, the architect hadn't bargained for Lundy weather, and the life-saving light at the top was often shrouded in mist, proving ineffective and invisible to the ships it was supposed to guide. No longer a working lighthouse, the cottage next door is now a holiday let, while the tower is open to be climbed. At the top of a lighthouse, what do you expect to find? Why, that's right...deckchairs! It's certainly a fantastic view, the whole island spread out beneath you, with Devon and South Wales visible on a clear day.
Down below, in the island's cemetery, a cluster of Celtic crosses commemorate former islanders and one or two victims of shipwrecks, while four odd-shaped stones in a corner remain a mystery. Thought to date back to the 5th century, nobody really knows if these are gravestones or not, and not even the expert archaeologists are sure what the Latin inscriptions mean.
Just beyond the lighthouse compound, a path leads you to some steps which seem to disappear down an impossibly steep cliff, but don't be put off. Keep going, down and down, ignoring the screaming birds swooping above your head. You turn a corner, and suddenly there is a house right at the bottom. Roofless now, this once housed a family of thirteen, employed to man the Battery, a stone hut even further down the cliff with a pair of cannons which were fired every ten minutes through the night, taking over from the Old Light in bad weather. The cliffs on either side are nesting sites for seabirds, so this is a prime location for birdwatchers, but even if you're not into birds, the climb down is definitely worth it for the views and the sense of remoteness. This even feels remote from the village, and the family that once lived here spend months at a time without venturing up to the village, not so hard to believe when you're puffing your way back up the cliff.
It's on this western side that the cliffs are the most dramatic and wild, buffeted by Atlantic winds and waves all year round. Further north, look out for the Devil's Slide, a popular cliff with climbers which lives up to its name, looking similar to an overgrown slide dropping steeply into a ferocious sea. Here, I first spotted the island's famous St Kilda soay sheep, all shaggy and brown, and by the looks of it, closet thrill-seekers, as they like to graze on the most unlikely bits of grass in impossible locations on the cliff face. There are plenty of goats around too, and I always thought it was easy to tell my sheep from my goats, but Lundy challenged that.
Another well-hidden set of steps leads you over a small hill and down to the North Light, a dramatically located lighthouse built in 1897 to replace the Old Light. Some of the more energetic day-trippers might make it here, but for the most part this is a quiet and remote corner of the island, perfect for sunbathing (yes, we did have some sun...). Don't let the steps put you off, or the Keep Out, Private Property signs...the lighthouse is not manned any more, operated remotely from the mainland, so you can wander round the outside and even peek in a window if you're so inclined. More exciting is the little tramway leading to nowhere. This used to be the way goods were brought to the lighthouse, hauled up a crack in the cliffs then pulled along in a trolley.
Steps down to the water's edge are still accessible today, but are not for the faint-hearted. This is not somewhere you want to trip up, as Lundy is an island without a single handrail or fence or warning sign, and I rather like that...it forces you to think for yourself, make up your own mind and take responsibility for your own risk. I ignored my own logic and followed the steps down to a stone platform, sitting for a while to take in the surroundings. The Atlantic meets the Bristol Channel at this very point, and you can see the waters merging, the two currents making white-crested waves far out to sea. You can even see how the weather changes too, and many days there was a visible line where the clouds ended and the sunshine began, usually splitting the island in two. I spent a morning sitting in the sunshine reading a book on the sheltered east coast, while my brothers had rain and mist on the west.
I got the feeling I was being watched. A lobster fisherman in a small boat was bobbing up and down over by the lighthouse, but it wasn't him. No, something else was watching me, I was sure. Then a head appeared amidst the waves, whiskers twitching. We regarded each other with surprise for a minute or so, before my new friend the grey seal disappeared with the splash of a flipper. Not for long, though, as he reappeared a bit closer, eyes trained on me. His mate came splashing over to see what the fuss was about, then another. Three almost dog-like heads bobbing up and down, as fascinated with me as I was with them. I'm not a wildlife fanatic by any means, but it was impossible not to be amazed by this.
On day-tripper days, it became almost traditional to run down to the little flagpole under our house, mug of coffee in hand, to watch the ship come in, the passengers following each other like sheep, placing bets on how long it would take before someone deviated from the road and clambered up the hillside through our garden. Once one starts, others follow, and soon you've got a stampede of tourists who suddenly find themselves in the middle of your al fresco breakfast. Some apologize, some ask for directions, some just look sheepish and head back the way they came. We amused ourselves by shouting things like "and another one, Andrew, get the shotgun!", but as we were quick to learn, there is no private property on Lundy, visitors are free to wander almost anywhere they like.
It sounds silly, but it really did feel like an invasion of sorts, our quiet island overrun with the masses, shouting at each other and sitting on every available bench. The M.S. Oldenburg only carries a couple of hundred of passengers, but on a small island you're soon outnumbered. Luckily, it is very easy to escape, as most visitors end up recovering from the climb up from the jetty by writing postcards in the tavern, and few stray further than the Old Light. The whole east coast and its sheltered coves reached by hidden paths is generally a good bet for some solitude, only occasionally coming across other "residents" who've had the same idea. My favourite area was below the Quarterwall Cottages, four houses where workers at the nearby quarry once lived, now overgrown ruins. A path leads alongside a small duckpond down to several inaccessible coves where seals howl like dogs as they bask on the rocks. One cove you can access is Quarry Beach, although to reach it, you have to follow a very rough and steep path through nettles, negotiate a ladder and then haul yourself down a rock with the aid of a rope. Quite an adventure just to dip your toes in the sea.
Evenings on Lundy began to fall into a pattern. First we'd stand by the flagpole and watch the M.S Oldenburg disappear on the horizon, again, feeling a little bit smug that we were left behind. Then it'd be over to the pub for a few drinks and something to eat, stumbling back at 11 for a game of cards, often finishing our game by torchlight, caught out by the electricity going off. Electricity is in short supply on Lundy, so no televisions, no music systems, no games consoles...you make your own entertainment, until the generator is switched off every night around midnight. It must be one of the few places in England where you can still experience true darkness, only a few lights twinkling in the distance if it's clear enough, and the occasional flash from a lighthouse, otherwise there's nothing to interrupt your view of the stars.
I was surprisingly sad to leave Lundy at the end of the week. I arrived there thinking I'd already seen it all, but left having realised that there's still more to do. I haven't yet snorkelled with the seals, I haven't yet climbed Old Light at night, I haven't yet got a decent photograph of one of the elusive miniature Sika deer, I haven't yet experienced Lundy in winter, arriving by helicopter, and more importantly, I haven't yet spotted the famous bird that gives Lundy it's name, the puffin (Lund-y in old Norse means Puffin Island). I suppose those are good enough reasons to return one day.
The M.S. Oldenburg sails a few times each week from either Bideford or Ilfracombe, depending on tides. The trip takes around 2 and a half hours, and on a clear day, the views along the North Devon coast are spectacular. Day-trippers usually get four or five hours ashore, enough time to see quite a bit of the island, but tide times mean some trips are much longer than others. A day return is currently £33.50, so not the cheapest day out but certainly worth every penny. Those staying on the island have special sailings from Ilfracombe on Saturdays costing a little more (you're paying for your luggage to be transported from the jetty to your accommodation), and in winter, the only way to reach Lundy is by helicopter from Hartland Point.
To stay on the island, there are 20 self-catering properties owned by Landmark Trust and bookable through their website. Properties are not cheap, especially in summer, and the most popular houses are booked up well in advance by regular visitors. There's also a campsite in the village, and hostel accommodation is available in The Barn. Accommodation details and other brochures about the island can be ordered from the Lundy website at www.lundyisland.co.uk .
Facilities-wise, don't expect all the mod cons, as that isn't what a trip to Lundy is all about. While most properties have electricity, you're not encouraged to bring too many electrical items with you...leave mobile chargers behind, as there's very little network coverage anyway. The Lundy shop is the only place to buy provisions on the island, and its the sort of place where you can spend literally minutes perusing the shelf, as half the store is given over to souvenirs like postcards, t-shirts and Lundy's very own postage stamps. Certain food items can be ordered in advance, and it's probably worth doing a shop at Tesco in Ilfracombe before boarding the ship, unless you want to eat in the pub for every meal. Prices are a little higher than the mainland, which is understandable as everything has to be brought in by ship. You can open up a tab at the shop, although be warned... my brothers suffered from island mentality almost from arrival, and would head to the shop every single day, buying supplies whether we needed anything or not, so our bill was quite alarming by the end of the week!
The Marisco Tavern serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee and cake, and stays open until 11pm every night. A shame they're so strict about closing time on such a remote island, but I suppose they have to get everyone out before darkness is switched on. Meals are fairly ordinary pub food, nothing special and not cheap, but huge portions.
Prepare for all sorts of weather. We had sizzling temperatures and hot sun, followed by cold winds and mist, with everything else in between, often all on the same day. There's something about the air on Lundy which encourages sunburn, and nearly everyone on the island had bright red faces at some point. You'll need both sun cream and waterproofs. Oh, and seasickness tablets for the crossing, as it can be surprisingly rough even on the brightest of days.