By Robert Pimm
Financial times, September 5, 2003
Amid the cliffs that form the west coast of Lundy Island, the Battery clings to a rock ledge. The squat granite gun-house is roofless now; the gunners who once fired blanks to warn ships off the rocks in fog left a century ago. Two rusting 18-pound cannons stare out to sea. I find Alice and Tilly, 14, from Winchester, face down on the ledge, their heads over thin air. They’re watching Atlantic waves smash into the island. “Lundy’s my favourite place in the whole wide world,” Alice says. “I’ve been here six times.” Where else has she been? “Hong Kong. Thailand. Borneo. Lundy’s better. It’s so fresh and clean, away from everything. Last year, we went swimming off a boat with the seals. They came right up to me.” It’s Tilly’s first visit. “I haven’t seen much yet. The smugglers’ cave. The lighthouse. But I love it already.”
Twelve miles off the North Devon coast, Lundy Island is three miles long and has 23 properties to rent, including a castle, a lighthouse and an Admiralty look-out post. It’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and surrounded by England’s only statutory marine nature reserve.But none of this explains why such a small island generates such strong emotions. A place children rave about where there isn’t a disco or a sandcastle in sight. Where some people come back again and again, while others wish they’d never come.”I met a man once outside the Tavern who’d just arrived for a fortnight’s stay,” says Ann Westcott, editor of the Lundy Field Society newsletter. “‘Is this all there is?’ he asked me. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘this is all there is.’ He got straight back on the steamer.”
In fact, the island packs in an astonishing variety of landscapes. While the forbidding cliffs on the west side rise 400 ft from the Atlantic, the east side is sheltered. Paths criss-cross lush woods and plunge through thickets of rhododendrons between quiet bays and overgrown 19th-century quarry workings. In the north, the island tapers off into bleak moorland, studded with bronze-age hut-circles. In the south lies the village, complete with shop and excellent pub (The Marisco Tavern). There are no cars on Lundy or, indeed, roads.
Orli Rhodes-Kelmer and Deirdre Price from south London are camping with Aidan and Christian (both seven) and Danielle (18 months). “The campsite is terribly windy,” Orli says. “We thought the tent would blow away. We ran out of warm clothes. But it’s nice, everywhere’s open, there are no boundaries, no limitations. It gives you the freedom to sit and talk to your children, to discuss with them what to do. The first morning we opened the tent there was a chicken outside.”
“We liked chasing the chicken with water pistols,” Christian says. “And fishing, and watching the seal.””I liked climbing the lighthouse,” Aidan says. “There’s no TV, no Play Station. It’s great. Except for the weather.””One of Christian’s favourite phrases is, ‘I’m bored, I’m bored,'” Deirdre says. “We haven’t heard that once.”
Lundy has a colourful history as a pirate lair, rabbit breedery, royalist stronghold, convict colony, smuggler’s den and, from the mid-19th century, tourist trap. The island attempted to issue its own coins in 1929, and still issues its own stamps. It did not become part of Devon until 1974.
Peter Rothwell first came here in 1957. He shows me round Tibbetts, the isolated look-out from which you can allegedly see 14 lighthouses on a clear night. “There’s nothing between the window above my bed and America,” he says, “except the Atlantic Ocean. The hooks for the naval ratings to hang their hammocks are still on the walls. So are the fittings for rifles, bayonets and pistols, and a rack for the telescope.” Outside, the wind whips across the plateau, laden with rain and the calls of sea-birds. The main island track runs nearby on its way to the North Lighthouse. The route is marked every few yards by granite cubes weighing a ton apiece.Peter says Lundy’s less romantic nowadays. “Tibbetts is the last bastion of how it was: ramshackle and easy-going. It was quirky. So were lots of the people that came here.”Ann Westcott nods. “They still are, I’m pleased to say.”
That’s true. Shinichi Nakagawa, from Saitama in Japan, is doing a PhD on the molecular ecology of sparrows. When I meet him striding across the top of the island, I ask if it’s true he climbs ladders with a black plastic bin-liner over his head.
“Yes,” he says, “it’s true. At the start of the season it worked really well. The sparrows didn’t recognise me.”
“Does it work now?”
“Now, the sparrows recognise me. They’re very intelligent.”
Jim Czyl, George Fabian and Duane Larson, from Chicago, are the leading lights of the Lundy Collectors Club USA. This is their ninth visit. “Why do I come here?” Jim says. “I can’t say what the mystique is. Just the beauty, solitude, peace, whatever you want to make of it.””Maybe it’s the weather,” Duane says. “It’s windier than Chicago,” Jim says.
In one week in mid-July, I meet fishermen, model glider buffs and a couple of Belgian radio hams (T-shirt: “My wife said, if I didn’t get off the radio, she’d leave me OVER”). The log-books in my cottage record visits by archaeologists, bell-ringers, bird- watchers, divers, naturalists and rock-climbers.
Others come for peace and quiet. Frances Stuart is a teacher from north Somerset. “I do very little,” she says. “I sit and gaze out to sea. There’s no compulsion to do anything. As a woman on my own, it feels very comfortable, very safe. You get addicted. I’ve made 23 visits since 1994.”
Orli too says she’ll be back. “We’d like to make it an annual ritual and let the children grow with the island. Our story for them this week has been Treasure Island. This is a bit of a treasure island, isn’t it?”
How to get there:
Lundy Island is administered by the Landmark Trust, a registered charity which rescues and restores historic buildings. From March to October, the island is served by its own ship, the MS Oldenburg, which makes the crossing from Bideford and Ilfracombe in North Devon in about 2 hours. From October to March, there’s a twice-weekly helicopter service from Hartland Point, taking just seven minutes. The fine website is at http://www.lundyisland.co.uk It gives details of properties you can stay in, a sailing timetable, and prices. To book short stays, contact the Landmark Trust on 01628 825925, e-mail mail to: email@example.com
For information on the winter helicopter service, contact the Lundy Information Line on 01271 863636.
Lundy is also looking for volunteers to carry out conservation work on the island. Contact point is Wildlife Warden Ben Sampson on 01237 431831.