Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Island of Misadventure

I have had an obsession with islands for as long as I can remember. I've no idea why, but I suspect that a childhood diet of Famous Five books (and, of course, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) made me yearn for a self-contained world where the grown-ups couldn't spoil things.

It came as a great disappointment to discover that Dorset's Kirrin Island only existed in Enid Blyton's imagination and that on the whole, England was rather short of islands. But there was one island on the map that always captured my imagination: Lundy.

Two hours' sailing time from the nearest port, the three-mile-long Lundy Island has been home to generations of pirates, adventurers and exiles. It's a bleak, desolate place, like a huge slab of moorland that has been dropped into the sea, buffeted by fierce storms from the Atlantic. But it also has a rare, unspoiled beauty that some find addictive.

Six days ago I travelled to Ilfracombe and caught this boat, which offers the only regular service to Lundy:

I'd been warned about the notoriously rough crossing, so I put Sibelius on standby and grabbed a seat in the middle of the ship. But when we reached open waters, the sea was still like a millpond and people were consuming greasy bacon rolls with impunity.

I went up on deck and waited for the hazy profile of Lundy to appear. At first, it seemed deceptively smooth and flat, but as the ship edged closer, a more hostile coastline emerged. With few landing places, this austere outcrop of granite has been cursed by generations of seafarers.

But one small part of the island is different. When we arrived, the clear, blue waters of the bay and the suntrap of Millcombe Valley reminded me of holidays in Greece:

There is even a white villa, built by one of Lundy's former owners:

However, the sub-Mediterranean appearance of this small, sheltered microclimate is deceptive. Once you reach the top of the island, the landscape changes abruptly and a sharp wind hits you:

Lundy Island has attracted its fair share of ne'er do wells and one of the most notorious was an 18th century gentleman called Thomas Benson. Paid by the authorities to transport convicts to America, he took them as far as Lundy, where they were then forced to work as slaves, building walls like the one above.

When challenged, Benson argued that he was under contract to remove the convicts from English soil and had kept his end of the bargain. In fact, Benson had been paid to take the convicts to Maryland and Virginia. It was one of many acts of fraud that ended with Benson fleeing to Portugal to escape the gallows.

In the 18th century, Lundy was a rat-infested island, occupied by three farming families who constantly squabbled with each other. Today it is a rat-free, middle class utopia, with understated, tastefully-furnished cottages built from granite.

This is where I stayed:

I couldn't fault my accommodation. With a sea view, a generous supply of books, mostly Victorian furniture and a beautiful bone china tea set, all of my needs were met. But I had some reservations about the local water supply:

I'm told that you can drink it. I didn't.

There's no television, radio or internet access and at midnight, the electricity goes off for six hours, so it is a rather monastic existence. But I can think of worse things in the world than sitting in total silence with nothing to do except read.

I can't remember the last time I slept in complete darkness, but woke up feeling as if I'd been asleep for days and was ready to tackle the island. I threw a few things into a backpack and locked the door behind me, wondering if keys were necessary on this crime-free island.

I'd noticed that everyone on the boat was wearing expensive hiking gear and felt slightly self-conscious that I looked as if I was going out for a drink in Stoke Newington. But did I really need to spend a fortune on equipment? This was Lundy, not Everest.

In today's consumer society, we're persuaded that it's an act of reckless folly to leave the safety of the pavement without buying specially designed clothing. It's not enough for walking shoes to fit. They now have to be both waterproof and breatheable, with built-in shock absorbers and arch support.

My Royal Mail-surplus shoes didn't have an 'ortholite anatomical footbed' or a 'Vibram axis sole', but as I started my 90-minute walk to the northernmost point of Lundy, I didn't feel at a disadvantage. If it rained, I had an old kagool somewhere in the bottom of my backpack.

I began with a visit to a disused lighthouse, where I'd be able to get my bearings and work out where I was going. From here, you can see every part of the island:

The owners of Lundy have thoughtfully added deck chairs, so the following day I took a book and spent a very enjoyable hour listening to howling wind:

As you can see, there are no safety barriers and the circular platform is surrounded by a sheer drop, but on Lundy the prevailing philosophy is that people are responsible for their own safety. In some ways, Lundy fulfills the childhood fantasy of a world without grown-ups, as there are no policemen, civil servants or government officials here.

Once I'd checked my map against the view and made sure that I wasn't holding it upside down, I set off along the western side of the island. There is nothing between this coastline and Newfoundland, so it gets a little windy. In the past, cattle have been blown into the sea and ships dashed against the rocks.

I took extra care when walking along the cliff edge:

When a neighbour heard that I'd gone to Lundy, she cheerfully replied that the husband of a friend had fallen off a cliff there and died. "Mind you," she added "He did have some mental health issues, so he might have jumped."

Perhaps the poor man did jump, but walking along this coastline I could see how easy it would be to lose your footing, particularly in wet weather. Whenever I stopped to take a photo, I reminded myself not to absent-mindedly step backwards. I imagined accidentally plunging to my doom and people concluding that I'd "been under a lot of stress recently."

As I looked at the dark, granite cliffs and listened to the lonely cry of the gulls, I was reminded of the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Seafarer'.  With lines like "There I heard nothing but the roaring sea..." and "Storms there beat the stony cliffs, where the tern spoke, icy-feathered..." it could have been written here.

There is a thin line between solitude and loneliness and on Lundy, I crossed it.

I thought of Sir Lewis Stukeley, who lost his mind on Lundy. In the reign of King James I, Stukeley betrayed his cousin Sir Walter Raleigh, partly for financial gain, but also motivated by a long-held grudge. Stukeley gained favour with the King, but earned the contempt of his peers and was ostracised by everyone at Court. Broken by the experience, he fled to Lundy.

Here is an extract from Charles Kingsley's wonderful account of Stukeley's demise:

"A terrible plebiscitum had been passed in the West country against the betrayer of its last Worthy. The gentlemen closed their doors against him; the poor refused him - so goes the legend - fire and water. Driven by the Furies, he fled from Affeton, and wandered westward down the vale of Taw, away to Appledore, and there took boat, and out into the boundless Atlantic, over the bar, now crowded with shipping, for which Raleigh's genius had discovered a new trade and a new world.

Sixteen miles to the westward, like a blue cloud on the horizon, rises the ultima Thule of Devon, the little isle of Lundy. There one outlying peak of granite, carrying up a shelf of slate upon its southern flank, has defied the waves, and formed an island some three miles long, desolate, flat-headed, fretted by every frost and storm, walled all round with four hundred feet of granite cliff, sacred only, then at least, to puffins and pirates. Over the single landing-place frowns from the cliff the keep of an old ruin, 'Marisco Castle,' as they call it still, where some bold rover, Sir John de Marisco, in the times of the old Edwards, worked his works of darkness: a grey, weird, uncanny pile of moorstone, through which all the winds of heaven howl day and night.

In a chamber of that ruin died Sir Lewis Stukeley, Lord of Affeton, cursing God and man."

I continued walking along the coast and actually felt grateful when I saw three figures in the distance:

These gentlemen looked as if they had shares in Berghaus and were ready for all weathers. I felt slightly underprepared and looked anxiously at the darkening sky, but I hadn't realised how quickly the weather could change on Lundy:
All it takes is a bit of blue sky to make me feel as if I'm on holiday instead of being in an Anglo-Saxon poem. Perhaps I should try the Canary Islands next time.
This is one of three walls that mark out the quarter, half and three-quarter points on Lundy. If you're a fan of drystone walling, you'll like Lundy.

I thought that this view was quite spectacular. If it was on the mainland, I expect someone would be charging us £15 for the privilege of seeing it, whilst offering Lundy Rock Shortbread (made in Wolverhampton) in the obligatory gift shop. There would probably also be some sort of branding, telling us that we were in a 'heritage area'.

Fortunately, Lundy is owned by the Landmark Trust, who have managed to exploit the island's commercial potential as an unsual holiday destination, whilst leaving its unique character undamaged.
If you're a misanthropist or need to finish that difficult second novel, this cottage offers splendid isolation:

But don't write the novel on a laptop. There's no electricity.

The northern point of Lundy was a bit of an anticlimax - the land just stopped. But then I noticed some rather crude steps that led down to a small peninsula with a lighthouse. I made my way down very tentatively and was dismayed to find that at the last step, there was another flight of steps. I hate heights.

Halfway down, I had a blood sugar crisis, everything started to go dark and I learned the full meaning of the expression about legs turning into jelly. I found a level surface where I wouldn't roll into the sea, ate a banana and took deep, slow breaths. I hadn't seen anyone for an hour and there was no mobile signal. I was on my own.

Suddenly, the oppressive infrastructure of 21st century Britain, with its CCTV cameras and dedicated hotlines for people "affected by these issues", looked more attractive. Briefly.

But after ten minutes, I began to feel better and slowly made my way back. If I was going to pass out, I wanted to be somewhere reasonably horizontal. But the moment I reached the top, I started to feel better. I know what Freud would say.

I walk back along the eastern side of Lundy. Towards the south, there are the remants of an ill-fated attempt to establish a quarry on Lundy:

The quarry company was one of several enterprises that ended in failure. Lundy has seen many hopeful new owners end their lives in despair and bankruptcy. Today, a number of buildings are in ruins, covered in nettles and ferns.

But the failed quarrying enterprise has left one positive legacy. This small pool offers a refuge from the Atlantic winds and, like a London park, has its own stock of ducks and fish:

To conclude, I'd warmly recommend Lundy to anyone who wants a respite from Facebook updates, breaking news, 24/7 and too many choices of coffee. If you feel that the zeitgeist is the shitegeist, you'll probably like Lundy.

They also have seals.

Here is a montage of my trip to Lundy. It's slightly depressing how over an hour of video footage can be compressed to three minutes and still be boring, but at least the music's nice:


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

In Exile

Tomorrow, I will be driving for five hours until I reach a small harbour, where I hope that a boat will be waiting for me. If the sea isn't too rough, I will be following in Bilbo and Frodo Baggins' footsteps and sailing west to a land beyond the sea, or at least beyond a mobile phone signal; a place that the ancient Celts regarded as one of the isles of the dead.

Unlike the Bagginses, I have bought a return ticket.