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:



Tororo said...

Nothing says "mystery" like a lonely island. If the Famous Five had been there, I'm pretty sure they would have solved the mystery of the (seemingly) insane scribblings left on the castle's ruined walls by the late Sir Lewis Stukeley, Lord of Affeton, prior to dying cursing God and man. I bet the ill-gotten treasure is hidden in some crack in one of these strange stone pillars.

Daleaway said...

Your point resonates about the English overdressing for every possible outdoor pursuit (well, that was almost your point!).

In New Zealand, where the wild natural landscapes are always nearby and often rugged to the point of extreme risk, we take the opposite approach. We have solved the problem by wearing tramping (you call it hiking) clothes for almost every pursuit, all the time. Cargo pants and trainers and a good windcheater/anorak/parka/waterproofwill take one from a concert performance to a funeral. Stylish we ain't but prepared we always are...!

Brett said...

Thanks for the delightful travelogue and video.

I read about Lundy in Bernard Knight's The Awful Secret, in which it was a medieval pirate stronghold.

Rog said...

Lovely. The film was a bit like that Look At Life series from the 1960's they are running on BBC4. I think it's the music.
No wifi on Lundy would make me Mardy by Mecredi

Steerforth said...

Tororo - I think you're right. Lundy hasn't revealed all of its secrets. There are smugglers' caves that are only accessible by boat, mysterious artefacts left by a prehistoric native population and hidden gorges that could be the entrance to a secret base. Sadly, dogs aren't allowed on Lundy, so the Famous Five would have to be four.

Daleaway - Yes, it has been noticed. My wife used to wonder why her New Zealand friend always looked as if she was about to embark on a long hike, even when they were having a drink in London. My wife has a horror of sensible clothing and a few weeks ago I was completely soaked because she refused to be seen with a man wearing a kagool.

Brett - I'm surprised that the authorities of the time didn't maintain a proper presence on Lundy. Along with being a pirate base, the island has been easily taken over by Turkish corsairs, Frenchmen, Irish chieftans and Vikings.

Steerforth said...

Rog - I can't think of any suitable French day of the week-related response, apart from something to do with Samedi and sameday. But I think the lack of wifi is a blessing. The joy of Lundy is its isolation and it wouldn't have been the same if my long walks had been punctuated with Twitter and Facebook updates.

The music, by the way, is 'Prelude, Marine and Chanson' by Guy Ropartz - it's a lovely piece.

Georgie said...

But the puffins, Steerforth - what about the puffins? Did I miss them in your video?

I think I associate Lundy not just with puffins, but also with Puffins, so I liked your own sense that the island was linked in some way with children's fiction.

Sarah said...

Where did all those people who got off the boat go? Did they just disappear into the island?

I think I could stick no electricity for a weekend... Looks a lovely place and your little vid with the gorgeous music is very atmospheric.

Steerforth said...

Universal Acknowledgement - The puffins are very elusive. I'm not a great bird spotter, but I would have liked to have seen one. As you say, the children's book connection alone is reason enough.

Sarah - Most of the people were day trippers. The next day was a 'non-boat day' and the island was limited to a handful of staying visitors.

Glad you like the music. It's one of my favourite pieces.

Kristin said...

Really wonderful post. So glad to have read it and learned about a place I've never heard of before.

Steerforth said...

Glad you liked it Kristin. If you enjoyed Iceland (you mentioned going there on your blog), Lundy offers that same feeling of splendid isolation, minus the spectacular geysers and waterfalls.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I'd need at least the radio to stop me going mad, but it does look wild and lovely. Loved the music on the video.

I think the puffins migrate somewhere else for the summer - I remember hearing that on a trip to the Farne islands out of Seahouses in Northumbria apparently we were lucky to see them in late June (or I could be making that up!).

Martin said...

Glad you enjoyed your trip. The photographs are really good, as is the account of your stay.

My mother, sisters and my late step-father, a builder, once visited Lundy. It was a foul day and raining heavily. My step-father disappeared, and after a while the visiting group was alerted to a lot of banging and scraping. On investigation, it was my step-father (who hated getting wet) building a makeshift shelter from some lengths of timber and abandoned sheets of corrugated iron.

Have you ever read 'Some Lovely Islands' by Leslie Thomas?

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I must admit, I would have liked Radio Four. I have to confess, I did cheat and watch a few programmes on my smartphone, but I'm glad that there was no television.

Martin - Thanks for the recommendation. I hadn't heard of the book. I shall definitely be ordering a copy. I like the image of your step-father building a makeshift shelter - Lundy is rather exposed. I don't know where he found the materials though, as I didn't see any rogue planks of wood when I was there!

Debra said...

I have now added Lundy to my... list ? (horrible word, and idea to boot...) of places to hole up in when what we call civilization drives me over the edge.
Are those moors there ?
Beautiful video. It didn't have to tell a story, or make a point... and the music was beautiful, too.
Have you ever read Edward Abbey's account of the weekend tourist who got lost in Arches National Monument before the place fell victim to mass tourism ? I can't remember the book title in English right now. I read it in French, unfortunately.
He.. died in the middle of the sweltering summer heat but what a way to go. Like stepping over the edge in the Grand Canyon, a little bit. Sure beats petering out in a retirement home.
Where were those sheepies heading off to, by the way ?
Now, that's got me worried. It doesn't look good for them.
Slavery on Lundy ? Slavery on a plantation in the New World South ? At least the heat is not so bad on Lundy.
Insanity is very much in the eyes of the beholders...
Thanks for the post. Very nice.

Martin said...

Steerforth, we're probably around 1970ish. I imagine things have been cleaned up considerably in the intervening years.

I hope you enjoy the book. I know I did.

Steerforth said...

Debra - Yes, it is moorland. The topsoil becomes thinner as you move north and the ground is mostly covered in gorse, heather and ferns.

I haven't read the Edward Abbey, but I agree. I'd rather disappear into the wilderness than end my days vegetating in a care home, watching daytime television.

I saw the sheep going at the other end being towed away by a car. Lundy has its own slaughterhouse, so perhaps they were off to new pastures.

Martin - That must have been when the Landmark Trust had just taken over. Chillingly, the Scientologists tried to by Lundy a few years earlier.

Helen Devries said...

I enjoyed that travelogue very much indeed...it made Lundy come to life for me.

Quite agree about the perceived need to buy special gear for every activity - do people realise quite what prats they look all trooping about in similar gear?

Anonymous said...

sometime between startng to follow you online and now I had a trip to the UK which involved a saty in Russell Square, ariund the corner from the putative locale of the used bookshop of "Black Books," which I was put onto after our return to the US.

In reading this update, I only just now realized that I have mentally mapped you, Steerforth, onto a mind-image of Bernard Black married up and self-suburbanized, even though I well know your backstory and Bernard's are quite distinct. This trip really does seem like something the fictional bookseller would dream of. Delightful to read about it, I am jealous of the trip.

zungg said...

All islands are peculiar, but this one seems especially so - like it's been pushed up from the depths without cause, and never found any claim or purpose other than as a one-time destination. I shall have to visit - once.

Loved your post as always.

mark said...

I Moved to Ilfracombe eight years a and went to Lundy for the first time in Forty Five years only for weeks ago, it was heaven. You capture it perfectly including that Grecian isle feeling, very strange, and the old lighthouse with deckchairs on the high plinth.
I have to go again for longer.
Before it is neighboured by the uks largest off shore windfarm!Coming soon to wreck that far from it all feel,

Steerforth said...

Helen - I find those walking poles particularly annoying. Obviously if they're being used to compensate for a gammy leg, that's a different matter. But some of the people I see seem to think that they're Edmund Hillary conquering Everest, rather than someone walking on some grass in the English countryside.

Anonymous - I must admit, I've had my Bernard Black moments. I love the books, but the customers can be rather frustrating at times. The good thing about selling online is that I'm dealing with book lovers who know their stuff, rather than people who don't know the title or author, but remember than it had a red cover.

Zungg - Thank you, I'm glad you liked it. If you visit the Landmark Trust's website, you'll see that they offer accommodation of all sizes, with options for short and longer stays. I hope you manage to get there.

Mark - I had no idea about this until I visited Lundy. I used to be a big fan of wind power (at least, the idea of it), but now that I've read more about the subject I'm not sure if the environmental damage is worth the relatively measly amount of power generated.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Isolated Lundy may be, but I noticed that a number of people walked off the boat with you. Were they all visitors or did some of them live on the island? And where did they go? Is there even a post office on the island?

I agree with Tororo that Lundy would be a great setting for a mystery.

Thanks for sharing.

Steerforth said...

Carol - There's a pub that serves food, a small shop and a post box. Lundy has a few dozen residents, but they're not 'islanders' in the sense that they're descended from generations of Lundians. Unlike the channel islands or the Hebrides, there hasn't been a permanent population on the island. I don't know why - it's not that bad.

The people getting off the boat were mostly there for a few hours. Once the boat returned to the mainland, the island was almost completely deserted.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

As always your narrative is hilarious and informative, but the video really is lovely. Those three minutes are wonderfully evocative. Does the act of video recording take away from the experience?

I would love to spend a few days in such a place. Especially on a non-boat day.

I may have missed it, what is the music?

mark said...

Apologies for all the terrible typos in my previous comment, blame the hour.
I have just managed to download your video and think it's rather lovely. Only increasing my desire to return.

Steerforth said...

Thomas - That's a question I've often asked myself, about video recording. I remember seeing a tourist film his entire ride in a San Fransico cable car and thinking how ironic it was that he was busy capturing something he wasn't actually experiencing. I suppose it's about getting the ratio right.

The music is the middle movement of an exquisite piece by Guy Ropartz called Prélude, Marine et Chanson, which is on a recording by the Melos Ensemble.

Mark - I'm glad it makes you want to return. I just hope that if you go, you're as lucky with the weather as I was.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I too was captivated by storybook smuggling adventures on remote islands whether by the Famous Five or anyone else! But I suppose in real life Lundy Island is more like an accidental spiritual retreat but without the religious bit. Beautiful horses too. Glad you didn't fall off any cliffs Steerforth. Then again I suppose they are alerted if anyone attempts to book a one-way ticket! ; - )

Steerforth said...

Laura - Funnily enough, I had to book a guest house for the nights before and after Lundy and when I arrived, the owner asked me if I wanted to pay for both, or just the first night. Did I look as if I wasn't planning on coming back?

Yes, Lundy is a spiritual retreat, but also a challenge if you're travelling alone.

zmkc said...

I hope the Lundy Tourist Board is paying you because I am completely sold - it's the six-hour electricity break and no internet that clinched it for me, which is odd given that I'm using electricity and Internet to write this having done the same to read the whole beguiling post

Steerforth said...

Zoe - I always feel a huge relief when I'm forced to be internet-free for a while, because I lack the discipline to ration it in my daily life. The electricity loss was an added bonus, giving the days a structure that has been lost since the advent of the '24/7' culture.

Apart from the fridge and cooker, I could have been in the 1920s.

If you ever go, I'd recommend rounding up enough friends and family to stay in Milcombe House (I think it sleeps 12), as it looks rather nice.

Evan said...

Perhaps all this mention of death and not returning had to do with Lundy island being an entrance to Annwn, the Otherworld of Welsh legend.

So the guest house owner's question was fair.

You were lucky to come back.


Steerforth said...

Well, there were fewer people on the boat going back, so perhaps you're right.

Ms Baroque said...

Hey! there's nothing wrong with a drink in Stoke Newington.

Steerforth said...

I agree, which is why I always dress for the occasion.

Half of Lewes seems to come from Stoke Newington. Perhaps we should be twinned.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Thanks for this look at a place I would never have known about, Steerforth. Regarding this:

"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."

...I once wrote a post containing this very notion and was surprised by the feathers it ruffled among some readers. I agree completely with you, but people were very defensive about their specialized garb -- angrily so. Strange, to me.

Anonymous said...

I have always been intrigued by Lundy ever since I read about its unofficial coinage when I was a child numismatist.

Anonymous said...

Daleaway: I am a Englishman who's ended up in Hamilton, NZ.

If I go out (not surprisingly, this is most days!) I have the dilemma of whether to dress as I think one *should* dress or should I turn up in cargo pants and trainers.

Go one way and I feel overdressed. Go the other way, and I feel like someone trying too hard to be a Kiwi ...