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Lundy – a treasured island - Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | May 20, 2022

I imagined a stroll around Lundy might take an hour. A chunk of Dartmoor towed into the Bristol Channel, this ostensibly barren island is half a mile wide and three miles long.

Arriving on the ferry from Ilfracombe felt like being transferred from one boat to another. After straggling up the steep track from the jetty to ‘the village’, I was marooned on the high bulk of the island, surrounded by glorious blue water but seemingly unable to reach it, the sheer cliffs of Lundy plunging down for 100 metres without much sign of beach or path.

And while life on Lundy is not dissimilar to being on a cruise ship, with a seasonal ‘crew’ of islanders running the pub, shop, holiday cottages, farm and campsite, the island is far more complex and interesting. Over the years, it has been a hermitage, a pirates’ nest, a king’s retreat, a convict settlement and a refuge for an assassin. And a walk around it can take a whole day or, ideally, a week.

Lundy (‘puffin’ in old Norse) boasts 42 scheduled monuments, three stone walls, no hedges and almost no trees. Its residents include sheep, sika deer, feral goats, puffins, pygmy shrews and one very rare plant (of which more later). It has the first written record of nesting peregrines, the world’s oldest private postage service and Britain’s first ‘no take’ marine nature reserve.

Leaving the village, where house sparrows chuntered peacefully in numbers long lost from the mainland, I headed over dinky green fields to the south-western corner. Here I found an indentation through a vertiginous, sweet-scented meadow and followed it on a zigzag down. Lundy is all about the reverse summit. Two seals bobbed like bottles amongst the waving kelp below.

I cautiously descended the Montagu Steps, a series of decrepit stone steps and stumps of rusted metal leading to the rocks where a great multitude of ships, with names like great-great-grandparents – Ethel, Belinda, Mary, Francis Anne, Charles and Millicent – were once wrecked.

I halted above a final drop – ten yards down into the Atlantic, whose swell dispensed great slaps to the granite base of the island. For a while I sat, stunned by the ocean’s power, and then I began to feel perhaps calmer than I had ever felt before. Time passed in a way that bore no relation to a clock. Small-island magic was asserting itself.

Eventually I dragged myself away and continued up Lundy’s western flank, passing the Old Light, the disused lighthouse on the highest point of Lundy.

Like Britain, Lundy is long and thin and more edge than middle. Its coastline is so crenellated that it serves up endless little rocky theatres. Each one has a name and echoed with a spectacle of seabirds – the grumbles, moans and cries of fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and Lundy’s celebrated puffins.

Further north, there were no trippers; only Soay sheep clashing horns with a headache-inducing crunch. I disturbed a family of sika, who gazed at me with moist eyes, and then encountered a magnificently saturnine billy goat loitering with his nannies.

The island’s northern tip – called John O’Groats, of course – felt every bit as remote as the bigger version.

Returning down the east coast, I wandered beside slopping banks of bracken, foxglove and thousands of Lundy cabbages – a primitive, yellow-flowering brassica found nowhere else in the world.

By the time I returned to the village, I had been gone all day. I stayed for three – and met a pair of campers who explored Lundy each summer for four weeks. ‘Cancel your ticket home and we’ll show you springs, copper mines, mesolithic flints in rabbit burrows, Queen Mab’s grotto cave, basking sharks, sunfish…’ they promised.

So if you ever follow in my footsteps, one piece of advice: allow yourself a bit of time for this walk.