Back in 2009 I wrote the below piece for the National Trust Magazine to celebrate 40 year of the Trust owning a very special place – Lundy Island. In the week that Sir Jack Hayward died, who made the Trust’s purchase of the Island possible, through a very generous gift, I though that I’d publish the piece that I wrote on the story of Lundy Island.
Notes from a small Island:
When you climb aboard the MS Oldenburg for the two-hour sail to Lundy Island you get a sense that you’re at the start of a journey to somewhere special. On a clear day you can spot tiny Lundy (5km long and nearly a kilometre wide) in the distance as you leave Ilfracombe and head into the Bristol Channel.
Along the way you’ll see plenty of seabirds, and dolphins, riding the waves.As you approach the island (population approximately 25), you’ll spot the lighthouse, castle and church perched on this imposing granite mass that rises to 122m above the sea.
Arriving in its sheltered bay, visitors say it feels as if they’ve travelled back in time. This is an isle with a history that reads like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, and though only 18km from the North Devon coast, its tranquillity and sense of ‘elsewhere’ compare to the Treasure Island in Stevenson’s famous tale.
After centuries of private ownership, Lundy came up for sale 40 years ago, and thanks to the generosity of property developer Sir Jack Hayward, the National Trust was able to buy the island for £150,000. From day one it has been managed and staffed by the LandmarkTrust with funding for two wardens coming from Natural England. Now, every year, thousands of people come to take in the gentle rhythm of Lundy life. Some are seeking to get away from it all, others come for the birdwatching or the joys of the Marine Nature Reserve, making it a perfect spot for diving in clear waters, with multicoloured coral reefs and grey seals.
Nomads and pirates
The origin of the island’s name is rooted in history, derived from the Norse words for puffin, lund, and island, ey. Archaeological surveys by the National Trust suggest that nomadic hunters and fishermen first made Lundy their home 7,000 years ago, and evidence of the way residents have lived ever since is scattered across the island. Medieval life was certainly never dull with disputed ownership and regular pirate raids. For 50 tumultuous years the powerful Marisco family owned the island, but they fell foul of King Henry III who went on to build the imposing castle which still stands at the south-east end of the island.
During the English Civil War Lundy remained firmly in Royalist hands and was the last place to surrender to Parliament. For five years in the 1860s, it was a hive of industry as granite was quarried on its eastern side. At its peak more than 200 men worked in the quarry, the stone being taken to London to build the Embankment and Charing Cross Hotel. More recently the island made history in 1986 by becoming the first Marine Nature Reserve, and it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Life on Lundy
From the publican at the tavern to the postmaster, it’s a small team that makes Lundy tick. Although caring for the needs of visitors is the main activity, the island also has its own working hill farm. Keeping sheep in such an exposed place proves a challenge for the Landmark Trust’s Farm Manager.
The two Natural England wardens on Lundy play an important role in protecting this fragile habitat. They get involved in all areas of island life, whether leading guided walks or working with researchers to record the species found on this rocky isle.
The west side of Lundy has rugged coastal cliffs, where the waves constantly pound the rocks. It’s here that you’ll find the shrill noise of seabird colonies. Shags, guillemots, the recently flourishing Manx shearwater and, if you’re really lucky, a puffin can all be spotted, so don’t forget your binoculars. The centre of the island is where you’ll come to rolling moorland and see the riot of colour provided by heather in the summer. Gaze up and you might catch a glimpse of a skylark as it sings its heart out high above you. Look out for the yellow flowers of the unique Lundy cabbage, on the sheltered eastern side of the island, and the abandoned kitchen garden that once served Millcombe House, alive with butterflies and songbirds.
On a sunny day grey seals might be basking on the rocks along the water’s edge. A lighthouse, church and wallabies in the nineteenth century Lundy was famed for its shipwrecks, so the merchants of Bristol invested in a lighthouse on the island to save their fleets. Even though the lighthouse stood 173m above sea level and cost the huge sum of £36,000, it was too often obscured by low-level cloud, rendering it useless to guide ships past the treacherous rocks. Two new lighthouses, one in the north, the other in the south, were built in 1896 to help ships safely on their way.
William Hudson Heaven, who bought the island in 1834, built Millcombe House – an elegant Georgianstyle villa – and the road from the beach. His son, the Reverend Hudson Grosset Heaven, fulfilled his lifelong dream when the oversized Gothic-style parish church was completed in 1896. The church can be seen from miles around and is still used for occasional services.
The twenties saw a host of wildlife being introduced by the island’s new owner, Martin Harman. He became the self-proclaimed ruler of Lundy and wanted to keep the island independent of the mainland. He issued two coins, the Half Puffin and One Puffin, in 1929.A keen naturalist, he brought over sika deer, soay sheep and Lundy ponies – still found on the island today. Red squirrels and wallabies were less successful as they were unable to adapt to the island’s habitat and harsh winters.
That harshness melts in summer, making Lundy a special spot to while away a few days. Choose to stay in a Landmark Trust property and enjoy the air, the plants, the geology, the sounds of the birds and a pint of Lundy ale in the pub. And on a warm evening, pen a postcard to those more harried over the water – then watch the sun set over the waves.