Kingdom of Heaven

I first heard of Lundy, which is situated in the Bristol Channel, during the mid 1990’s, when I read an article in the Mail on Sunday. I went for the first time in June 1995, and have been going back ever since.

The island has a magical quality that draws visitors back time and time again. It is difficult to discern why the island has such an effect on people. The island is home to Britain’s first marine nature reserve and is a SSSI. Lundy is a place of intense natural beauty and contrasts – from the wild and rugged west coast teaming with bird life to the sheltered valleys of the east. The island is a haven for bird watchers, climbers and nature lovers of all kinds. Lush green grass as far as the eye can see; blue sky meeting blue sea, with nature in all her glory.

The island itself, although only 3 miles long, by a mile and half wide, is full of surprises. The island has a long and tempestuous history, with evidence of occupation from Neolithic times. The north end is scattered with hut circles, on the west side are the remains of the old gun batteries used to warn the ships off the rocks before the lighthouses were built, while the south is dominated by the island’s castle.

The location and isolated nature of Lundy made it an attractive refuge for hermits, smugglers and pirates alike. The most notorious of these were the Marisco family, and Barnstaple MP Thomas Benson. The island entered its most settled period in 1836, when it was bought by William Hudson Heaven for £9870. He declared Lundy a “free island” outside the jurisdiction of mainland magistrates, and erected a landing stone on the beach to this effect. The island became affectionately known as the Kingdom of Heaven, which most visitors agree, is a most appropriate name.

In 1924 the island was sold to Surrey stockbroker Martin Coles Harman. It was Harman who introduced the Sika deer and the Soay sheep to the island, as well as the ponies. He also introduced the Lundy coins and stamps, which many visitors collect. Following a public appeal in 1969, the island was purchased by Sir Jack Hayward, who gave it to the National Trust. They leased it in turn to the Landmark Trust, who have been running the island ever since.

The 27 residents are employed by the Landmark Trust to look after the needs of the visitors. They stay for a season or for several years, running the shop, the farm and the Tavern, as housekeepers, wardens or in property maintenance

During the summer months, visitors travel to Lundy via the island’s own sturdy vessel MS Oldenburg (affectionately known as the old and buggered). She sails up to four times a week during peak season, from Bideford or Ilfracombe, carrying both day and staying passengers, with stores for both the shop and the island pub, the Marisco Tavern. The voyage takes around 2 hours, depending on ports, tides and weather.

During the winter months of November to March, the island is served by a scheduled helicopter service from Hartland Point. The helicopter operates on Mondays and Fridays, making it ideal for weekend visits and short breaks.

23 properties are available to rent by the week during peak times, or at other times to fit in around scheduled transport services. These range from a Victorian mansion to a converted pig sty for one. Most of the buildings are constructed from the island’s granite and all have their own unique style and character, with all mod cons. Provisions are available from the island shop.

The islands pub the Marisco Tavern forms the hub of island life. The door is always open, serving a delicious array of home cooked food, using locally sourced and island produce. The Tavern serves as an informal information centre, where visitors pop in to check the weather, to report bird sightings and to catch up on all the island gossip.

The island is never crowded, even at the height of summer when the islands supply ship MS Oldenburg brings day visitors up to four times a week. If you want to, you can walk from the landing beach to the north end in just over an hour, but it is better to take your time and savour the atmosphere. The contrast between the east and west sides explains the diversity in nature both above and below the waves, with an abundance of plant and animal life, including the endemic Lundy Cabbage.

Despite its name (the word Lundy in Norse the word means Puffin Isle), few pairs of these birds remain; the island is however home to one of the largest seabird colonies in the southwest. Thirty-five species of bird breed here each year, and over 280 unique species have been seen on the island.

The island is also home to a large colony of Atlantic grey seals, with occasional sightings of dolphins and other cetaceans, including basking sharks which visit during July and August.

The island seems to act as a mirror, reflecting our innermost thoughts, and giving us time to think and switch off from our everyday lives.

Words could never be enough to convey even a fraction of the magic that Lundy conveys. Where that magic comes from and what it means is as much a mystery as the island herself.  To me, it is about the total absence of distractions, the strength that comes from solitude and being immersed in nature. The sound of the sea and the wind washes everything away, like pouring liquid light into the soul. Visiting Lundy allows me a very brief glimpse into my own soul. The island is my refuge in times of trouble and despair and I know will always be there for me when needed, wrapping her arms around me in a gentle embrace and soothing away my cares.

Lundy is the sort of the place where it becomes very easy to lose yourself not only in distractions but also in the present moment. The only distraction on Lundy is the sound of the wind, which I use to drown out the incessant babble of my mind. It is disconcerting to wake up and find that the wind has dropped – it occurs to me that when I visit the island, all I do is replace one set of background noise with another.

There comes a point, usually after a few days, when you can no longer hear the voice in the head. If you are not careful, it does its best to start up all over again, but we can still enjoy the moment between the moments, as the voice gradually diminishes and we can see it for what it is. This is the island’s greatest gift.