Lundy Island: In the kingdom of Heaven

Lundy Island, England
I’ve always wanted to stay in a lighthouse. There is something deeply romantic about these lonely towers of rock; symbols of man’s attempts to even out the balance in the struggle against the forces of nature.

The Old Light fit the bill perfectly. At the crest of Beacon Hill on Lundy Island, with the Bristol Channel on one side and the wild Atlantic to the west, stands a gracefully tall tower built from indestructible granite.

The tallest lighthouse in Britain; designed by an eminent Victorian engineer in 1819; and, of course, literally endless views in every direction. We settled into the cosy quarters for the long weekend. Squashy armchairs beside an enormous stone hearth, wooden floors and a blue and white Old Chelsea service.

On Lundy the sea is never far away. The island is not even a mile wide and only three miles long. There are less than 30 permanent residents, and day-trippers are the most common sight on days when the MV Oldenburg visits. When the ferry departed on Saturday we were left to our own devices on the island until Tuesday.

Our first day was marked by the strong winds the island typically experiences . The logbooks in the Old Light are full of accounts of Lundy’s extreme changes of weather and mph gales “when a constant plume of seawater rises 20-30 feet over the cliff at Piolet’s Quay and gulls fly backwards”.

Lundy Island, UK

There are also many references to the mysterious attraction of the place and of the joys of retreating from modern life. Which is not to say that the holiday accommodations on the island are not very comfortable, with fully equipped kitchens ready for cooking up sociable feasts.

Each holiday rental property on the island has its own personality and its own outlook. Living in Lundy’s plastic-and-Ikea-free-zone has a certain novel charm.

But most thrillingly, for us residents of the Old Light, there is nothing between our windows and America except the Atlantic. There aren’t many places you can go in the United Kingdom to experience such isolation and yet be so cosy.

When the second day dawned gloriously clear and windless, we quickly succumbed to the euphoria of sun plus sky, inhaling the sea air. I felt slightly giddy at the simple enormity of the space and the visible curvature of the horizon.

Lundy is a site of Special Scientific Interest due to the variety of wildlife both on the land and in the surrounding waters. And in January it became the nation’s first Marine Conservation Zone under the new Marine and Coastal Access Act, continuing the island’s tradition of pioneering nature conservation.

Apart from the beauty of the landscape, the colours, the light, the textures of hill and rock; the island holds many surprises, as a guided walk with the Lundy Warden revealed.

On the windswept uplands the bleached bones of a Heinkel III bomber, crashed in 1941 and deliberately burnt out by its crew. In the Marisco Tavern you will find the letter written by the subsequently arrested German aviators, praising their kind treatment by the islanders.

The island also honours Harman’s son, John Pennington Harman, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in India in 1944. The memorial at VC Quarry sits peaceful among the remains of the 19th-century quarrying operation.

Purple heather, yellow gorse and russet-red bracken. The sun beats down from clear blue skies and butterflies flit around our walking boots as we explore. Past the farm boundary and you enter the territory of wild ponies, goats and sika deer.

At the halfway wall we gaped down into Jenny’s Cove, where a great pyramidal-shaped rock was once the landing place of arriving boats. Until 2000 when the current jetty was built, people were run ashore here on a little rib and then required to form a line and hand all the cargo on to land.

Lundy Island, UK

The coastal scenery here on the upper west coast rivals anything I’ve seen in Cornwall or Scotland for beauty, as rock glazed with golden lichen tumbles towards a turquoise sea. Grey seals play and shags sun themselves on slabs and needles of rock fashioned by the Atlantic. There are dark, shadowy zawns where the sea boils white.

The ‘sidelands’ of the east coast is less spectacular and more vegetated but great granite outcrops rising out of the sea of green bracken offer their own majesty.

Lundy has an ancient and varied history. The cemetery adjoining the Old Light contains four inscribed Celtic Christian stones as well as the crosses and gravestones of landowning families and unmarked graves of shipwrecked mariners and the like.

Once there was a church here but now the cemetery is alone and lonely beside the lighthouse, beautiful in evening sun or eerie under dark scudding clouds.

Overlooking the southern point of the island is The Castle, a 13th-century keep built by Henry III in an attempt to keep in line the rebellious Marisco family who had seized the island and to bolster its position as a defensive point against invading forces from Europe.

There were centuries of piracy and lawlessness, with many a swindle, scheme and salvage passing into legend. William Hudson Heaven purchased Lundy in 1834 as a summer retreat for shooting and it sounds like he and his descendants ruled the island like a miniature monarch such that the island was referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven during this period. Lundy is now managed by The Landmark Trust on behalf of the National Trust.

For philatelic enthusiasts and lovers of quirkiness generally, yes Lundy Island has its own stamps: introduced in 1929 after the GPO ceased to have any interest in Lundy and the landowner found it necessary to defray costs.

He chose the puffin as his unit of currency – the equivalent of a British penny. They are valid for mail only to and from the island and can be purchased in the shop and posted in the tavern.

Lundy Island, UK

But back to the lighthouse. Britain’s lighthouses are increasingly being decommissioned as they are thought to be made unnecessary by GPS technology. Lundy Island’s South Light is on its way out later this year.

The merits of this argument can be debated but what is clear is that the Old Light was not fit for purpose from the time of its completion. Despite warnings from the locals, the light was built on a site 407 feet (124 m) above sea level the light towered above the layers of fog that was a hazard to shipping.

So they had to build a fog signal battery down on the coast with cannons booming out into the murk, the ruins of which can be visited. Eventually the lighthouse was abandoned in 1897 when more modern lighthouses were built at the north and south of Lundy Island.

Now the Old Light stands, visible from everywhere on the island. From the top of the tower we can see the long beaches of the Devonshire coast. It’s a giant Victorian folly, but an unbelievably romantic place to hole up for a weekend.

By Natasha von Geldern

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About Natasha von Geldern

Natasha von Geldern is the World Wandering Kiwi, a freelance travel writer, editor and inveterate traveller who is passionate about making the pages of the atlas real one trip at a time.

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