Saturday, 17 September 2011


Ever since coming to Wales, over three decades ago, I have often stood on Penarth Pier and peered over to Ilfracombe. Well, that's where I thought, was told by my husband I was peering at. Last weekend I learnt that Ilfracombe is somewhere else. Over there across the Bristol Channel, yes, but much further along the coast, the North Devon coast, and more importantly the place to launch yourself to Lundy Island.
      Lundy Island is a two hour crossing from Ilfracombe. If you've watched the weather news, you may have noticed a small thin speck on the map where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic ocean. That's Lundy. Three miles long and half a mile wide, this remote island is a natural fortress, with a tempestuous history as a pirate lair.
      When we first spied the ship, MS Oldenburg that would take us to Lundy, it was the first part of its name that made an impression. It had clealry seen better days. We were a mixed bunch of hearties setting forth that day; day trippers, children, young couples holding hands, swaggering middle -aged men with ropes and rucksacks,  older people with walking sticks and stout boots, and a man with a bobble hat with the word 'Silly' emblazoned on the front.
      The sea is no respector of age, gender or mentality. The mistake many made was to go down below. The crew circulated paper bags and washed down the decks with buckets of disinfectant.   We sat smugly on the open deck, watching the horizon, the fresh air keeping us well...well, that's what we hoped.
      As we pulled into Lundy, a ghostly trail of sick travellers emerged from down below. My friend, who got her sea legs years ago on boats in the Scilly Isles, dished out good advice. One young woman, a day tripper who had three hours to recover before repeating her performance on the return trip, seemed to listen very closely.  We later spied her in the Marisco Tavern with a pint of Lundy Experience in her hand.  We were just glad it wasn't us going back with her. We were staying for a few days and even better than that, we were staying in a thirteenth century castle.
       Walking up from the ship, we heard an annoying repeating sound and then realised it was the fog horn that would blast its message through the island for the next 24 hours. We clutched each other in the mist, seeing strange shapes appear and disappear as we walked along a path we were told would lead us to our island home.
         Suddenly, the Castle emerged in front of us. The Keep is divided into three cosy apartments, fitted out in the Landmark Trust style for the discerning middle class holiday maker; pine and oak, a solid fuel fire, comfy chairs, damp sheets and threadbare oriental rugs. Entering the toilet there was a notice instructing us how to use it. A yellow container of bleach sat on the cistern looming ominously over the bowl. The instruction was to spray before and after use. Not what you'd expect in a 'green' property. Back in the kitchen was another notice and the sort of antiseptic gel you get in hospitals when they're trying to eliminate MRSA. The notice informed us of norovirus, gastroenteritis wide spread on the island. They are so paranoid about it, that even while we were eating our one and only meal in the tavern, a member of staff came and sprayed the door knobs next to our table.
      When the mist cleared and the wind subsided, we set out to see the island. The scenery is spectacular. Purple and pink heather mixed with canary gorse covers the springy turf moors and cliffs at this time of year. On the second day there was an electric storm as we walked northwards across the open moor. Clutching our metal walking sticks we ran through sleeting rain for cover in an old Admiralty look-out, now a cottage, banging on the door for shelter. Nobody was home and it was tempting to do a Goldilocks, but the front door was locked, so we stood in the lee of the building, standing close to an aluminium ladder, so that if the lightning missed our sticks, it could find another outlet.  Durrr!
     We walked from end to end and from west to east but we didn't get anywhere near seeing everything. We had hoped to go on a warden led walk, attend a warden talk about the wildlife, history and archaeology, and a snorkelling safari. But the computer and the lady in the office said, 'No, not now.' So we bought lots of wine from the shop and played the game of 'Articulate' in front of our coal fire instead.
     On the final day, we looked out of the toilet window-the only sea view from our castle keep-and saw a swirling sea of wild horses. Would it be a 'splash and dash' return by ship or a helicopter to take us back to Ilfracombe? We really hoped for the chopper. It would complete our adventure. But the message came that MS Oldenburg was coming early to avoid the brewing storm.
     As we pulled into sunny Ilfracombe after a good crossing, we muttered to each other our beliefs about the probable reason for an early return. I mean, it was Saturday afternoon and there was rugby and football on the tele. . .

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