Barely three miles long and half a mile wide, and with puffins outnumbering 15 to one, Lundy Island seems like an unpretentious place. However, this little piece of England, located just north of Devon in the Bristol Channel, has endured a long and volatile history that belies its modern incarnation as a protected nature reserve, bird watcher’s paradise, and, for the 26 people. who live here, an idyllic island home.
Lundy’s past is one of mad pirates, renegade knights, and crooked deputies, while several former guardians of the island attempted to establish it as an independent kingdom with its own laws and currency; all expressions of a rich couture of great British eccentricity that remains in evidence on Lundy today.
“The beauty of Lundy is that she hasn’t changed for many, many years; it’s like going back to the 1950s, ”said Derek Green, Island Managing Director. “There are very few vehicles, no pollution, no noise, lots of wildlife. It’s a place that is untouched by the modern world.”
I was talking to Green aboard Lundy’s supply ship, MS Oldenburg, as it left the port town of Ilfracombe in Devon on an ice-blue April morning. The Oldenburg itself is kind of a step backwards; Built in 1958, it elegantly carries its heritage in its polished wood and brass sedans. In addition to carrying provisions for the Lundy store and pub, it transports hundreds of passengers to the island every week. Tourists are drawn to Lundy’s spectacular coastal scenery and serene sense of the mainland’s otherness, and its wildlife, long recognized as a feature of the island.
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“The name Lundy means ‘puffin island’ in Old Norse,” said Green, explaining that it is a legacy of the Viking raiders who used Lundy as a base of operations from the 8th century AD, although that they are far from being the first inhabitants. “Lundy’s story is long and colorful,” he said. “There is evidence of Bronze Age occupation in the remains of hut circles in the north, there is a 13th century castle and there is a long history of shipwrecks. There are three lighthouses; it’s unique for such a small island. “
We landed on the south coast of Lundy in the shadow of one of the three. As I walked up the steep, rock-cut path to the top of the island, the scent of coconuts wafted over the cliffs of thorny gorse bushes, which crackle all year round in a riot of yellow flowers. Lundy’s civilization boils down to a collection of historic stone buildings in the south of the island, known simply as the village, housing staff and visitor accommodation, a pub, shop, and an Anglican church in the Nineteenth century. A handful of other character buildings are scattered throughout the rest of the island, including the old castle, a former naval signal station, and the ruins of a Victorian quarry, but for the most part it’s wilderness , with grassy meadows to the south and rugged moors to the north. The cliffs on the east coast are green, gentle, and dotted with wildflowers, while those on the west – home to seabirds – are steep and spectacularly rugged.
Once in the village, I made my way to Lundy’s well-stocked general stores. For sale were Lundy’s stamps bearing the image of the island’s famous seabirds – a legacy of Lundy’s last private owner, Martin Coles Harman, who clashed with mainland authorities in 1931 after declaring himself King of Lundy and minted his own currency, the Puffin.
Sue Waterfield, who runs the shop, moved to Lundy six years ago after living in Cornwall for 30 years. “Living here is less stressful, away from the pressure of being busy all the time,” she said. “Being surrounded by the sea and at the mercy of the elements makes you feel closer to nature, and the light here is phenomenal. You can easily be shaken off a bad mood just steps from your front door.”
Perhaps someone should have told the medieval inhabitants of Lundy to take more walks, as during this time events on the island became distinctly moody. In 1155, the new King Henry II handed the island over to the Templars, although, true to form, their association with Lundy is shrouded in mystery and it is not known whether they took possession of the island. Either way, the king’s decree added fuel to the anti-English fire of the island’s stewards, the Marisco family, whose allegiances fell to the French and Scots. “The Marisco family used Lundy as a pirate base before William de Marisco was involved in an attempt to assassinate King Henry III. [in 1238]”said Michael Williams, Honorary Secretary of the Lundy Field Society.” The king sent his men to Lundy and William was captured, convicted of treason and hanged, shot and quartered. “
In the centuries that followed, Lundy became a wild and lawless place. Its sheltered bay and strategic position in the navigation channel between England and Wales have attracted a motley succession of pirate bands. A company of Barbary pirates, the Salé Rovers, flew the Ottoman flag over Lundy for five years from 1627, capturing Europeans who would then be sent to Algiers to be sold as slaves.
By the mid-1700s Lundy was in seemingly more legitimate hands, but events were just as improper. “In 1750, Lundy was hired from Thomas Benson, a merchant and MP for Barnstaple, who was hiding contraband goods on the island,” Williams explained. “He was also hired to transport convicts to America, but instead landed some of them at Lundy where they were used as slave labor.” Benson’s cave, where he stored tin and contraband linen, is on a southern cliff.
The beauty of Lundy is that she hasn’t changed for many, many years; it’s like going back to the 50s
The parade of eccentric Lundy’s owners continued uninterrupted. Sir Vere Hunt, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and extremely terrible businessman, acquired Lundy in 1802 and established an Irish colony on the island. Populated by workers from his estate of Curragh, County Kildare, it had its own currency, stamp, tax and divorce laws. Then followed the ownership of William Hudson Heaven, whose family built the island church. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was far from angelic, however – it was paid for with compensation received after the emancipation of slaves from the family’s sugar cane plantations in Jamaica.
It was not until 1925, with the arrival of the Harman family, that Lundy began to become the place it is today: “A haven of peace and natural beauty”, as Martin Coles describes it. Harman in his mission statement for the island. He was an avid naturalist and introduced many unusual species that now inhabit Lundy; Japanese sika deer, Scottish Soay sheep, Highland cows and wild goats with vast scimitar-shaped horns roam the island at will.
“The topography and habitats on the island are really very special,” said Lundy manager Dean Woodfin Jones. “Thousands of seabirds come here in the summer to breed: puffins, murres, Manx shearwaters, storm petrels. There is also a really large colony of Atlantic gray seals.” The flora also includes many rare species, including the endemic Lundy cabbage, which does not grow anywhere else. Being a protected species, you cannot eat it – not that you would like to. “Triple distilled Brussels sprouts” is the anecdotal verdict.
I was talking to Woodfin Jones in the beer garden of the Marisco Tavern, the bustling center of Lundy’s life where the flotsam of wrecks adorn the walls and the menu features Soay burgers and sika deer. As the only building on the island with electricity after the generators shut down for the night, the tavern never closes; campers can shelter from the rain and people are always encouraged to use the pay phone. (The telephone signal on Lundy is very difficult to find, and the use of personal devices in the pub is punishable by a fine of £ 1.)
I was struck by the dynamism of the community and by the number of young people who chose to live on this isolated island. Woodfin Jones is 33 years old and has lived in Lundy for four years. “I don’t miss much from the continent, to be honest,” he said. “We have such a vibrant social community here.” Alice Waterfield, 29, who works at the tavern, agrees. “We all get along really well; if it’s a nice day, we can go down to the beach, or we’ll take a walk around the island. People come here because it’s a bit of an adventure.
History suggests that flow is the only constant on Lundy. The island’s future was in jeopardy when tourist incomes fell off a cliff during the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to a mix of donations and government grants, Lundy’s future is secure and islanders can get back to work preserving its precious wildlife and timeless atmosphere.
“My job is to keep Lundy as a world apart and try to stop the 21st century from knocking on our door,” Green told me.
Based on the current evidence, it does a good job.
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