Lundy is an elusive island, a shape-shifter floating tantalisingly off the North coast of Devon. A former refuge of rebels, pirates and smugglers, it lies below the Bristol Channel, its western shore pummelled by the Atlantic. At Bideford I set sail on the charming 1950s M.S. Oldenburg for the 23 mile voyage to the island, which I had last seen earlier in the summer shimmering in a violet heat-haze. Today was different. The wind was gusting a brisk damp south-westerly as we chugged down the river Torridge from Bideford. Once out to sea the ship developed an idiosyncratic roll-and- shudder movement soon imitated by some of the 260 passengers. Kindly and efficient crew members handed out paper bags and napkins, and, wrapping the worst cases in fluffy blankets, stowed them gently down below. Someone told me it wasn't always like this - this was her thirteenth trip to Lundy.
Enormous basking sharks began to accompany us, slurping plankton, and I was glad not to be one of the many passengers with Martian complexions leaning precariously over the ship's rail. After three hours the island appeared, weighed down by sea mist. Lundy's landing place, on the sheltered eastern shore by Rat Island (last refuge of the British black rat) is only accessible by small craft. Curious seals bobbed out of the water as we disembarked by launch and rubber dinghy.
On the slaty beach I headed right, up a steep path underneath dark cliffs held in place (hopefully) with giant metal pins, and bordered by hairy Lundy Cabbage. Using my newly acquired rolling sea-gait I soon passed Millcombe House. Built with Jamaican sugar money in 1835 for the pious Heaven family, its roof, sloping inward to catch precious rainwater, is an early example of ecological soundness. This house, like 22 other properties on Lundy (including one light-house) is maintained and administered by the Landmark Trust, and can be rented from them.
I followed the track to the village curving up to the left. A sharp left takes you to the 13th century Marisco Castle, built as a fortress by Henry III after he had executed the rebellious William de Marisco who used Lundy as his hideaway. I continued past the Victorian gothic church of St. Helena's on the left, walking across turf that was curiously bouncy. That, and my nautical gait, was having a strange effect on my progress. Dome shaped structures loomed out of the mist swirling in a field on my left. Disappointingly, what I had hoped was a Celtic encampment in a time-warp turned out to be the Tent Field. The naked legs of its inhabitants were not those of some ancient tribe but the rain-wet limbs of sturdy British campers roughing it and loving every moment.
Further on, the shrill squealing of pigs quarrelling behind a fence sent me hurrying for the shelter of the Marisco Tavern. Its warm, dark interior is hung disconcertingly with the many battered lifebelts of ships which never quite made it there. Lundy is the site of 137 shipwrecks. The weather cleared a little and I headed north again, enticed by visions of puffins with stripy beaks, and images of guillemots' eggs, a former Lundy delicacy, bright blue and almost conical (they don't roll off ledges).
I passed the Lundy Shop, which sells everything, including Lundy's own postage stamps. "Puffinage" was introduced in 1929 by the then owner of the island, Martin Harmer, when the first red and blue puffin stamps were issued. Further on the left is a farm on whose land two giant skeletons (over eight foot long) were discovered in the 1850s, hidden under granite and slate slabs. Over to the west is the Old Light, a sturdy lighthouse designed by Daniel Alexander, architect of Dartmoor prison. Built in 1820, it is now divided into flats for visitors, and has an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic. Unless it's foggy of course. The South Light fog-warning bellowed mournfully and intermittently as I continued north.
On my right were man-sized marker stones shawled with mist. Beyond them were the watery Lundy Roads, a safe haven for ships trying to shelter from the prevailing westerly winds. The Oldenburg would soon be setting off for the mainland. I turned south again. Lundy is only three miles long and half a mile wide, but I had had no realistic sense of scale, and time had passed far too quickly. I knew I would have to come back to this intriguing island. Eventually I joined other passengers, their cheeks now healthily flushed, streaming down the track to the landing bay. Below us was the Oldenburg floating on a calmer sea, ready to sail with the tide.
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