As a child I remember being fascinated by the shipping forecast on the Radio, sad, I know but true! In my 4 year old mind’s eye I tried to picture the places. What kind of dogs lived on Dogger? Was there really a net on Fastnet and 40 year old Vikings on Viking forties? Was Fair Isle as lovely as it sounded, and what on earth was a German bight? Somewhere in the middle, after the Isle of Wight, which at least I knew about because we went there sometimes for holidays, came Lundy. Subsequently I discovered that Lundy was a small island in the Bristol Channel, little did I know many years later I would be experiencing it first-hand.
The first thing we discovered on our day trip was that Lundy is quite a bit further from our part of Somerset than we thought, the RAC estimated journey said three and a bit hours but in the event due to the meandering Exmoor roads it took us at least four. However having found our parking in Ilfracombe we borded the M.S. Oldenburg, a rather stately German vessel [built in 1958] which during the summer season carries visitors to Lundy 4 times a week.
The harbour on Lundy is spectacular as, on this occasion, was the docking of the boat. Several attempts were made to throw a rope aboard before we were finally secured. One or two passengers looked askance at the distance between the bobbing boat and the landing stage. Definitely not one for those of a nervous disposition or with any serious form of mobility problem.
In a 2005 poll of Radio Times Readers Lundy was named as Britain’s tenth greatest natural wonder. The whole island has been designated as a site of Special Scientific interest and it was England’s first statutory Marine Nature Reserve. It is managed by the Landmark Trust on behalf of the national trust. The island is granite rock about 400 feet high it is three miles long and half a mile wide.
Walking up the steep and spectacular climb from the landing stage there are awe inspiring views over Mouse and Rat Islands and evocatively named Devil’s kitchen, along with a striking cleft in the cliff a clue to the island’s volcanic history.
Lundy has a population of less than 30 residents. In the winter they have to rely on helicopter for transport and supplies. In the summer the numbers increase with the day visitors and those staying in the 23 holiday properties and the camp site. There is a shop, the Marisco Tavern, a working farm, wild ponies, sheep and Lundy claims the biggest sea bird population in the South of England.
The word Lundy comes from the Norse meaning Puffin Island, and there is evidence that the island was inhabited from the Neolithic period onwards. In the Beacon Hill Cemetery next door to the Old Light there are four Celtic inscribed stones dating back to the 5th and 6th Century AD. This site was originally enclosed by a bank and ditch and would have been typical of the Celtic Christian enclosures found in Western Britain and known as Llans in Welsh and Lanns in Cornish.
In her book the Lords of Lundy [pub 2010. p14] Myrtle Ternstrom writes ‘The earliest written record for Lundy found so far tells the story of an un-named Freeman of Wales who, c1140, had attacked and robbed the Viking Holboldi, on the Isle of Man. Holboldi set out with his compatriot Sweyn to take revenge but the Welshman ‘…ran away to that isle which is called Lund. Sweyn and Holboldi sat before it for some time and could do nothing. And they fared home in the autumn to the Man. The Welshman’s name is not known, nor whether he had any entitlement to the island but the passage shows that the island was then a defended stronghold.’
In 1160 Lundy was granted to the Knights Templar by Henry II. At this time the Templar was a major maritime force with interests in North Devon. This move was probably seen by the King as a way of strengthening defences against the increasing threat posed by Norse sea raiders. It is unclear whether the Templars ever took possession of the island however ownership was disputed by the Marisco family who were already in possession of the island. In 1235 William de Marisco was implicated in the murder of Henry Clement a messenger of Henry III and three years later an attempt was made on the King’s life by a man who later confessed to being an agent of the Mariscos. William de Marisco fled to Lundy where he lived as a virtual king. He built a stronghold in the area now known as Bulls Paradise with 9 foot thick walls. In 1242 Henry III sent his troops to the island. They scaled the island’s cliff and captured William de Marisco and 16 of his ‘subjects’. Henry built a castle [sometimes referred to as Marisco Castle] in an attempt to establish a rule of law on the island and its surrounding waters. Over the next few centuries the island proved hard to govern as both English and foreign pirates and privateers- including members of the Marisco family- took control of the island for short periods. Because of the dangers of the Bristol Channel ships were forced to navigate close to Lundy making it a profitable place from which to prey on Bristol bound merchant ships bringing back valuable cargo from overseas.
St Helena’s Church
On Lundy there are signs of a Christian presence going back many centuries. Besides the Celtic inscribed stones there are traces of an early medieval monastery possibly dedicated to St Elena or St Helen. In the 13th Century the monks of the Cistercian order at Cleeve Abbey held the incumbency of the island. Again Myrtle Ternstrom writes that there was a church or church property on the island was shown at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 it is recorded that the tithes of Lundy were worth 15s a year and were due to the Abbot of Cleeve in Somerset.
There are records of a chapel dedicated to St Ann although by the mid-18th century it is listed as a ruined chapel. The chapel dedicated to St Helena had likewise fallen into disrepair and records indicate that for the greater part of the 18th century until 1755 Lundy was in a state of neglect with few inhabitants.
All of this was to change when in 1834 William Hudson Heaven, a Gloucestershire gentleman who owned plantations in Jamaica at the time that slavery was abolished, became owner of Lundy. Heaven had always wanted to own an island and used his compensation to buy Lundy as a family summer retreat at a cost of £9,870, or in today’s money around £855,500. He claimed it to be a ‘Free Island’ successfully resisting the jurisdiction of the mainland magistrates, Lundy was in consequence sometimes referred to as “the kingdom of Heaven”.
Even before the deeds were transferred in 1836, he had begun work on the family residence-to-be, the Villa which is now Millcombe House. William Hudson Heaven had the road up from the beach constructed, began renovation of the farm buildings and built cottages in the castle courtyard for the labourers. Unfortunately by 1840 Heaven’s finances had taken a downward turn. His attempt to sell the island drew no takers and so Lundy became the family’s permanent home. In 1863 the newly-formed Lundy Granite Company agreed to lease the Island for an annual rent of £500 plus royalties for the granite quarried. The family kept possession of their southeast corner and the quarrying company, which employed over 200 men, embarked on an extensive building programme. However it wasn’t to last. In 1868 the company went into liquidation. William died in 1883 leaving the heavily-mortgaged estate to his son the Reverend Hudson Grossett Heaven who struggled manfully with the island for 33 years until his death in 1916. His heir Walter Charles Hudson Heaven had borrowed heavily against his valueless inheritance, his creditors foreclosed and Lundy was sold in 1917 thus ending 80 years of Heaven ownership. [You can read more about the heaven family at this link]
Before the Revd Hudson Heaven little is really known of Lundy’s ecclesiastical history apart from the fact that it has never been a parish in its own right nor part of any other parish and there seems to have been long gaps between incumbents. The Revd John Ashley, founder of the Missions to Seamen mentions in his diary that from 1842 – 64 there was no clergyman on the island and that he made regular visits. However in 1864 the Revd Hudson Heaven returned to the island undertaking the cure of souls unofficially and without a church. From 1897 he was Minister in Charge and had the courtesy title of Vicar. He never received a stipend. After his retirement to Torrington in 1911 clergy were appointed by the see of Exeter. During his time in 1885 a temporary corrugated iron structure was erected to serve as a church but following a family bequest, in 1887 the new stone church of St Helen’s was built.
The church still serves the island today though it is in major need of repair. An appeal has been launched to raise £4000, 000 to refurbish the church and develop part of the site into a centre for exhibitions and lectures and a refuge for visitors during poor weather [much needed!]. [See details of appeal]
I very much liked the piece that the organizers have written in their appeal leaflet. ‘St Helen’s will continue to be the religious and spiritual centre for Lundy and its many visitors. St Helen’s was the vision of the Revd Hudson Heaven. He, like us, believed that Lundy provides a vision of heaven, a thin place where time can take on a different meaning. Christians have long appreciated the island’s spirituality and we welcome people of all faiths and none to find inner peace here’. I can’t help thinking that the Revd Heaven would have approved.
Moving on to the subject of outer rather than inner illumination Lundy’s three lighthouses have an interesting history. Foundations for a lighthouse were laid in 1796 but it was not built until 1819.
The Old Light at Beacon Hill was the first to be built. It was designed by Daniel Asher Alexander who was the principal Architect of Maidstone and Dartmoor prisons, however because the lighthouse was situated 469 feet above sea level, the highest base for a lighthouse in Britain, the light was often obscured by fog, to counter this problem a fog signal battery was built in around 1861. However owing to ongoing complaints about the difficulty of sighting the light the lighthouse was abandoned in 1897 when the North and South Lundy lighthouses were built. Today the Old Light contains self-catering accommodation whilst the island continues to be served by the North Light which is built on top of the old fog horn building and the South Light which can be seen as a small white dot from Hartland Point.
Despite our long journey we found Lundy to be a fascinating place. It has the feel of being a natural fortress and its tempestuous history is no doubt matched by tempestuous storms in the winter months. It is also a peaceful spot and more remote than I thought it would be, I would imagine it is the kind of place that people either fall instantly in love with or come once and never wish to return (rather like Sark in this respect). On the day we visited we enjoyed meeting the wild ponies, not quite sure how wild they actually are! We marvelled at the changing light on rock formations fashioned over millions of years and the beautiful ruggedness of the place. We also caught a glimpse of our old friends the seals and on the way home a pod of Dolphins accompanied the boat. I hope St Helen’s church is successful with its appeal their vision for a refurbished church and visitor centre would add greatly to the island. As we said farewell to Lundy we felt it was truly a thin or liminal place, a little taste of heaven on earth in the middle of the Bristol Channel and indeed of a busy world.
Looking at the light dancing on the sea bringing different shades to the rocks reminded me of a poem by R.S. Thomas where he writes about the light on a field and of taking time to turn aside from the busy world in order to discover a glimpse of God’s presence in the sights and sounds around him.
The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas.
I have seen the sun break through,
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush; to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as our youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.