Twelve miles off the coast of Devon, England, Lundy Island has been inhabited at least 1,500 years.
Boarding the 1958-built Oldenberg ferry to Lundy.
It seemed like a great stroke of luck when I booked the last two tickets available on the M.S. Oldenberg from Bideford, North Devon, to Lundy Island on a high-season Saturday. That is, until I discovered I had booked tickets number 266 and 267 on a vessel built for the post-war German railroad and apparently designed for far fewer passengers.
This would still have been all right if about fifty of our fellow travelers had not comprised a boy scout troop who had been filled to the gunwales with chocolate ice cream just before we hit eight-foot swells in the Bristol Channel. After a few minutes of Oldenberg exhaust and what looked like a group tryout for the bedroom scene in The Exorcist, I wasn’t feeling too well myself and went downstairs to try to concentrate on the horizon and ignore the scouts.
The Isle of Lundy: what to see
Fortunately, most good boat rides eventually do end and after a little over two hours, ours ended in the calmer anchorage of Lundy. Lundy is a 3x1 mile speck of moor-covered granite off the coast of North Devon. It has a permanent population of about twelve, but pulls in some 20,000 day-trippers like the scouts and me, and a thousand or so “stayers” who can overnight in anything from a campground to a castle or lighthouse.
Because landings at both ends of the journey must be made at high tide, the length of stay on day trips is variable. Ours was five hours, which was long enough to organize my Devonian wife into a march in her Italian loafers to search for puffins at the northern tip of the island.
We made the distance only because we followed the admonition of an experienced Lundy day-tripper: “don’t stop at Marisco’s Tavern as soon as you land.” In our case this advice was even easier to follow than normal, since the tavern was being used as a staging area for scout cleaning when we arrived.
Marisco’s Tavern and the remnants of nearby Marisco’s Castle take their name from the clan that operated the island in the 12th and 13th centuries for the profitable businesses of smuggling, piracy, plundering shipwrecks and raiding the mainland. These enterprises thrived until around 1250, when one William Marisco, after being arrested for plotting to assassinate Henry III, earned the distinction of becoming the first prisoner to be hanged, drawn and quartered under English justice. To add insult to injury, the Crown then confiscated his land holdings, including, of course, the pirate lair of Lundy.
The island takes its name from the Old Norse word for puffin – “lund.” These pandas of the bird world nest here by the thousands, and they are the principal attraction for any visitor who ventures out of Marisco’s Tavern. The birds are so identified with the place that Lundy actually issues postage stamps denominated in “Puffins.”
Lundy's lighthouse, the Old Light.
Besides the castle and tavern, the settlement has an old whitewashed lighthouse that’s often shrouded in mist and a 19-century church named St. Helen’s, which is large enough for all of Lundy’s residents and their extended families for at least four generations.
The island’s main shop is on the road out of the settlement just past the small campground. Here my wife and I loaded up on biscuits and water for our expedition. We began walking along the western windward side. At Lundy’s western edge, the land descends almost vertically from the turfy green plateau down three hundred feet of granite cliffs to the ocean.
The relentless surf has carved the cliffs into odd formations with descriptive names like The Pyramid, The Cheeses, Needle Rock, Devil’s Chimney, which are popular with serious rock climbers. The sea surges high here, and just off shore on the outcropped rocks, seals bob in the foam.
The north-south path across Lundy is segmented by stonewalls, which serve as crowd control for the island’s sheep and goats. These walls have the logical, but inaccurate names of Quarter Wall, Halfway Wall and Three-Quarter Wall. But as my wife casually observed, “That Three-Quarter Wall is a hell of a long way from the end, and just look at the state of these shoes!” Between the walls, hundreds of longhaired goats and the occasional sika deer munch heather, flowers and discarded apple cores.
Upon reaching the northern point, the fortunate tourist can be rewarded with the sight of nesting puffins. We were not. Puffin nesting is a seasonal activity. But our consolation was a high sea vista narrated by eerie moaning seal cries echoing off an amphitheater of the cliffs.
It was indeed a contemplative place, but with the tide returning, we had to contemplate the Oldenberg, and we started back along the calmer eastern shore. What few people have lived on Lundy in the past, mainly lived on the eastern side. At the far northeastern end, completely remote from mankind, is the ruined stone bungalow of a thoroughly anti-social individual. Closer to the current settlements are abandoned quarries and abandoned cottages of abandoned quarry workers. Slightly off the path, near Quarter Wall, is a small poignant memorial to a Lundy resident killed in action in Burma on Easter 1944.
Back through Quarter Wall and into the metropolis again, we had just enough time for a quick pint at Marisco’s while examining what seven miles of soggy moor can do to a pair of Italian designer shoes. The pub is a welcome refuge from the wind, cold and mud. It is decorated with maps and mementos of the hundreds of ships that have wrecked off Lundy and with the flags and emblems of the Royal Life Boat crews who have tried to save the survivors.
Beer is served by a cheery staff who seem to enjoy the island and wish short trippers could spend more time. Our time, however, was up, and it was down to the ramps and on to our cruiser for what – happily for the scouts and me – proved to be a calm return voyage to Bideford.