Day five of my trip dawned in Ilfracombe and was sunny yet again which was becoming somewhat of a habit and one I could easily get used to. I had set my alarm for once though I was up long before its rather annoying electronic insistence for today I had things to do, things I really could not afford to be late for. Much as I had enjoyed my weekend with dear friends in and around Torquay and pleasant as my brief stay in Ilfracombe had been, this was the big one as it was the day I was going to Lundy Island which was the main purpose of the trip. As I shall explain, there was one boat and one only to be caught and if I missed that then all was lost. As always I skipped breakfast and had told the lovely landlady the previous evening so she wasn’t cooking unnecessarily. I do hate wasting food. Thanking her husband for their fine hospitality I stepped out to face what I knew was going to be another good day, I could just feel it.
I swear I had not gone ten yards from the door when my eye was caught by what was to prove to be the first wonder of the day. In the UK we have “blue plaques”, although confusingly they come in many colours and designs depending on the originating authority but the vast majority are blue and either circular or occasionally oval. They are placed on buildings where famous people were born, died, stayed occasionally, lived or whatever and I am drawn to them like a moth to a flame to the extent that I seem to have an inbuilt radar which operates at the extreme edge of my peripheral vision.
The radar started pinging and I was across the road to investigate a plaque on a modest but immaculate terrace house which turned out to be the home of Henry Williamson, author of “Tarka the Otter” amongst many other works. I had heard of the book obviously and the subsequent film although I have neither read nor seen these respectively. To my shame I could not have named the author who turns out to be a fascinating man although I shall not go into his details here as I have so much more to write about on this day and it really will turn into a complete rigmarole. I have hopefully included a link here to his appreciation society which you can have a look at if you are interested.
I made the short walk downhill to the harbour which is the usual way of things except perhaps in the Netherlands where you can probably walk uphill to a harbour! My friend John (of whom much more later) had told me that all I had to do was turn up, give my name and everything was sorted. Ordinarily I would have been a little dubious about such an arrangement but I trust the man and so I joined the rather long queue outside the ferry office and spent the time watching the fairly feverish loading of cargo onto the ferry. This involved loading a huge number of crates onto the foredeck (if there is a hold it was not used) but was obviously all in a days work for the mobile crane operator, stevedores and hands on the vessel and went incredibly smoothly.
It appears that staff on the island are allowed a number of “indulgence trips” as we used to call them in the Forces for friends and relatives and that was how it was all done. It is not a cheap trip ordinarily although I paid not one penny piece. I often wonder how I get so lucky so often, I must have done something really good in a previous life. Down then to the pier where all my kit was loaded onto one of a number of the huge crates that I had watched being loaded whilst waiting. I did ask the stevedore to be careful with my guitar which was only in a soft case and, bless him, I watched him walk it up the gangplank and stow it beside the purser’s desk so I could reclaim it when I had negotiated the gangplank. After several bad experiences I wish airport baggage handlers had the same respect for property. Having safely overseen that, it was time to board which I did without mishap.
Unless you have your own light aircraft or boat, and there are landing facilities for both on the island, you have two choices of how to get to Lundy depending on the season and the weather. There is a helicopter service all year round (weather permitting) although between March and November you have the option of a leisurely cruise on the MS Oldenburg which was the vessel I had now boarded. It is a lovely old craft which runs from Ilfracombe (as I did obviously) or Bideford on certain days, generally Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Bideford departures are much less common so check the timetable on the website to make sure you go to the correct place.
I had a quick look round the boat and selected a seat beside the bar (obviously) which proved to be a good move as I got into a great conversation with the purser / barman and learnt a lot about the island and the boat. Most people had elected to sit outside on the upper deck in the July sunshine which meant that the two pleasantly appointed saloons were fairly empty and I didn’t have to wait long to be served at any point.
The Oldenburg was launched in Bremen, Germany in 1958 which makes it marginally older than me and saw service as a ferry round the East Frisian islands. The Lundy Company then acquired her in 1985 to replace the former supply ship and she underwent a refurbishment at Appledore Shipyard where the original internal fixtures and fittings were retained, giving her a slightly old-fashioned but wonderfully comfortable feel. The staff on the island somewhat bawdily, rather affectionately and probably completely accurately call her the “Old ‘n’ Buggered and I know she eats a huge proportion of the island revenue with her annual winter refit. Certainly a few of the visitors to Lundy arrive by chartered helicopter for their weekends in “the Big House” which sleeps a small tribe and, occasionally and much to John’s utter chagrin their own chef but the Oldenburg really is what keeps the place ticking over. I adored her.
Should you feel hungry there is a small buffet in the aft cabin and here is an insiders tip for you. If you fancy a sausage roll, get in quick because they sell out fast as apparently they are the favourite item on the menu and I have this on the authority of the buffet steward!
The two hour sailing seemed to fly by and soon we were all on deck to catch a first glimpse of Lundy. To be honest, if I had never set foot on the island, the journey from London would have been worth it for the “cruise” alone but I had much more to do.
Having tied up, I went down the fairly wobbly gangway to the jetty and just sort of waited around whilst having a cigarette, smoking not being allowed anywhere on board and I was gasping. I was waiting for my luggage which had been crated in a large wooden box and craned onboard at Ilfracombe (except the guitar obviously).
I wandered into a hut by the jetty which seemed to be by way of a museum although it was really a small and somewhat random collection of objects thrown together, totally uncared for and with not a sinner near the place but it was vaguely interesting.
Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on and more to the point I really didn’t care. It was just one of those situations where you knew nothing could go wrong. People call it instinct or “streetsmarts” or whatever and in the Forces some officer had obviously got his next rank by coining the phrase “situational awareness”. Call it what you will, you just know when things are right, when they may go a little bad, and when they are just downright dangerous. This fell very much into the first category.
I spoke to one of the shore crew and was told not to worry, just to pick it up at the black shed. What black shed? I had no idea but this was Lundy and I had already got my head round the concept that things would probably work themselves out. I may well have been a bit apprehensive at being separated from all my kit anywhere else in the world but I was already working on “Lundy time” albeit that it was an expression I had never even heard yet. My friend John was later to tell me that you either “get” Lundy within a few minutes of stepping off the boat or you don’t. I reckon I had “got” it before I ever got down the gangplank.
Next, a guy called John, who is one of the island workers, and had obviously seen my guitar case (that does not go in the cargo hold!) approached me and said, “You must be John the Chef’s mate, jump in the Landrover and I’ll give you a lift up the hill” Hmm, it appears my infamy had preceded me! Lundy is like that, everyone knows everyone else even before you get there. I shared the journey with a lovely elderly couple who were staying in one of the accommodations on the island, of which more later. They were very pleasant company and the rather tortuous journey passed quickly if somewhat hazardously with the track being barely wide enough for a vehicle in parts.
I should mention that the drive / walk from the jetty up to the “village” is quite steep although very pleasant and the Land Rover is there for people for whom it may have been a bit much like my elderly companions.
I was deposited at the Marisco Tavern, which is a wonderful establishment and as the manager told me John was busy with lunch service I did not bother him although word was obviously passed as he appeared when the crowd had died down and we went outside for a smoke and a chat. He said he would go home for the afternoon for a rest as he had to prepare shortly for evening service and this was the height of season.
I asked him about the black shed and my kit and he took me about 10 yards from the front door and across the small track that serves as the only thoroughfare on the island where there was, well, a black shed. I wandered in and collected my kitbag from the many pieces of luggage sitting around apparently totally unguarded totally unmolested. As I said, Lundy is like that. I think it must be the oddest baggage reclaim I have ever encountered but it just seems to work. He had earlier told me not to worry, it was all sorted and as I say, I trust the man.
On an island barely three and a half miles long and half a mile wide centred on a “village” you can walk from one end of the other to in the space of less than one cigarette it was a matter of about 100 yards or less from the “black shed” to his home. Home for most of the 27 permanent staff on the island revolves around a collection of pre-fabricated buildings which were long, long past their supposed use. I know some of the lads live up at the old lighthouse (accessed by quad bike so you get an idea of how remote it is) but mainly they are here. John did tell me the exact date when the buildings were due for demolition and it was frightening although they seemed well cared for and, once inside, remarkably cosy. I am sure that in the winter storms that occur here they may have a few structural defects but at this time of year it was a most homely place. Naturally for a chef the kitchen was the thing and although small and not overflowing with modern gadgets I just knew he could knock up a bloody good feed there.
We sat over a glass of very good wine (being a chef he is somewhat of a connoisseur and even his afternoon everyday tipple seemed a bit special even to one with such an uneducated palate as myself). We caught up as we had not seen each other for a while and got the logistics sorted. His home was a one double bed affair suitable for a singleton or a couple, of which there were a few on the island. Idyllic certainly but, shall we say, testing. It is very hard work there and you would have to be in a relationship as strong as the rock that is Lundy is to even consider it.
One bedroom meant obviously that I was dossing in the living room. I know we are very good mates but………… Anyway, the sofa I was sitting on was extremely comfortable but probably about a foot and a half short for my absurdly lanky frame. This was no bother. A seasoned road warrior like myself merely scanned the room, noted a couple of chairs and quickly calculated that there were more than enough cushions to provide a comfy nest which proved to the case later on. In truth, sleeping on a firm surface (doesn’t get much firmer than a floor) is actually good for my rather dodgy back which I have mentioned elsewhere on this site. OK, it is not the firmest available with that dubious honour being shared equally between a bath and a pool table, both of which I have done and sworn on the few things I hold sacred never to do again. I told you I live a fairly obscure lifestyle!
I should take a moment to tell you about John now. Apart from being a very well-respected contributor on a travel website that set the benchmark for all others (Virtual Tourist), John is a dear friend, experienced traveller, drinking buddy, excellent chef and all round good guy. I would go so far as to count him amongst my best friends in the world and like most of the best friendships, especially of travellers like us who are, by very definition, pretty nomadic, we will have not contact for months on end and then one or another of us will pop up out of the gloom to regain comms.
John and I have been friends for a long time and I know his CV which is pretty impressive to say the least, including 5* London hotels but that was never his thing albeit he can do it with his eyes closed. He much prefers smaller places and even ran his own “gastropub” before the term had ever even marched onto the pages of the broadsheet newspapers in the UK. The fact that he hosted me in his home (along with several other people from all over the globe at various times) shows you what sort of man he is.
I should mention here that for personal reasons John is now (as of 2018) back on the mainland “rattling those pots and pans” and I strongly recommend that if you can winkle him out (I’ll bet he does amazing things with winkles) then go wherever he is chef now. You will not be disappointed. I know he started in the kitchen at St. Andrew’s Golf Course, the home of golf, during one of the Open Championships preparing food for the world’s golfing elite and all the attendant hangers-on. Sounds like a baptism of fire to me. I know he has “saved my bacon” (if you will pardon the culinary pun) on several occasions when I have been required to cook, often in a campervan (RV) in the middle of nowhere and a quick mail on our old website along the lines of, “John, I have ingredients x,y and z and don’t want to do them just the usual way” would inevitably elicit a brilliant recipe, cooking things in manners I would never have considered. He’s that kind of guy.
I was also run through the house rules which were pretty simple i.e. use as little water and electric as possible. There is no mains electric supply from the mainland so it is all provided by a generator for which the fuel obviously has to be transported which is not cheap. There are no natural sources of water, save rainwater and in the very occasional drought conditions we encounter in UK water has to be shipped from the mainland which again is crippling expensive and eats into the finely balanced economy of the place.
This was fine as my time in the Forces mean I can shower in about three minutes flat, even turning off the water between the wetting, soaping and rinsing phases. At a push I can make do with a flannel and a small basin of water. I learnt in a hard school where even lukewarm water was a luxury.
Regarding the electric, the generator which supplies it all is turned off about midnight until about sunrise. I am not sure whether the larger accommodations have their own genny but a word to the wise is to charge up things like camera batteries when you can in the day / evening and do not rely on the usual overnight charging. Believe me, you will have more than enough use for the cameras. Obviously powerpacks are useful but do plan ahead.
Those were effectively the standing orders and they were no problem at all to me. Frankly, if you are looking for a 5* hotel experience with room service of foie gras at three in the morning, a jacuzzi and a swimming pool then you are in the wrong place as it really is not that sort of gig. What you do get makes up for that tenfold if not more.
John had to return shortly to the kitchen as he had evening service to prepare for and it is ludicrously busy at that time of year. I contented myself with another smoke and a stare out the back window onto a field he had told me constitutes the island campsite if you want to go on a bit of a budget. I must be honest here, as I always try to be in my travel writing, and say that as wonderful as Lundy truly is, it is not a cheap option. In fairness, the money made is ploughed back into running what is a fairly costly enterprise with the upkeep of merely keeping the place inhabited is phenomenal. I’ll deal with the campsite and the Marisco in future entries to try to balance out the content per entry but I did notice that at that point the “beasts of the field” outnumbered the tents about ten to one. There was one tent, although that was to change later in my stay and, well, at least ten beasties although I didn’t actually count them.
I allowed myself a bit of a relax which took no effort at all. I have heard “hippies” and younger people using and expression which is “blissed out”. Forget that. I was on a perimeter walk somewhere on the far side of blissed out. This is not hyperbole and I obviously cannot convince you completely of the veracity of the statement. I can only say that you have to be there to understand what it is about and my usual description of Lundy as a “magical, mystical place” isn’t too far from the truth of the matter.
I gathered myself and took off back to the pub which must have taken all of a minute. I scored myself a pint of very well-kept West Country cider (what else) and went out the back to sit on the little bench to have a smoke, that particular pleasure being denied me in public places now. It was no hardship as the quite enclosed little “yard” affords the most amazing view over a steeply sloping meadow, past the “Big House” which was the former residence of the owners of the island and out onto an ever-changing sea with not even a glimpse of the further shore even on a bright day. I really was in the back of beyond.
I should explain the logistics a little here. All the daytrippers leave on the Oldenburg in late afternoon so by the evening the only people left on the island and are the staff relaxing after a hard day’s work (and it is hard physical graft here) or those who are staying in some of the various accommodations. The former seemed to gravitate towards me with them all seeming to know who I was not to mention most of my life history and in a manner that John had been talking. Of the latter group I met some charming people who all appeared to “get” Lundy as I did and many of whom were on return visits. The evening passed quickly and very pleasantly and eventually John came out with service over and the kitchen cleaned down. A quick couple of pints and a few smokes before closing and it was time to head back the short distance to his place in the pitch black.
I know I have somewhat skimmed over details of certain things but, as I say, I wish to balance out the entries and this one has almost inevitably run to heroic proportions already. Back home and another bottle of very decent wine opened there was more chat until the lights went out. He had not told me about the power situation before but it was a matter of lighting his rather powerful torch and carry on. We didn’t stay late as John was in full high season mode with a small staff, a tiny kitchen and had to start early. He took off, I constructed the nest I had planned earlier and fell quickly into a very deep sleep which is a blessing for one like me with a sleep disorder.
I’d done it, I had finally made it here after years of talking about it and quite frankly I was not sure if I had entered some sort of parallel universe. I had been to some amazing places all over the world but this was just somehow different. Don’t ask me to explain, it just was.
Stay tuned and spread the word.
P.S. I have just noticed that I had a complete travelogue written for this day which I somehow managed to save from the excellent Virtual Tourist website despite the best efforts of the appalling TripAdv*s*r (don’t want to give them the traffic) and yet I have spent many hours effectively repeating it without the benefit of more recent recollection. I told you I was technophobic! I’ll try to find the rest of it for the next post which hopefully will not take me the two or three days this one has.