No Man is an Island but we can pretend…

“Having now brought my mind a little to relish my condition, and given over looking out to sea, to see if I could spy a ship; I say, giving over these things, I began to apply myself to accomodate my way of living, and to make things as easy to me as I could.”  Robinson Crusoe.

I am sailing home again.

Flatholm Island looking back toward Cardiff, our little boat leaves us behind.

So I took myself off to a little ‘island in the sun’, for sunny it was (for most of the time anyway), prepared to preach the virtues of dry stone walling and how to lead guided walks.  Both those objectives were torpedoed (there will be a sickening amount of ‘sea’ puns today !) but I, like Crusoe, managed to ‘make it to shore’ and survive a rather remarkable few days. 

My destination in the Bristol Channel, that brown slice of water that constitutes the natural barrier  separating the south coast of Wales from the north coastline of Somerset and Devon, was one of the little islands that sit in mid channel.  Lundy, the largest island, Steepholm and, my little retreat, Flatholm.

Land ahoy !

South west across the sea from Cardiff bay, 7km to that little piece of land in the distance.

The journey begins in Cardiff Bay, behind the barrage that caused so much controversy when it was being proposed due to the loss of the mud flats which were hugely important water and wader bird habitats.  I boarded at the Harbour Authority mooring on the east side but the public boarding point is across the bay on the Penarth side.  I was childishly excited, its been a long time since I was on such a small island – probably a visit to Caldy many years ago.  The view as we crossed the bay, looking back to the city and the glowing copper of the Millenium Centre, scene of our re-union back in June, was thought inspiring.  What skyline did mariners from earlier times spy from out here, back when Cardiff was THE major coal exporting port, an international crossing point and a ‘new home’ for many seamen who did not go home.  Tiger Bay, the somewhat notorious ‘dockland’ area of Cardiff was and is a cosmopolitan mix of races.

Millenium Centre from seaward.

The Bay skyline with the glowing copper of the Millenium Centre, picture postcard weather for my little escape.

 I was already enjoying myself and looking forward to negotiating the lock which allows boats to transit into the channel from the bay, regardless of tide.  I am always impressed with the ‘driving’ skill of  boatmen, they seem to be able to zoom up to a jetty, slam on the anchors (sorry!) and slip-slide into a perfect landing.  The little craft was large enough to feel comfortably safe, despite my suprise that it could hold forty passengers.  The weather of course is a great calming influence, being able to sit out on the open deck and not be soaked -by water or anything else ! – is a lovely way to cross the sea.  I can’t honestly say this little craft would instill much confidence ina Force 5 ! 

My island adventure was finally happening.  Planning for it had begun way back in March, when I was asked if I could design some courses for Simply the Best Training ( for whom I do training, normally in dry stone walling, but also a range of ‘conservation’ based courses.  Walling was one course, leading guided walks and tool maintenance were to be the others.  As no ‘off the shelf’ course existed (from Lantra – the landbased skills training body) I had to design a suitable one day course for the last two subjects.  So I did, and after several aborted attempts – on the part of the Flatholm Island management – to get the ‘volunteers’ to fill the courses, ‘D’ day was set for last week.  Le ‘Debarquement’ was on, Flatholm was about to experience an unusual set of visitors.

Cardiff Bay Lock

In the Lock at the Cardiff Barrage awaiting exit to the sea.

My trainees, or so I thought – no, I had been told – were to be ‘volunteers’, which to me implied they were involved in the conservation work being done on the island.  I assumed they would be the usual science graduates, with all the naive enthusiasm and idealism of young committed ‘eco-warriors’.  Actually I really, really enjoy being around those guys, they are total sieves for knowledge and make one feel all efforts are appreciated.  Also they are far more intellectual than I am and so I get to learn as much from them, oh yes, and I am totally jealous that I can’t any longer dress, behave, perform or ‘unwind’ like they do – but I can muse !

Anyway, as things turned out I was wrong, my trainees were somewhat different – causing me and others all sorts of problems which I won’t go into – but equally as youthful and ‘challenging’, and what they lacked in ‘interest’ for the knowledge I wished to impart,  they more than made up for by making me laugh and bringing me down to earth – and then some – I’m dying to tell you about our conversation around what BC and AD meant, confidentiality precludes such revelation, but you can understand their difficulty, after all, if you don’t know who JC was, after or before is not a valid concept.  So I’m setting myself the task of designing a new system of dating…..

The island was, without doubt, a fascinating little place.  I had actually heard of it, I knew it existed obviously, though I’m not sure I knew you could visit or stay there – well not that is until I met the then Island Warden, some years ago.  I feel slightly ashamed – especially given my obsession with landscape history – that I have not been out before.  In fact I know more people who’ve never heard of it – including the groups who came out to join me – than have, and most of them live in Cardiff (no Jon Gower, I’m not pointing a finger directly at you !).  So, let me tell you a little about what’s to be seen and not seen (or you can just go to and save being bored by me).

The little ferry boat on the Flatholm jetty

The little boat runs up the shingle like a landing craft when the tide is too low to come alongside the jetty.

The little boat runs up the shingle like a landing craft – most people on board thought the skipper was joking when he asked folk to sit down and hold tight – and you clamber out onto a jetty which leads to the steps up the cliffs to the flat top of the island.

The name ‘holm/holme is Scandinavian and was probably attached to the island – whose Welsh name is Echni, a rather fine name in my view -during the various raids by our nordic friends in the C5th / C6th, it means ‘river island’.  The early history of the island is still to be fully explored but pre-historic finds and some likely Bronze Age barrows suggest it was an inhabited island for many years.  I was particularly struck by the prominence of the significant ridgeline barrows of Gwent, Glamorgan and Somerset which were clearly visible from the island.  Twm Barlwm – the prominent mounds above Cwmbran and the real focal point of the Ancient Cwmbran project – was especially noticeable.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to the island of  Bradanreolice which is suggestive of early Christian occupation of a probable monastic colony – Reolice derives from the Irish word for graveyard and is quite likely related to the Irish incursions into south and west Wales during the C5th and C6th as well. 

St. Cadog is known to have visited the island on many occassions during his lifetime in the C6th.  The monastic connection was continued in the Medieval period when the island was a Grange of the Augustinian abbey at Bristol.  I made an exciting discovery – for no remnants of the medieval grange has been found on the island, casting some doubt on the records – in the form of a carved and mullioned segment of Bath-stone, most likely part of a window reveal.

Medieval window reveal

This carved piece of bathstone is most likely from the Medieval Grange which documents show was on the island in the C14th.

The post-medieval period was highlighted by the establishment of the light-house which first showed its coal fired flame on 1st December 1737.  It is a massive structure with 7ft wide walls and is the dominant feature of the island.

Skyline phallic symbol

Lighthouse and Gulls, the dominant feature of Flatholm Island.

It consumed 25 tons of coal each month, all of which had to be carried up to the top of the tower to be burned in a brazier.  Later, in the early C19th, it was converted to an oil-burning lantern.

Today it is an automatic flahing red light but it still serves the purpose of the original light, it warns shipping of this rocky obstruction straddling the channel.

Of course lights are fine as long as visibility is good but channel mist was, and is, a constant problem.  Hence the construction of the Fog Horn station in 1908.  I was amused and bemused by the shape of the horns of the now redundant fog horns.  I well remember hearing their eerie blast on thick fog painted nights when I lived close to the channel at Rhoose.

Fog Horns and station, flatholm

Don't you just love these eliptical horns, they are so 'period'. I'm glad they haven't been sold off for scrap or to adorn some collectors museum or gallery.

By the middle of the 1800s the island was being fortified as a strategic position in the western approaches.  Today much of the interest on the island are the remnants of a 100 years of military importance.  Gun batteries and the associated barracks are great ‘playgrounds’ for young and old.  More important are the guns themselves which lie, abandoned (by gunners and salvers) around the old battery sites.  Some have had their barrels burned off for scrap,  the weight of the guns proved too much for civilian scrap dealers and so, fortunately, they remain.

Guns of Navarone

One of the 7" rifled muzzle loading guns which litter the island. A fascinating insight to the perceived threat to Britain's western seaboard for over 100 years.

The island also boasts a Cholera hospital, built in 1883, an old farm house and several interesting sites of monastic origin and field systems.  However, the island’s real claim to fame – and the main reason the Barry Amateur Radio hams were in residence this weekend – is as the site of Guglielmo Marconi’s over sea transmission in May 1897, when he sent the first message over water – “Are you ready ?” – to Lavernock point on the mainland of South Wales.  Not many people know that !

Of course, apart from its use as a ‘visitor attraction’, the island is a conservation project – of sorts.  I couldn’t quite work out the strategic plan, but the resident conservators are engaged in working to restore boundaries, look after sheep, protect the flora and fauna – which basically means keeping visitors clear of the Gull nesting areas – half the island it seemed to me ! – and protecting the rare ‘Wild Leek’ which grows here and is the main reason for the SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status.  A favourite of mine – Scarlet Pimpernel – is also present in some abundance, due of course to the island being substantially carboniferous limestone.

Wild Leek

I should really have scaled this for you - it just looks like the chive flower, but its actually about fifteen centimetres diameter and stands over a metre high. Its kept protected from rabbits and sheep by surround fences.

What astounded me most was the presence of so many rabbits, there being no predators.  I wondered how flora conservation could be achieved when such numbers of nibblers – remember there are two flocks of sheep as well – roam unchecked.  I think various rabbit concoctions would be on my menu if I lived out there.  I’ve mentioned the Gulls, they are an overwhelming noisy and omnipotent presence, they too would be on my menu I suspect, well if they weren’t riddled with botulism acquired from their regular visits to the refuse tips of Cardiff.  Dozens of carcasses of dead birds litter the island and several dying chicks – given the disease from re-gurgitated food – were stumbled upon.  An inordinate amount of dead rabbits were also to be seen but I don’t know what caused their demise.  Both species’ young have apparently suffered badly from the prolonged drought.

Human water resources comes from stored rainwater which is zapped by UV rays – so that’s what the glow in the dorm was….

I enjoyed my few days despite the major cock-up relating to who arrived for me to teach.  I met some great guys out there and will definitely return.  Who knows, maybe I’ll resurrect my old ‘da dit dit dit da da dee da dit da da’ skills and connect with someone in outer Mongolia……

I suppose I should briefly mention two other events this week;  the Royal Welsh Show and the much more important Llanfallteg Village Fete. 

The latter I attended to re-pay some of the kindness of my sister and her friend Eve who had helped me enormously over the past years.  I took a small display of strange and obscure farming tools from my collection and folk pay a quid to enter a competition to name / explain them.  Of course out of the ten I list some are totally indicipherable and hence the winning score was 6 !  But it raised £25 to go into the playing field fund and I am well appreciated, most importantly, I get to meet some interesting old folk and glean more tales of yesterday’s farming for my oral history project.

Farming bygones

My strange array or is it array of strangeness or is it just a good day out at Llanfallteg Village Fete

 The fete, which all the village are involved in, features the old favourites such as the biggest onion, best runner beans etc., photographic and art competition, a “There was an old man from Llanfallteg, who sat on a very large tent peg, da dee da dum dum, etc etc., competition, coconut shy’s and white elephant  stall (where’s that come from ?) and much more.  In the evening the local pub, the Plash Inn, is packed to overflowing for an auction which is conducted by a ‘village character’ who boasts amongst his close friends, the irrepresible ‘Jethro’, so you can imagine the crack !

Rutters at llanfallteg

Big trowels, or what ? Answers on a postcard please....

I drove home on Sunday, a little bleary eyed and tired out – the truck is still full of the tools !  I was back at the Coco-Chanel Stell on Monday but on Tuesday I went to the Royal Welsh Show.  It was THE wet day of the four day show but that suits me because it means fewer people – just 60 thousand or so, so it means you have got a chance of getting about, though not into the buildings, especially not the new food hall, no way.  The main problem for me at 6ft 3″ is that the spikes of the umbrellas of normal people are at my eye level, it makes for a side-stepping / swervy type of walk-about.  I got to meet many old friends, saw some interesting displays, heard some fascinating talks, met some more old friends, ate some, drank some, met some old friends, ate some, drank some – get the picture …… its THE place to be in Wales in the third week of July.  Photographically I was unispired except by two rather attractive Water Buffalo which are used for grazing the damp marshy terrain of the RSPB’s reserves on the Cardigan Coast.  Cute or what ?

Water Buffalo

Another very varied and interesting, albeit a tiring and slightly stressful week, in the life of Welshwaller, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Next week promises to be even more diverse – I’m back at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse Lake, with my dearest friends Joyce and Nigel and the three wild ones, H, H & C, plus all the Lime OCD’ers, to enjoy a week of training an international and somewhat eclectic mix of students involved in sustainable / traditional building conservation under the auspices of the Princes’ (he of Wales fame) Foundation.  Watch this space ….


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