Flat Holm - lighthouse, gulls, mist and rock. It's out there
in the Bristol Channel in full view. Most Cardiffians have spent a life
gazing but few have ever reached it. It's three miles in a straight
line out from Lavernock point. Not far, but enough. Geographically it's
the final extension of the Mendip hills that bump up through Somerset.
Surprisingly it does not belong to Bristol, Avon, Barry or the Vale
but is administratively a district of Cardiff County. Does the Lord
Mayor know, I wonder. Does he drive across there in his Rolls? Unlikely.
Flat Holm and its Cornish pastie near neighbour, Steep Holm, don't even
have so much as a paved pathway between them.
Flat Holm is a mere 500 metres in diameter. It has three beaches,
many rocky points and something called Dripping Cove. As its name
implies, it's flat. It has none of the mystery of Steep Holm. The
treasure or the shipwreck or the lost tribe will not be over the brow
of the next hill. Stand in the centre of Flat Holm and you can see
its entire world.
I come here in early September on the motor vessel Lewis Alexander,
with thirty other visitors. The sea is as smooth as I can remember
it. Flat, dull iron. No one is sick. Disembarking is a push over.
There is a blackbird sitting at the top end of the jetty. Quite like
home. Usually the island is the haunt of thousands of pairs of breeding
gulls who feed off the rubbish tips of south Wales and fly back with
their booty. The Warden keeps a collection of what comes back that's
inedible - combs, hairspray bottles, bathplugs, empty Jif lemons,
a joke rubber fried egg, the head of a toy dog, the leg from a doll.
All carried by beak. Visitors are warned to wear a hat or hold a stick
above their heads to ward off the defensive dive-bombing of the gulls.
But September is not the breeding season. The birds are not at home.
Rosie, our guide from Fife, is a volunteer who's been here six months
and whose accent is as thick as that of someone from Llanystumdwy.
She takes us from the farmhouse to the refurbished barracks and shows
us the small Flat Holm museum. Here is a Neolithic axe head found
during the excavation of the island's great treasure, the graves of
the two murderers of Thomas a Becket. These last resting places can,
of course, also be found elsewhere in Britain. But that's how it often
is with the medieval world. Next to the axe head is a bulb taken from
the Victorian lighthouse, a large key reputed to be from an earlier
manifestation of the farmhouse (or even from the monastery that preceded
it) and finally a small collection of books including Captain Marryat's
sea adventures and the selected poems of Glamorgan's Professor of
Poetry, Tony Curtis. Outside we discover Flat Holm's unique slow worm
(it has a larger blue spot on its side that its mainland cousins),
Flat Holm's unique wild peony (which also grows of Steep Holm), and
Flat Holm's unique collection of wild leek (which also grow in Cornwall).
These are Triffid-like and magnificent - four foot tall and with flower
heads like giant rattles. At the centre of the island are the remains
of a WW2 radar station. The whole of Flat Holm is littered with military
left-overs. These go back through several centuries centering on the
hardware generated by Palmerston's not entirely irrational fear that
madman Napoleon the Third would actually invade. There are eighteenth
century cannon, earthwork emplacements and a defensive ditch which
runs right across the island. This hollow is home to the marauding
Alder which is not officially classified as a tree and the one Flat
Holm horse chestnut, which is. This sole mid-channel example of the
form, revered by Flat Homers, looks pretty stunted, leafless and lifeless
Flat Holm wild leek
At the south end Yves and I examine Bottleswell Battery and its
rusting Victorian cannon, looking for where you lit the powder. Yves
Gauducheau, wearing dungarees and wellington-style overshoes, is a
volunteer from Nantes in France. He's a retired judge who has been
coming here for years. How he explains to his wife and colleagues
back home that he is devoting his free time now to a featureless,
rained-on speck off the coast of south Wales I am unsure. He came
at first to improve his English but since there are only ever three
or four full-time residents at any one time this proved to be limiting.
He could hardly spend his evenings conversing at the pub. The nearest
is on Steep Holm and, there, the landlord actually travels out on
the same boat as the visitors, jumping off first and nipping up the
cliff to turn on the lights and set out the glasses before anyone
Yves is a bit of a bricaleur who can turn his hand to anything.
He shows me the wall he's relayed and, proudly, the great fog-horn
engines he's re-engineered. Victoria was always worried about the
distrustful, conniving French, our guide informs us in an accent so
dense you could knock a tree down with it. Half of the military remains
you see here were built to keep them away. Yves eyes do not flicker.
The Cholera Isolation Hospital
Flat Holm's bookshop is a cupboard in the corner of the farmhouse.
It opens for twenty minutes towards the end of each visitor trip.
I negotiate 50p off the price of John Barrett's Flat Holm During
World War 2 because it has a coffee stain on the back. My fellow
visitors boo, believing that this is an inappropriate tactic when
dealing with a charity that needs to raise a million and a half in
order to refurbish their totally wrecked grade two listed Cholera
Isolation Hospital. Outside is the little metal flash that forms the
Guglielmo Marconi memorial. The first radio signal arrived here in
May 1897, transmitted by Marconi crouched among the ferns on Lavernock
Point. ARE YOU READY, it read. You can see why he chose this island.
To celebrate the fact I call home on my Orange mobile. We're leaving
now, I say. Unlike many places in Wales the signal here is perfect.
Flat Holm's one green lane
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