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The Lewis Alexander

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 to me.

the Triffids advacnce
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 arrives.

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.

Half a million will fix it
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.

road to nowhere
Flat Holm's one green lane

Peter Finch

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