As I write these words, I could get an ice cream delivered to my door in less than 20 minutes. If I really did have an avocado crisis at 3am, I’m able to pop down to the 24 hour off licence five minutes from my house, I can get a bus to the other end of London at anytime of day or night, and if I really want to liven things up I can go to see a piece of a fatberg (though, to be fair, this is also available on livestream for some reason).
Cities are built for convenience – but even if you don’t live in one of the UK’s bigger hubs, you’re probably still used to a certain degree of comfort and accessibility. For the most part we know there will be water when we turn the tap on, electricity at the flick of a switch, and a friendly doctor who can sort us out if we do have an unfortunate accident with the aforementioned avocado.
But what about when you live on a rock that’s less than 2 miles squared, about 12 miles off the mainland? Little more than a decent-sized rock, with, according to the most recent census, a population of just 28?
Lundy in context. Image: Google Maps.
It’s a question I’ve always wondered about, as the rock in question, better known as Lundy Island, is pretty visible from my hometown in North Devon. On a clear day you can even make out the silhouette of the church. So, at the grand old age of 26, I went to find out.
“You’ve got to be a certain type of person, it’s quite isolated”
“You’ve got to be a certain type of person,” Phil tells me as our boat, the MS Oldenburg, pulls out of Bideford Quay. He’s the island’s electrician: first coming over to Lundy in the early 1990s to scuba dive, before starting work in 2002. He now spends some 20 weeks a year here. “It’s quite isolated, most people stay for two to three years. But for some it’s just a couple a couple of weeks.”
So why would people move on so quickly from an island so many people, and write ups, label as ‘magical’? The answer comes as Phil begins to explain the logistics of island life.
I’d already known some things about Lundy – there’s no phone signal, the electricity generator is turned off at midnight, and there’s only one pub (which happily doles out £1 fines if you even try to sneak a look at your phone). But there were also other things I hadn’t thought of.
All rubbish has to be taken off the island by boat, for example. There are essentially no on-island emergency services (though about 20 residents have received training from the coastguard and a helicopter can arrive in about 20 minutes). And there’s no such thing as going to the doctor or dentist, without visiting the mainland. “For us [going to the dentist] is just an hour off work,” Phill adds, “but for them it’s a whole day.”
He’s interrupted by an announcement that we’re approaching Lundy. It also warns visitors that in order to preserve the “natural beauty” of the island, there are absolutely no warning signs near cliff edges, bogs or any other hazard. It’s clear normal rules just don’t apply here, and I haven’t even set foot on land yet.
“I’d never even heard of Lundy beforehand”
When I do, I’m confronted with yet another obstacle – a lack of transport. Bar a select few vehicles working on the island’s farm and a Land Rover masquerading as a fire truck, there are no cars on the island, let alone any form of public transport. Which can be a small inconvenience when you discover the harbour is right at the bottom of a hill.
The view from the top.
Civilisation, or a compact version at least, is found at the summit. There’s a newly restored church, a pub called The Marisco Tavern, and the island’s one and only shop. Overnight visitors to the island are asked to pre-order any food in advance, as the only way it gets there is the same way I did: by boat.
While perusing the shelves stacked with an excellent mix of storecupboard goods and Lundy Island puzzles, I overhear staff partaking in some good natured grumbling about a rather ambitious cheese order from a group set to arrive. It isn’t going to happen. The same goes for any Amazon orders: Prime does not work its magic here.
That’s not to say island life doesn't have its attractions though. Kerry, the Welshman often found manning the shop counter, has been here for 10 years. Fiona, who came after seeing a job advert in the paper, has chalked up the best part of a decade, and Ash on the bar has been here for more than a year – despite having “never even heard of it beforehand”.
“Just days like today, with the mist, it’s incredible”
I’d be lying if I said the place didn’t have an addictive charm about it. Highland cows and deer wander freely across the moors, there’s a lighthouse with deckchairs at the top where you can watch the sunrise, and on a clear night you can see so many stars it’s impossible not to get lost in the sky.
Even on more practical level there are plenty of reasons to hunker down. Long term residents pay no rent, council tax, electricity, or water bills, as the whole island is owned by the National Trust – though it’s worth noting you can’t actually drink the water without boiling it due to a problem with the filtering system. There’s also a type of cabbage which you can only get on the island, but I’m not sure that’s much of an advantage.
There’s no denying that society is fundamentally different here. Whether it’s getting water out of the tap or satisfying a midnight craving for ice cream, everything is a little more complicated. Not out of reach per say, but it’s a case of taking the long way round.
But what Lundy lacks in ease, it more than makes up for in community. Walking around the island I see keys left in the ignitions of buggies, overhear conversations about lock-ins, and feel an overwhelming sense of ease and freedom. Coupled with a lack of any electronic-based communication, it’s like you’ve stumbled through a time warp to a different time.
“It’s just about days like today,” Fiona tells me, “With the mist, it’s incredible.” And then there’s her pet sheep Domino, born with a spot on his forehead. “I don’t want to go anywhere while he’s still here” she adds. “Even though he has got his bits cut off. He’s a bit useless,” she muses. Perhaps we’re not back in the 1950s after all.
Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor who has write primarily on human rights, rural stories and careers. She also runs Journo Resources, a non-profit which aims to help people into the journalism industry. She tweets @Jem_Collins.
Images courtesy of the author.