How does stuff work when you live on a tiny rock in the Bristol Channel?

Nice day for it: the view from Lundy. Image: Jem Collins.

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.

The boat.

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.

 

The shop.

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.

 

Some locals.

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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities protect common green space for the future?

Newcastle Town Moor. Image: Chabe01/Wikimedia Commons.

Urban green space comes in a variety of forms – parks, allotments, gardens, ‘strays’ to mention just a few. One of the most iconic is the urban “common” – these are often extensive tracts of green space in or adjacent to large urban areas that provide publicly accountable, open, green, spaces vital for culture, health, wellbeing and biodiversity in the metropolitan context. Examples include Epping Forest and Wimbledon common in London, Town Moor in Newcastle, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, or Clifton Downs in Bristol.

The term “common” creates in the public consciousness notions of communal ownership, control and use. In fact, this is often a misconception. Most urban “commons” are not community-owned assets, and many have different legal identities, and differing degrees of legal protection and security. These are often the result of a history of different political, social and economic forces shaping land use in each metropolitan context. Epping Forest and Town Moor in Newcastle are, for example, protected by Acts of Parliament. Clifton Down in Bristol is a “traditional” common registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, which guarantees its status as common land.

Other areas commonly regarded by the public as commons are in actual fact simply urban green space that is preserved by some lesser legal protection - for example, through the planning system, which may designate them as green space or as conservation areas within the local development plan. But plans can change, and much green space is lost to development annually.

Indeed, in the age of austerity, local authorities have been driven to sell much green space that they themselves own to raise funds to provide front line local services, like schools and social care. In this context, true urban commons – those that have the legal status of common land – are extremely precious community assets, in that they are protected from development and preserved for future generations.

But do we value them highly enough? Do we appreciate their importance in shaping our community’s consciousness of its own identity and history? Do we use them to the full as recreational open spaces and if not, how can we champion our urban commons and develop new ways to engage the urban public more fully in their use, management and stewardship?   


A new interdisciplinary 3-year project (“Wastes and Strays”) involving academics from Newcastle University, Exeter University, Sheffield University and Brighton University will address many of these issues. The project will explore the complex social and political history of the urban common, as well as their legal and cultural status today, and in doing so devise tools and methods of negotiation, inclusivity and creativity to inform their future.

The project will make in-depth studies of four iconic urban commons: Town Moor, Newcastle; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. It will look at the multiple, negotiated historic uses and legal origins of the common in each case, and its contemporary meaning, popular perception, biodiversity and public use.

One strand of the research is closely focussed to encouraging the more extensive use of urban commons as vital green space for recreation and other community uses, important for mental and physical wellbeing. It will be looking to develop new strategies for community engagement with the urban commons as community assets and will work in partnership with local communities and relevant stakeholder groups to generate ideas for the future of urban commons, in the spirit of their negotiated pasts.

The big idea is to generate a multifaceted definition of the urban common to provide a robust base for education initiatives and future public policy guidance, informing their development and use as a diverse cultural and ecological space.

For hundreds of years, these unique, open spaces have played a varied, but important, role in the individual stories of our towns and cities. We need to develop new and imaginative ways to use them and foster a greater sense of community involvement if we are to preserve them for future generations.

Chris Rodgers is a professor of Law at Newcastle University.