As passengers tucked into bacon sandwiches and milky cups of tea an announcement came over the tannoy, “the sea conditions today are moderate to rough.”
“How rough could the Bristol Channel be?”
We were about to set out on a voyage into the Bristol channel. It had been an early start to catch the MS Oldenburg bobbing benignly at her mooring in Bideford. I mean, really, how rough could the Bristol Channel be? I’ve sailed the South Ocean from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia, Antarctica and back; this really couldn’t be a big deal.
I can now confirm that it can get quite rough in the Bristol Channel. The waves tossed the MS Oldenburg back and forth, crashing over the bow. Passengers braved the poor weather on deck, in attempts to feel less queasy with the aid of the bracing sea air. The large group of children on a school trip were restricted to below deck for fear of them being thrown overboard, and they wailed and sobbed as their poor teachers tried to calm them whilst handing out sick bags. After 2 hours it was with great relief from all that we came into harbour on the tiny island of Lundy. People gingerly stepped off the boat and found a spot in the sun to sit and gather themselves. Another announcement came over the tannoy, “if you would like to join this afternoon’s boat tour around the island, please book on-board.” I doubted there would be many takers.
After a bit more of a seafaring adventure than we had anticipated, and thankfully firmly back on dry land, we now had the run of one of Britain’s most beautiful islands. 5 km long and just over 1 km wide, Lundy’s golden granite cliffs jut out of the sea. The island draws a diverse group of visitors who want to take in the sea views, hike, watch the wildlife and birds, sea kayak and SCUBA dive around it’s shores, but we had come to scale the soaring cliffs. Lundy hosts some of the best sea cliff climbing in the UK and the wild setting makes rock climbing here truly spectacular.
“Lundy hosts some of the best sea cliff climbing in the UK”
We had been tipped off to carry the climbing kit we needed for the day in our hand-luggage, as the rest of our belongings had been lowered into the hold for the voyage and it took a little time to be unloaded. Once unloaded, however, hold luggage is delivered to the accommodation for you, hence there being no need to wait about. So off we headed, a little unsteadily, in search of our first rock route.
There is still a working farm on the island and we found our way through the dry stone walls which created a patchwork of fields where fat ewes munched contentedly. We passed the elegant Old Lighthouse, obsolete due to being built too high; its light could not penetrate through the fog to sea level, and found our way to the top of Landing Craft Bay. Most of the approaches to the climbs on Lundy require an airy abseil above the waves to small belay ledges where you can begin climbing. This adds an extra feeling of adventure to climbing here, whilst also requiring extra expertise to safely access the start of the routes. Luckily for us the first climb was situated next to a board platform of granite sloping down to a pebbly beach where we could walk around to the start of a climb called Shamrock. It was a superb route of clean rock, with an exposed swing out onto an arête at the top. We were hooked.
Most visitors come for the day but it is possible to stay on the island, either in the range of accommodation managed by the Landmark Trust or, in our case, the budget option; camping. If you plan to stay on the island it is not possible to buy a boat ticket unless you have accommodation booked in advance. I was relieved to be pitching my tent that evening instead of returning back to the mainland on the boat, as the wind still hadn’t dropped and it looked like it would be another rough crossing. That evening we explored the hamlet. The tiny community has a pub serving produce from the farm, a shop and a sizeable church with a square tower that dominates the skyline at the south end of the island. The campsite is well served and even has hot showers – luxury. Although the shop is well stocked we’d been organised for once and had brought most of our supplies across with us, along with a double blow up mattress and duvet – why rough it when you don’t need to? That evening we tucked into a hearty meal with a glass of wine (top tip; boxes of wine maximise weight to wine ratio!).
” The Devil’s Slide – 300 m of pristine granite which sweeps down into the ocean.”
We set to work over the next couple of days ticking off the wish list of climbs we had made. The day trippers came and went and we bumped into other climbers and swapped tips on good routes. A few days in we went to seek out Lundy’s most famous climbing area; the Devil’s Slide – 300 m of pristine granite which sweeps down into the ocean, hosting one of the UK’s most famous slab climbs. We gained a vantage point to take in its splendour. Gazing over the cliffs and ocean we realised that something was missing; people. There was no one there, no climbers, walkers or birdwatchers; we had it to ourselves. Quickly we scurried around to the descent, giggling at the prospect of enjoying such classic climbing to ourselves. That day the sun shone, no one joined us and, padding up the warm granite, we ticked off three of the best routes in country; Devil’s Slide, Albion and Satan’s Slip. Without a doubt one of the best day’s rock climbing I’ve had.
Lundy’s remote location has attracted some eccentric characters – and according to a local warden still does! None more than Martin Coles Harman (sadly no relation), the island’s owner between 1924 – 1954. He proclaimed himself King and set up the island’s own currency and postal system. Coins were issued in dominations of Puffins for trade on the island. In 1931 he was prosecuted for setting up an illegal currency under the United Kingdom’s Coinage Act of 1870 and the coins were withdrawn. The stamps and postal service, however, remain, and stamps can be bought in pounds sterling as one puffin conveniently converts to one pence. Today the postal service is the oldest operating private postal service in the world. The stamps are highly collectable and an out of the blue text from my Dad requesting a selection meant I made a special trip to the shop, which doubles as the post office, for him.
“seal pups’ … mewls and barks echoed around the cliffs”
Walking to the rugged north of the island the next day we visited one of the two working lighthouses, its Mediterranean white walls set against the glistening ocean. After some indecision we settled on climbing American Beauty and set up the long abseil down into a cove. On the rough pebbly beach seals basked in the sun. There, a huge dark, damp cave gaped at the back of the cove and we peered into this menacing black void from a distance. Here seal pups sheltered and their mewls and barks echoed around the cliffs. American Beauty was another stunning climb, hard enough to require thought and precision but not too bold to be scary. Just my type of climbing.
On our final day we headed to the Flying Buttress area. To gain access to this area a path down to the Battery is taken. Here a couple of derelict buildings and several canons can be found. The Battery was manned by two keepers and their families who were employed to fire the canons on foggy days to warn ships of the proximity of dangerous cliffs. It is possible to down climb or abseil from here to get within striking distance of the Flying Buttress, a pillar of clean granite which leans against the main cliff creating a bridge across the sea. Several climbs ascend this pillar and we had these in our sights. Being able to reach the bottom of the climbs, however, is dependent on the tides as once the descent has been made a sea level traverse followed by some rock hopping is needed and this is only possible at low tide. We just made it across without getting our feet wet and set out on the classic route, Double Diamond. The tide had risen too high for us to cross a second time so we chose to climb Diamond Crack on the main cliff. An overhanging crack; short and punchy, and not something I’d usually climb. I find these sorts of climbs difficult and intimidating due to their requirement for more upper body strength, so it was with great satisfaction when I confidently pulled through the final moves and topped out in the sun.
It was with a little trepidation that we walked to the quayside on our last day. The MS Oldenburg bobbed gently in the water. It felt windy. We boarded and took up a good spot; centre of the boat, line of sight of the horizon and where we could get a blast of sea air. Luckily, it turned out that this was a different sort of wind, one that didn’t create a stomach churning swell, and it was a smooth crossing which we could actually enjoy and take in the views. We were uneventfully delivered back to the North Devon coast with plenty of stories to tell of our Lundy climbing adventure.
Want to visit Lundy?
Boats leave from Bideford or Ilfracomb and times can be found here – http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland/ms-oldenburg/
Don’t have very good sea legs? You can get a helicopter instead – http://www.lomashelicopters.co.uk/charter/lundy
Book accommodation including the campsite through the Landmark Trust – http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/Search-and-book/location/lundy/
Restrictions apply to rock climbing due to nesting birds usually between 1st April – 31st July find out about access here – https://www.thebmc.co.uk/modules/RAD/viewcrag.aspx?id=245
Tide times – http://www.tidetimes.org.uk/lundy-tide-times
The official Lundy website – http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/Lundyisland/