Although I’ve been walking through Somerset this time I’m going to take a break and head to a part of the Welsh coast instead. The reason being last time I saw the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Bristol channel and have now decided to visit them and walk around them too. Whether I’ll be able to island hop when I get to Scotland which has so many islands remains to be seen!
Flat Holm is part of Wales, whilst Steep Holm is part of Somerset but since there are boats to both islands from Weston-super-Mare (but only to Flat Holm from Cardiff) I decide to spend the weekend in Somerset and visit both islands.
I make an early start and drive down to Weston-super-Mare, as I need to be there earlier than the first train that I can get from home arrives at Weston. I have a good journey via the M4 and M5 which despite a few stretches of road works was quite clear – lucky considering it is a sunny day and a Saturday in August, I suspect I’m seeing the benefit of making a fairly early start! I soon find the harbour, Knightstone Harbour, and find a place to park nearby. I grab some supplies form a nearby convenience store and then head for the harbour.
The trip today is a long one, I will be away from Weston-super-Mare for around 10 hours. This is because the harbour only has enough water for boats to float at high tide, with the large tidal range here, so we leave at high tide in the morning and return at high tide later in the evening. I head down to the harbour and there are already quite a few people there including the skipper who seems to be in charge. I had booked via the website and then payed via the hi-tech means of sending a cheque in the post. The boarding process seems similarly hi-tech, with a list of names on a clipboard. I give my name and it is ticked off the list and get onto the boat. We are sailing on the Westward Ho which was once the Cromarty Rose and was previously the Cromarty to Nigg ferry in the Highlands of Scotland, with a capacity of (drum roll) 1 car! Hence it is claimed this is the smallest car ferry in Britain. We are not carrying any cars today though only passengers, around 30 of us. Thankfully the weather is good because it’s fair to say the conversion from car ferry is rather rudimentary and seems to be largely a (mostly but not quite complete) repaint and some wooden benches attached to the car deck. There is only a small area inside which is not terribly inviting so thankfully the weather is good and I sit outside.
Sailing out of Weston is unusual for me, it’s not much of a port due to the huge tidal range which sees the harbour devoid of water most of the time. We are soon sailing past the sad remains of the Birnbeck Pier in Weston-super-Mare and the boat affords good views up close of the decaying structure. It looks such a nice building and it’s a real shame it has got into this state. With the re-building of the Grand Pier happening so fast I wonder if money can be found to repair this pier too?
Soon we are out in the open sea but this ferry is slow and large which means we get a fairly comfortable ride and with around 8 hours on the island there is little need to rush! The trip includes a route around Steep Holm Island too, which although we don’t land gives a good view of my destination for the next day.
There is an interesting commentary from the captain, giving a bit of history of the island.
Soon I can see Flat Holm ahead and it’s not hard to see how the islands were named. Steep Holm is well, steep, with high cliffs all around, whilst Flat Holm is flat. Holm means island, so I don’t imagine anyone was up all night coming up with imaginative names for this pair of islands! Nevertheless it looks interesting with a lighthouse and a few cottages on the island.
Soon we are nearing the beach and I see a couple standing on the beach. I can also see there is only a small jetty. I wonder how we are going to get off, but it soon becomes clear when the other member of crew comes out onto the deck and begins to lower the entrance to the car deck – it appears we are going to land on the beach. The captain rams the boat onto the beach with much noise of pebbles under the boat (I can’t imagine it does the boat much good!) but obviously decides this is not good enough, so the door goes back up and we reverse back again. Attempt number two is obviously better as this time he lowers the car deck, sets up some steps and shuts down the engine. We have made it, an unusual arrival. We soon climb up steps and the two people waiting on the beach then call for us to wait as they are the guides.
They walk us to the old army barracks which we will call home for the day.
Both guides are very friendly and knowledgeable and clearly have a great passion for this island. First they tell us that Wild Peony survives here and nearby Steep Holm, the only two places where this plant can be seen in the UK. Unfortunately it is poisonous and we shouldn’t touch it. Sam our guide holds up a picture so we know what it looks like when not in flower. Unfortunatly I am not very technical with plants and it looks sort of green. I’m not sure I’d be able to tell so decide not to touch anything I don’t recognise! The Wild Leeks are particularly recognisable with wide stalks bending and twisting all over the place to end with a round head, these are unusual plants I’ve not seen elswhere.
Sam the guides passion is obvious as he tells us enthusiastically about the various uses for the island and soon takes us on a tour of the island. I buy the excellent guide book and we can leave bags etc in the old barracks, which feels a little like a school hall or community centre.
He shows us first the Victorian barracks. I hadn’t thought of the island as having been put to a military use, but it should have been obvious as these two islands are located strategically in the middle of the Bristol Channel near the large ports of Cardiff, Newport, Portbury and Bristol. It seems incredible, but this island was home to as many as 350 soldiers during the war who slept in these barracks. They are now used as the visitor centre and accommodation for the wardens amongst other things. It must have been very isolated although at the same time I suspect there was a wonderful community spirit. All the old gun emplacements are still here, along with the rusting guns in many cases. We can enter some of these which is fun and unlike the mainland they are not full of beer cans and other rubbish. There are also the old search light buildings all around the coast.
There is an ingenious drainage system here where rainwater was collected and stored, which has been partly repaired and still functions, but the water is used to flush the toilets rather than drink. The old toilet block for the barracks still exists and is still the toilet for us today. The island is now powered by solar panels and wind turbines rather than a diesel generator and even the lighthouse is powered by solar panels and batteries. Sadly it is owned by Trinity House and we are not allowed inside, but we see the old parafin store where the oil was stored when this was an oil-fired lighthouse. The foghorn is also present but no longer used and we are allowed a look inside at the machinery. I hadn’t realised it was quite so huge with the large pumps needed to pressure the air. Sam tells us it still works and a team of enthusiasts fire it up to 60% power from time to time, something which makes the whole island vibrate.
The old Fog Horn cottage is also being refurbished as a holiday cottage. We are then shown the slow worms, which are hidden under metal sheets and given the opportunity to hold one.
The island also housed a cholera hospital during World War II which was sited here to be isolated to stop the disease spreading. It is now a derelict ruin and must have been a very sad and lonely place.
The island was also the site of the first wireless signal to be transmitted over open sea from the island to Lavernock Point and was transmitted by Guglielmo Marconi who of course needs no introduction. There is a monument to him which was given to the island although our guide suggests it was more like dumped as it was very ugly (I have to agree) and he points out it has never even been removed from the helicopter skids it landed on!
There is also a flock of sheep on the island and pigs so it is clear there is plenty to keep the wardens busy although I can’t help but wonder if it gets very isolated in the winter. We are then invited down to the farm and cottage and the tour ends and have the rest of the day to explore the island.
I had worried that with so long on the island, which is only about 400 metres from coast to coast I might get bored but in fact it is a fascinating island packed with far more history than I had realised. It’s worth mentioning the views too. Being close to Cardiff I can clearly see the Millenium Stadium and the city centre. Whilst to the south Middle Hope, Brean Down and the other hilly headlands of the Somerset coast look like islands from here. The weather is good and looking west I can also see the hilly Exmoor coast which is an unexpected surprise.
I take plenty of photographs, relax on the pebble and rocky beaches, explore the islands costs and some of the World War II installations and generally enjoy the wonderful view. I can certainly see the attraction of the island, but I also need to be careful of seeing it through rose tinted glasses – it must be very different in sub-zero temperatures and with a gale blowing!
The tides here are truly amazing. The Severn is well known for the huge tidal range, but here, in the middle of it, you can see the huge force created as so much water heads down the channel and out to sea and back again as the tide comes in. You can hear the water flowing rapidly round the coast of the island and realise the huge power of the sea and tides. As we near the end of the trip Sam opens up the pub, the Gull and Leek in the old barracks and proudly proclaims it as the most southerly pub in Wales! I’m tempted by a drink but have to drive to my hotel once we get back so stick with a soft drink. I suspect this has a great atmosphere at night though.
It seems surprisingly soon that it is time to head back to Weston-super-Mare. Heading down to the beach though I see our ferry is still beached on the shingle, so we will have to wait a bit more for the tide to come in. I wonder what the boat crew make of this? It is a trip they do often but because the boat gets beached they can’t leave until the next high tide, so have to spend 8 hours on the island like us although they seem to have spent most of the time on the boat. It makes me wonder how economic running such trips is, but I’m very grateful that they do.
Soon the tide has come in enough that the captain starts the engines and gets us off the beach. We wave to our lovely guides who see us off from the beach, who can now probably enjoy the peace and solitude of their wonderful island again now the tourists have left for the day! We take a more direct route back to Weston-super-Mare and arrive around 1 hour later, watched by quite a crowd as we pull into the harbour.
It has been a very enjoyable and memorable day out, and I can now look happily out over the Bristol Channel and know I no longer need to wonder what that mysterious island is like, as I have been able to visit it myself.
Sadly later on in this year the owners of the island, Cardiff City Council decide to sell the island and I understand the sheep have now left the island, in case it becomes un-inhabited for a time. I feel sorry for the wardens who face uncertainty over their future and the public who now have far more limited opportunities to visit the island as Cardiff Council also sold or scrapped the boat used to run most of the trips from the Cardiff side. Thankfully the Council have at least said they want to sell it to remain as a reserve and visitor attraction and that public access must be maintained, but it’s sad to think the enthusiastic staff that showed us around and were so excited by their work may soon have to leave the island they call home. Happily as of the time of writing (December 2013) public access is still maintained and the company I used to travel to the island, MW Marine, have a number of trips to the island planned throghout for 2014, some of which cross first from Weston-super-Mare to Cardiff and then on to Flat Holm providing (for the first time in a very long time), a cross Severn ferry as well as the opportunity to visit the island from both sides of the estuary once more. I hope it is a success and the public can continue to visit the island for many years to come.
It has since been announced that the island will continue under Cardiff City Council until April 2015 under the present arrangements after which the island will be run by “two of the largest and most experience heritage and wildlife conservation charities”. So at least it sounds like the island has found a good home and is not going to be turned into a luxury mansion for some millionaire!
Flat Holm Island – Official Site
M W Marine – Boat services to Flat Holm from Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare
Sam Whitfields gallery of Flat Holm – Sam was one of the tour guides for the day.