The Other ‘Channel Islands’
Lesley Trotter finds that there is more than meets the eye about the small islands in the Bristol Channel.
Sailing in the Bristol Channel can be tricky enough today with abnormal tides and dangerous shallows but a few centuries ago there was another hazard, piracy!
The most famous was William de Marisco “a mischevious pirate who invaded these coasts” in the 13th century. The ruins of his castle can still be seen on the island towering over the south light on the edge of a great precipice.
The criminal element seemed to enjoy the seclusion of Lundy as late as the 1750s when no lesser figure than the MP for Barnstaple, Thomas Benson turned it into a slave island. His ‘slaves’ weren’t the captives from Africa that are normally associated with the period, but convicts which he was supposed to be transporting to the American colonies. When this was discovered, he was accused of breach of contract, but like a true politician, he pointed out that he had only been engaged to ship the convicts out of the country, which he had done!
Not content with this operation, the Right not-so-Honorable member for Barnstaple then went in for a touch of fraud, claiming the insurance for one of his ships that ‘sunk’ with a valuable load of pewter, salt and linen. Well, the ship did sink, but not before the cargo had been quietly unloaded on Lundy. The ship’s captain was hanged but his boss, Mr Benson, escaped not only the noose but probably the country.
Violence and, an often religious, peace seem to take turns in the history of the island. When lawlessness became too extreme in the 13th century, the Crown garrisoned Lundy an dgave control to the Knights Templar, and after the Benson debacle there was a complete turnabout with the island becoming known as ‘The kingdom of Heaven’ due to its ownership passing to the Reverent Hudson Heaven in the 1830s.
The same pendulum swung over the smaller island of Steep Holm, further up the Bristol Channel. Used as a refuge and then a base for Vikings raiding the coats of Devon and Somerset, the island became the home of a small priory in the 12th century. But the peace didn’t last long and the high cliffs of Steep Holm made it an excellent lookout post for the activities of pirates such as Marisco providing advance warning of any likely prizes.
When the days of the pirates had passed, the island’s few occupants turning to farming and fishing but even their peace was disrupted by the military’s plan to turn the island into a ‘stone frigate’ in the 1860s.
Now the defences are crumbling and the massive cannon have toppled, and Steep Holm has found a lasting peace as a bird sanctuary in memory of Kenneth Allsop, the author and broadcaster.
Sanctuary is a theme that runs through the history of Steep Holm’s sister island, Flat Holm. After the battle of Hastings, King Harold’s mother Gytha was among the ladies of the defeated nobles who took refuge on the island before going into exile in Wales. A different kind of sanctuary was granted to two of the knights who murdered Thomas Becket. They are traditionally believed to have been buried on Flat Holm, and in more recent years the island became the site of Cardiff’s cholera hospital.
However, it’s the modern sailor who owes the most to Flat Holm. As you pass this seemingly insignificant dot on the chart, raise your RT handset in salute. For it was here, on 11 May 1897, that Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless message ever sent across water. The message received by his partner, George Kempt, waiting on Lavernock Point was “Are you ready?”.
(Photo of Lundy courtesy of Anthea Colgate. This article originally appeared in the sailing newspaper Shore Link, 24 Aug 1987.)