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A Storm-Lashed British Isle Famous For Church Bells, Populated By Few


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to venture out onto the sea now off the coast of Britain. Yesterday, we heard about a British cultural institution called the Shipping Forecast. Every night, landlubbers who know nothing of the sea tune into BBC radio, to hear about sea and weather conditions off the British Isles. Songs and poems have been devoted to the forecast.

Well, NPR's Philip Reeves is devoted to it, too. And it inspired him to explore several areas made famous by that broadcast. Today, he takes us to a place called Lundy, off the coast of Devon in Southwest England.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're going on a voyage that requires sea legs and a strong stomach. A low grey sky's spitting rain. The crew of our small ferry boat prepares to cast off.

We set out into a restless ocean and the Lundy Sea area.

JERRY WALLER: Lundy and the weather area is probably one of the rougher areas round the U.K.

REEVES: Jerry Waller is skipper of this boat the MS Oldenburg. The Oldenburg shuttles between the mainland England and our destination today, a tiny island within the Lundy Sea area that shares its name.

WALLER: You'll find as we pass this point...

REEVES: You're pointing at a headland which is about a mile away from here.

WALLER: And which is Bull Point, yeah. Once we pass it, we get that clear view of what's coming in from the southwest, because south westerly weather is the prevailing weather here. It makes all the difference to whether we cross the 20 miles to Lundy Island or not.

REEVES: We're at the place where the Atlantic Ocean collides with the Britain's southwestern edge and charges up the Bristol Channel. That's why the tides here are among the biggest on the planet. Our boat pitches back and forth. People start being sea sick. But we make it.


REEVES: The reason I am out of breathe is because we are climbing up a hill, which leads from where the ferry comes in up to the cluster of buildings that comprises the one sort of pocket of civilization on this wild and glamorous, austere island.


REEVES: Lundy Island's three miles long and half a mile wide. It's a block of granite that juts abruptly out of the sea. The island's cliffs are up to 400 feet high. And there are no cars allowed here, so this is the only way to get where we need to go, which is right now the Marisco Pub - the hub of activity here.


REEVES: The pub's named after a 13th century pirate, William de Marisco. Marisco was eventually captured by King Henry III's men. They dragged him through London and quartered his corpse, to deter other outlaws. Yet, for centuries afterwards, pirates continued using Lundy Island to pounce on passing ships.


REEVES: Hear that? Dominoes and people are also playing chess and cards and reading books. This pub's in a time warp. Customers here are actually banned from using mobile phones, laptops and PlayStations.


DEREK GREEN: We like to think that we're kind of maintaining a way of life that is akin to the 1950s here. There's no distractions. There's no television. We don't have piped music or juke boxes. We're striving across here just to maintain that sense of the middle of the last century.

REEVES: Derek Green's general manager of the Landmark Trust, the conservation charity that administers Lundy Island. That's not his only job.

GREEN: I'm the landlord for the pub and I am also harbor master of the little harbor we have down at the bottom there. I also sit as auxiliary Coast Guard, and as watch manager for the fire service, and also a first responder for the West Country Ambulance Service.

REEVES: The trust's 38 staff are the island's only permanent residents. They run the farm, produce the island's power and water, and handle the visitors who come to climb, dive, or see the spectacular wildlife and scenery. They're only people here with access to vehicles.


GREEN: We are just going to take a trip from the village just across to the southwest point of the island, which is the most exposed area that we have here on Lundy. And where a lot of sailors have came to grief, and a lot of ships have come to grief over the years. Since records were kind of kept formally, then there are 185 known and charted ship-wrecks around Lundy.

This is southwest point, so we're looking out across the Atlantic. And if we could see far enough, we'd be looking straight at Continental USA. So this is where the sea starts to deepen right off into these deep Atlantic trenches. And that's where these huge Atlantic swells build up

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All stations, this is Swansea Coast Guard. Here follows the maritime safety information broadcast...

REEVES: That forecast is coming from Green's handheld radio.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Southwest, five to seven, perhaps gale force eight for a time at first...

GREEN: That weather he's talking about is going to come in here tomorrow and we are looking straight at it. It's going to hit us. And the atmosphere and environment here will be very, very different tomorrow afternoon.


REEVES: He's right. This is what Lundy sounded like the following afternoon.


REG TUFFIN: You can be literally blown over going down the High Street here.

REEVES: Blown over?

TUFFIN: Oh yes. Up by this gate here, it blows through there. And of course it's compressed a bit. So if you've got a full gale blowing, yeah you can be blown over there.

REEVES: Eighty-two year old Reg Tuffin has lived on this island longer than anyone else here.

TUFFIN: Well, I'm the postmaster and also help in the shop.

REEVES: And how long have you been here?

TUFFIN: Nineteen years now.

REEVES: Being postmaster involves more work than you'd think. This little island produces its own stamps.

TUFFIN: A very popular design of course has been the puffin.

REEVES: No queen's head on the stamp?

TUFFIN: Oh, certainly not. No, no. The nearest would be a puffin's head.


REEVES: Back in the 1920s, the island had its own currency, the puffin coin, until the British authorities objected. Tuffin relishes this defiantly independent streak, yet he struggles to explain exactly why he's so attached to this island.

TUFFIN: Well, I love the place. You can trot out there - the tranquility, the beauty, the wildlife.

REEVES: But you are saying that does quite sum it up?

TUFFIN: Yes, it doesn't sum it up. And it's difficult - well, it's a bit impossible to put your finger on it.

REEVES: Late in the 19th century, ownership of the island fell to a clergyman called Hudson Grosset Heaven. Heaven decided that residents of the Kingdom of Heaven needed somewhere to worship. He built a big neo-Gothic church that looms up incongruously on the skyline. Eventually the Heaven family left. The church bells fell out of use until Bob Caton came along.

BOB CATON: I came across on a trip with some friends on a fishing boat and I saw the bells in the porch. I thought: Ah, they shouldn't be there. They should be up the tower ringing.

REEVES: In 1994, Bob and his friends had the bells re-hung. Since then, nearly 2,000 bell-ringers have sailed in from the English mainland to ring them. Sometimes they rang all day, people complained. The ringers and to muffle the bells so that they can only be heard close-by.

Even so, bell-ringers come from far and wide, says Jennie Higson.

JENNIE HIGSON: We enjoy it. It's what it's all about. They are quite a nice peel to come and ring. But it's actually coming to the island that makes them special.


REEVES: For me, this visit's changed the Shipping Forecast for ever. I'm one of those landlubbers who listen to the forecast every night.


REEVES: Now, when Lundy comes up I'll think of wild weather and sea sickness. But I'll also reflect jealously on the few who live on this island amid a beauty they can't quite define - among them, Kerry Stafford.

KERRY STAFFORD: It does get deep in your heart. You do care so much about the place. You really do. That's my world. This is my little world here. That's all I need.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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