A spring spent volunteering on Flat Holm, an uninhabited island in the Bristol Channel, brought Rachel Dowse into close contact with enraged gulls, feral sheep and the steadfast remnants of Britain's World War Two coastal defences.
Sometimes, it can feel like Flat Holm Island doesn’t want you there.
It seems to be doing its best to keep you out. Surrounded by the treacherous brown waters of the Bristol Channel, if the weather is bad, or the wind speed too high, then the boats won’t go. There’s nowhere to moor, you must either ground your vessel, or have someone hold it by the jetty with a rope while everyone and everything is unloaded. If you’re lucky, you won’t be soaked to the skin once you arrive.
Staying here provides its own challenges. There’s no natural water source; instead, rainwater is collected all winter, and carefully rationed out over the summer. It’s fine for washing, as long as you keep showering to a minimum, but don’t drink it. Drinking water is brought over in crate after crate of litre bottles from the supermarket value range. Bottled water, scourge of environmentalists, but there aren’t many other options.
Food, too, must be brought over all at once. Nothing fresh, it all has to last the month. Packets and cans, and a giant freezer for meat and veg and bread. Don’t try growing any either, or eating the huge swathes of wild parsnip that cover the island: there’s lead in the soil.
Half of Flat Holm is kept clear for maritime grassland, in a fight we are slowly losing. The remainder belongs, for half the year at least, to a lesser black-backed gull colony, with a few of the paler herring gulls scattered round the middle and edges. These are bolshy city birds, who head over to Cardiff to get their grub, then bring their litter home with them. The island is strewn with magnum wrappers, plastic gloves, chicken bones and party balloons. If you think they’re fierce on the mainland, you’ve never seen them defending their nests.
A walk through the colony sets up an unending cacophony of screeches and shouts. The nicer ones stay put, staring you down, beak wide open with that endless repeating cry warning you to stay away. There aren’t many like that. Most will take off, and fly as close to your head as possible, screaming and often aiming a shit in your direction. The most daring will try a divebomb, coming in from behind at high speed, feet out to crack you in the back of the head. It’s more painful than seems possible for a talon-less seabird. Meanwhile, those without mates hang about the grassland side, looking bored and disgruntled.
To make up for the bottled water and processed food, the electricity here is generated by wind and solar, but that means being very careful on an overcast day. If it runs out, huge diesel generators kick in, which require refuelling. For hot water, load up the wood burning stove and check her every twenty minutes. In the summer we don’t bother, as the wood is all shipped over and needed for the winter. Flat Holm has no trees.
Despite all this, generations have made a home on its inhospitable soils. Saints and martyrs, lighthouse keepers and farmers, Victorian gunmen and World War II POWs. There’s a cholera isolation hospital, the only one built on an island, which is slowly crumbling away. There’s great circular gun pits, still solid and dependable. They were designed for Moncrief Disappearing Carriages, and the guns themselves rest beside them, rusted but still bearing the crest of Queen Victoria. We use one of them as a workshop, another as a petrol store. Meanwhile the remains of Nissen huts, railway lines, lookout posts and anti-aircraft gun emplacements are disappearing gently into the sea. They’re all that’s left of the 300 soldiers who were resident on this half mile square throughout WW II. All that is, except the ablution block, which is now a store room that betrays its original purpose through the impressive stench it builds up in hot weather.
Yes, Flat Holm has endured. It’s been armed and fortified, dug over and chipped away, isolated and inhabited. If you come here expecting an island paradise you’ll be disappointed: Flat Holm is always resolutely itself. And it has its own charm. Despite its size, it seems to expand the longer you stay, both out and downwards. Something about living on a small island makes you slowly aware of the earth and rock beneath you, what was once a mighty mountaintop is now a small flat expanse. At low tide it bares its ribs and foundations. Jagged rock formations and fossilised sea beds let Flat Holm show its age and origins. There’s bluebells in the spring, reminding you of how it must have been before the waters of the estuary rolled their way in.
You get to know certain gulls. Those with nests by paths and crossroads greet you with their usual screeching. And nothing can dampen the joy of watching the chicks grow from speckled egg, to speckled fluffball, to small gawky dinosaurs on too long legs, to fully sized juveniles trying to fly, and screeching in panic when they do.
There are slow worms, with their gentle lizard faces, and scruffy rabbits who startle and run wherever you walk. There’s a herd of Soay sheep, a failed experiment turned silent gods of the isle. They are at least twice as old as Soays are meant to live, and stand in a ragged band and watch you at your work, before suddenly moving off in one movement. I’ve never heard one make a sound. Trapping them for their occasional medicine and check-over requires stealth, cunning, and an extraordinarily elaborate plan, involving multiple lookout spots and walkie-talkies. We still never get them all.
In the evening, the cities along the two great arms of the Bristol Bay light up and glitter, while the island's lighthouse pulses its unfathomable beat. Two, then one, then three, then steady, then flickering - don’t try to keep track, just let it beat its red and white, three tiny bulbs keeping the shipping on course. Listen to the gulls slowly quieten down for the night, and watch the sky blaze orange and the stars appear. It isn’t a perfect sky, not with Cardiff so close by, but there’s enough to keep you enraptured for a good long while.
And as you walk back along the grassland, the single gulls will take off silently in a great, ghostly cloud, until you can’t see the sky at all.
Rachel Dowse was a Volunteer Trainee Warden on Flat Holm Island from April to September 2015. She is looking to start a career in conservation, and learned many useful things on Flat Holm, including how to crash a tractor without damaging anything, and the fact that she is very allergic to Brown-Tailed caterpillars. She completed a Masters in Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment at Essex University in 2014, and has been published in Earthlines.
All photos courtesy of the author.