On the 24th of December 1869, after spending a night of merriment in the Marisco Tavern, Lundy Island’s finest, or more accurately, only, hostelry, Samuel Jarman unwittingly ruined his family’s Christmas by losing his way home and walking straight over one of the island's many cliffs. The effects of this error were to be terminal. In spite of this somewhat inglorious end, his family saw fit to commemorate his death, and so, his nephew Captain John Lang of Appledore, installed a large, black headstone under the island’s Old Lighthouse dedicated to his memory. The memorial however, perhaps says more about the Captain than anyone else and those who view it might get the impression that Jarman was merely a bit player in the tale of his own death, for it is Lang’s name that is carved boldly in capitalised gothic text on the top of the tablet, not his.
These people, for better or for worse, are my ancestors and it is with a strange mixture of uneasiness and comfort that I still see the vices of drunkenness, clumsiness, self-promotion and arrogance prevailing, to a greater or lesser degree, in the current generations of my family; the sentiments of Larkin’s This be the Verse have clearly been played out over the centuries.
It’s with this knowledge that I made landfall, disembarking from the MS Oldenburg to be greeted with a scene that was more akin to some Ionian island than some windswept rock in the middle of the Bristol Channel. It had been a remarkably smooth crossing, with gannets and porpoises making sporadic appearances along the way. This was my first visit to Lundy and it is with a touch of irony, that my first stop should be the infamous Marisco Tavern. We were to spend a lot of time here over the coming three days.
My companions on this trip were my usual climbing partners, Tom and Steph. We had been talking of taking a trip to Lundy for over a year now, but the catalyst finally came this August, when Tom, who is a writer and photographer by profession, was offered a deal on crossing fees and accommodation in return for an article on the climbing there (it is to appear in Trek and Mountain sometime next year). To climb on Lundy is something that I’ve wanted to do since my introduction to the sport; to me, its remoteness and isolation are inherently appealing. Yet, despite its inaccessibility, it has always had the ability to remind me of its existence, appearing occasionally and unexpectedly as a misty apparition on the far horizon, seen from my usual haunts of Pembroke and Gower.
It was unfortunate therefore, that my enthusiasm, and that of my companions, was to be tempered by the glacial pace at which our luggage, which contained all our ropes and protection, was delivered to the campsite. A lesson learnt for next time is that our gear will board the boat as hand luggage. It was evident that owing to tides and limited daylight, that the day’s climbing would be limited to one or two routes at most. And so off we set to explore the island's West Coast and the Flying Buttress.
The Flying Buttress, is by any standard, an impressive piece of lithological architecture. A giant leaning totem of orange and pink granite, it appears to have collapsed into the mainland forming a large angular arch through which the sea lazily rolls, throwing up froth and foam where it strikes the rocks around it. Sitting above it are the remains of an old gun placement, which still retains a couple of ancient rusting cannons and an assortment of decaying buildings. The placement makes an ideal position to take stock, gear up and prepare for the coming frivolity. We had decided to leave the delights of the buttress itself for another day and instead concerned ourselves with the steep landward cliff known as the Main Wall. What followed was the usual difficulty of identifying routes and features on an unfamiliar sea cliff, which because of their very nature, cannot be viewed at anything approaching a useful angle. Eventually we settled upon a Severe grade route called Alouette, an easy introduction I felt, to what the island had to offer. And so up a steep corner I set, accompanied by an unfamiliar touch of anxiety, haunted perhaps, by some repressed ancestral nightmare. What I found was a surprisingly challenging climb; the subtle differences in the rock’s grain and form made placing protection difficult and unnerving and by the time I’d finished the route a feeling of slight uneasiness had found me. Fortunately, time intervened and this was to be the only climb of the day.
The Devil’s Slide
If there’s one route, I am told, that one must do on their first visit to Lundy, then it’s the Devil’s Slide. Taking the form of a 120 metre high slab of flawless granite, the Slide is home to a number of high quality routes, which range in difficulty from Hard Severe to E1. Our route was to be the Devil’s Slide itself, the slab’s original line, which follows its right hand side at a very reasonable Hard Severe 4a. The route has certainly gained itself a pre-eminent status among Lundy climbs, it’s the one everyone talks of and naturally, it makes an appearance in Ken Wilson’s coffee table-esque bestseller, Classic Climbs.
We were wary that the weather could deteriorate at any time, and so, decided to do the route on our second day. As it turned out, the weather of the second day was to be the worst of the trip and we were treated to the brunt of a strong westerly wind. Undeterred, we set about climbing the route, with Tom leading the first and third pitches, me leading the second and fourth and Steph the fifth. To behold the slab from afar is something, but to embrace its coarse texture and climb it is something else again. Beginning easily at first, it rapidly steepens gaining momentum the higher it goes. Holds are few and far between, and one must rapidly find faith in friction to maintain pace. The finest climbing appears in the penultimate two pitches, where the route finally starts to earn its Hard Severe grade. Here the rock begins to undulate rhythmically across the slab, the large crystals of quartz and feldspar gleaming in the daylight, the sea bellowing far below. It is the quintessential sea cliff climbing experience, but on a scale that dwarfs most other similar routes in this country. The fourth pitch gives the crux in the form of a couple sparsely protected 4a moves, across a leftwards traverse line, to a sheltered haven on the far side of the slab. Done properly, these moves are delicate and fluid and alone make a trip to the island worthwhile. We finished the route jubilantly and set off back to the campsite, and the tavern, in high spirits.
Our third day on the island was not a productive one, so I’ll keep my description brief. I’m not in general a sickly person, but every time I make grand plans, I seem to succumb to some ailment or other. This time it was some sort of chest infection, which while in no way debilitating, fostered a general feeing of apathy towards doing anything even remotly strenuous. On our return to the Flying Buttress, chosen for its reasonable proximity to the campsite more than anything else, we toyed with the idea of doing Diamond Solitaire, a classic Very Severe on the Buttress itself. My apathy must have been infectious, since neither Tom nor Steph appeared particularly enthused about the route. Eventually, we settled on the Moderately graded Flying Buttress route, which while pleasant, was in no way a challenge of any sort. We returned to the campsite, I had a nap, while Steph went for a swim in the harbour. She was pursued by a curious bull seal and was the talk of the tavern later that evening.
Farewell to Lundy
Having spent the previous day in a semi-inert state, we decided that we should do something a bit more substantial on our final day; unfortunately, our time was limited, as the Oldenburg would be leaving the island just after three. Once again we looked to the delights on offer at the Flying Buttress. Our line of choice was to be the Horseman’s Route, a Hard Severe 4b that weaves it’s way up the best bits of the Buttress. I was to lead the first pitch and Tom the second. I felt I needed the first pitch; I needed to cure my apathy.
The start of the route takes the form of a steep slab and the opening moves were thin and technical, but protectable with a couple of small wires. Another few moves bought me to my first piece of solid protection, and with it my apathy and fear began to fade, the thoughts of the hapless uncle Jarman disappeared and my enthusiasm returned. The succeeding moves were a delight, with small edges for my feet and beautiful, rounded, course grained grooves for my hands.
The belay sits just opposite the Buttress’ main slab, which involves an intimidating step across the abyss to gain. I declined the lead, and Tom, with a degree of trepidation, volunteered himself. While the initial moves may have appeared daunting, the slab hid some reassuringly large holds. Unfortunately, too much focus had been given to the first few moves and not enough to working out where the rest of the pitch went, and Tom found himself on a ledge with no where to go. Several minutes of tense waiting ensued as he tried to work out a strategy. I braced myself for a possible fall. Afterwards he admitted contemplating a dyno to an out of reach hold, but quickly though better of it; this was only a Hard Severe after all. Eventually, he realised that he had gone too far right, managed to reverse some moves, and complete the remainder of the pitch, which was engaging and varied, with relative ease.
This was to be our last climb of the trip and so, I left the Buttress and the island, calling on the way to pay my respects to my ancestors, first at the memorial at the Old Lighthouse, then in the form of a pint at the Marisco. There are some vices that are just too much fun to give up.