From the moment I found out about the existence of Lundy, I knew I had to do Door-to-Door Poetry there. An island in the Bristol Channel, it’s 3 miles long and half a mile wide. Ran by the Landmark Trust, it boasts a resident population of 28 people, including a warden, some bar staff, and a farmer.
I think this is probably the smallest isolated community in England. So isolated, in fact, that getting there from Newcastle would be quite a big job. There’s only one mode of transport from the mainland, the MS Oldenburg, which sails from Ilfracombe harbour 3 times a week. It leaves at 10 in the morning, which meant there was no way I could make the 9 hour train journey in one day, so I’d have to set off a day earlier.
The next problem was that the ferry only stays on the island for 3 and a half hours, which didn’t feel like enough time to find 3 people to write a poem for. I’d need to stay longer. The trouble was, the next ferry back to the mainland was 3 days later, and all of the available accommodation was booked up, which meant I’d have to camp, in a place known for its unpredictable weather. Also, there’s limited phone reception, no internet, and the only generator is turned off at midnight, plunging the whole island into total darkness.
It felt like an absolute mission. But it was too tempting to pass up. The only question I ask as a Door-to-Door Poet is ‘What is important to you?’ I was really interested in how living in a place like this could effect your response. The island is also a designated Marine Conservation Zone with a long list of fancy things to see, including puffins and grey seals. It was the seals that settled it. So, on a cold October morning, I packed my rucksack and hit the road.
Captain’s Log 05/10/19 10:03
I’m on the MS Oldenburg, leaving Ilfracombe harbour. It’s a grey, drizzly day. I sit on the deck and watch England get smaller and smaller, till it’s only a black slug above the ocean. Soon after this, it disappears in the fog.
After 2 hours, I spot Lundy. It looks like the secret base of an evil genius. As we approach the jetty, huge brown cliffs jut out of the turquois water and tower around us. I join a big crowd of people as we slowly shuffle on to the land like cattle. It strikes me how many of us there are- there’s about 70, it’s like saving up all the tourists for a regular town and releasing them on mass.
The only village on Lundy is a 20 minute walk up a cliff face. It doesn’t have a name, it’s just the one place you can go. On the way, I get chatting to a man on a working holiday for the National Trust. He asks where I’m staying and I tell him the campsite.
“I’ve been coming here for years and I’ve never known anyone camp,” he says, ominously.
We reach the village. There’s only one pub and one shop on the whole island and this is where they are. There’s also a museum, which used to be a shed, a campsite, and a church, which has a Sunday service once a month.
I decide to get straight to work. Most of the houses on Lundy are rented out as accommodation for tourists. I’m less interested in speaking to a visitor, so I decide I need to find a permanent resident and ask them if there’s any houses they’d recommend. My plan was to do this at the pub, but it’s currently packed to the rafters with everyone who’s just got off the ferry, plus all the people who are waiting to get on the same ferry to go home. I decide to try the shop instead.
I reach a cobblestone building with a corrugated roof. I head in and step over to the counter. There’s a lady with blonde hair and glasses, and a man who looks a bit like the singer from the Talking Heads.
“Hi, erm, do you live here?” I ask.
“Yes,” the man says.
I explain that I’ve come all the way from Newcastle, that I knock on doors and write poems for people, I ask if he could recommend a house to try.
“Well, most of the staff live in those wooden buildings by the campsite,” he says. “But, to be honest, if you came and knocked on my door, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with that. All of our gates have ‘Staff Only’ written on them, you’re not really supposed to go in there.” I look over at the lady, who nods in agreement.
It suddenly dawns on me that everyone who lives here works for the same company. Both shopkeepers are wearing identical Landmark Trust polo necks. So were all the staff in the pub, too. I can’t believe I hadn’t really thought about this before: This whole island is a business, and the only parts that are off-limits to the public are the staff’s actual homes. After a busy day serving tourists, the idea of a tourist coming and knocking on your door probably isn’t the most appealing prospect.
I tell the man I can see where he’s coming from.
“Look,” he says. “I think the best thing to do is if you come to the pub at about 5 o’clock. It’s like part of our house anyway, it’s where all the post gets delivered. There’ll be a group of us there in our work clothes, you might be able to find someone who wants to get involved. Personally, I don’t think I’ll be one of them. It sounds like my worst nightmare.”
I step out of the shop, feeling like this trip has suddenly shifted gears. I definitely don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I decide the only thing I can do is go to the staff night out and try my best to win someone over.
I get to the Marisco Tavern, another wide cobblestone building, complete with outdoor toilets. It’s nearly dark and I’ve just finished setting up my tent. It suddenly started wazzing it down while I was halfway through and I’m now wet and quite tired.
I head inside and spot the man and lady from the shop. They’re sitting at a big round table in the corner with a group of 4 other people. I take a deep breath and walk over.
“This is the poet I was telling you about,” the man says. The group seem unastounded. I ask if they have a minute and 10 seconds to spare.
“I suppose,” says a man with a thick, grizzly beard. “But I’m off shift y’know.” It’s not a strong start.
I launch into my introductory poem.* As I make my way through it, people sit up a bit. A group of staff from the kitchen come through and gather round. By the end, I’ve accumulated a little audience. There’s a smattering of applause.
“I quite enjoyed that,” says the lady I met earlier. “When you said you were going to do a poem, I thought ‘Oh, god.’”
The lady is called Sue and she runs the shop. The man with the grizzly beard is her partner, Rob, the island manager. The man from the shop earlier is called Ash. There’s also Dean, the warden, Helen, who works in the pub and Barry, a property manager. I ask them how they all came to live on the island. Sue tells me they came at different times from all over the UK, nobody was born here.
“We’re like a big dysfunctional family,” she says.
I ask them what’s important to them.
“It changes from day-to-day,” says Rob. “Sometimes it’s ‘Will the generator turn on?’”
“You walk down the same path and it’s completely different from season to season,” Dean adds. “A lot of the work we do is dictated by what nature throws at us. The ship can’t come if the wind’s too bad, the helicopters can’t come in the fog. We like to think we’re in charge here, but we’re not.”
We talk about how this effects the way you see the world.
“I have to get up quite early in the morning,” Sue says. “I’ll be thinking about all the stuff I need to do. But, as soon as you step out the door, you see the most amazing sunrises, and all you can think about is how beautiful it is.”
I suggest a poem about how living here is different from the mainland. Everyone seems pretty keen. I arrange to come back and deliver it in 2 weeks. Before I go, I ask if there’s anyone else they think might like a poem.
“Kevin the farmer might be up for it,” Sue says. “He’ll either love it or hate it, you’ll find out pretty fast.”
Kevin is the only farmer on Lundy and Sue tells me that the meat he rears is only sold in this pub and in her shop. He’s got special stewardship from the National Trust, so the island has to be grazed in a certain way to promote wildlife, which means the farm isn’t ran like a normal business. Even as a vegetarian, I find this kind of fascinating. Sue tells me he’ll be in bed now, so I decide to have a look for him tomorrow.
I thank everyone for getting involved and head back to my tent, feeling like it’s been a successful day.
Captain’s Log 06/10/19 07:27
I wake up in a field in glorious sunshine. I get dressed and decide the first thing to do is to go for a walk. After that, I’ll search for farmer Kevin.
I head all the way along the west coast to the most northern point of the island. I pass through fields filled with wild goats; I spot a deer, a dung beetle and some big, fluffy caterpillars. It takes about an hour before it sinks in and I notice I’m completely alone. There’s no one around for miles- no cars, no houses, no anything. There’s only the sound of the wind. It takes a little while to come to terms with this.
When I get back to the village, I decide to ask for farmer Kevin at the pub. I meet a barman called Joe and explain the idea.
“He’s just went home,” he says. “He usually finishes at 3.” It’s bad timing. After what Ash told me yesterday, I decide it’s not a good idea to knock on him either. But I have a whole day left tomorrow, I’ll try him then instead. “The best time to catch him is at 10,” Joe says, “at the barn round the corner. I think it’s a really good idea actually. If you can get him to talk, his answer is going to be very interesting. ”
It turns out Joe was listening to my poem from the pub kitchen last night.
“I used to lecture in theatre and politics,” he says. “I love poetry.” I ask him if he wants a poem as well. “Yeah, but I’m at work at the minute. It’s my day off tomorrow, why don’t you come and give me a knock in the afternoon?” I leave him to get back to work and head off to look at some baby seals.
Captain’s Log 07/10/19 07:17
I wake up to water spilling in the tent. The wind is blowing the ceiling into my face. I run to the pub in sideways rain and order a cup of tea. On my way to get some milk, I spot Rob, the island manager.
“It’s off,” he says.
“What, the milk?”
“The ferry, tomorrow, it’s off. There’s a bad wind forecast. I don’t think you should camp either, you can sleep on the church floor instead.” The offer of an actual roof feels like Christmas. I tell him I was just going to look for Kevin, that I’ll move the tent in a few hours.
“I suggest you do it now,” he says.
I lug all my stuff to the church as the storm picks up. By the time this is all sorted, I need to go and meet Joe. I’ll have to put off looking for Kevin till later.
I reach a long row of wooden cabins near the shop. They look like something you’d find in the Rocky Mountains. I knock on a door and Joe invites me into a surprisingly modern-looking living room. He introduces me to his girlfriend, Tiina, who moved over with him from Bideford a month ago. I mention that it’s good they could both come together.
“They usually hire people in couples,” she explains.
Joe goes to make me a cup of tea. When he gets back, I ask him what’s important to him. He pauses for a minute.
“The thing that is important to me is how you treat the things that other people find important,” he says. We talk about communal living in such an isolated place. “You have to resolve your problems, rather than let them fester. On the mainland, you can drive for 3 hours and shut yourself away. Here, you’re more exposed. You’re relying on people.”
I’m fascinated by the idea that living in such a small place actually makes you more sociable. I mention that Lundy seems like a good spot to hide in the zombie apocalypse.
“This is an ongoing discussion we have,” Joe says, laughing. “About what weapons we’d use.” I suggest it would be quite difficult for them to get to you.
“Unless is starts here,” Tiina says.
“Or comes over on a boat,” Joe adds. “There are many things we don’t know about zombies: Can they walk underwater?”
I leave Joe and Tiina to enjoy the rest of their day. I have an ask around for Kevin, but there’s no joy. It’s after 3 now, so I’m going to have to look for him tomorrow. It’s a little frustrating, a bit of me wonders if I should just talk to someone else. But I’ve already been trying to track him down for 2 days now, it feels like I’m in too deep. And everyone I’ve spoken to has said he’s a character, that it will be a challenge, that he’d have something really interesting to say. It’s developing into a sort of obsession. I can’t take no for an answer now. I must speak to farmer Kevin.
Captain’s Log 08/10/19 08:04
I wake up on the church floor. Last night was, to be honest, pretty terrifying. I hadn’t really thought about the island’s generator going off. I opened my eyes at 2 in the morning to pitch blackness, the storm howling outside, filling the cavernous space with a whole host of frightening noises- including what I can only describe as the chomping of bones. I pushed some ear plugs in and decided that, if the unspeakable monsters were going to reach out from the abyss and grab me, at least I wouldn’t have to listen to them coming.
I get ready and head towards the barn to look for Kevin. Straight away, I spot a tractor with a man in that I’m sure must be him, he’s dressed in green overalls, a flat cap, and has a grey beard. He looks busy, so I find a bench nearby and wait.
After a few minutes, he comes driving past. I wave him down. He stops the tractor, turns the engine off, and opens the door.
“Are you farmer Kevin?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, in a strong West Country accent.
“I was talking to Sue the other day about an art project I’m doing. I was wondering if you’d be free for a chat?”
“What’s it about?” he asks.
“It takes a minute to explain.”
“Just give me the gist,” he says. I describe it briefly.
“But it’s not the kind of poetry you might expect,” I add. He seems curious,
“Like, more down-to-earth?” he suggests.
“Today is all busy really,” he says. “But I could meet you tomorrow morning?” Tomorrow is the day I’m meant to sail home, but I don’t have to leave till 12.30. I suggest meeting sometime around 8 o’clock outside the pub. “Yeah, OK,” he says. “I know your coat and what you look like, I’ll come and find you when I’m ready.”
Captain’s Log 09/10/19 07:12
I wake up, pack my bags, and head off to meet farmer Kevin. I can’t quite believe he’s really up for this. Having tried to find him for so long, I’m actually pretty excited about it. I find a bench outside the pub. After a couple of minutes, I spot him on his way inside and give him a wave. He waves back and walks in. ‘He knows I’m here now,’ I think. ‘It won’t be too long.’
Farmer Kevin comes back out the pub and heads towards the barn. I nod. He makes no reply.
Farmer Kevin goes into the pub and comes out with a cup of tea. I smile and wave. He makes no reply.
Farmer Kevin drives past me on a red quad bike. I make no movement. He makes no reply.
Farmer Kevin drives past the other way. I give him two thumbs up. He mutters something, but I can’t hear it over the roar of the engine.
I have just over an hour before I need to leave the island. I decide the softly softly approach isn’t really working. After a few minutes, farmer Kevin drives past me again, this time with a metal trailer attached the back of the bike. I wave him down.
“I’ve got to go and pick up some sheep,” he shouts, as he races past me. I ask him if that means we can’t talk anymore. “No, I’ve got to go and pick up some sheep,” he says, as he shoots off up the lane.
…. Maybe he changed his mind. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing farmer Kevin for 2 days now, it’s that he’s a busy man. And, by watching him closely, I think he’s kind of showed me what’s important to him anyway: Sheep.
It’s an unexpected end to what has been, in many ways, an unpredictable trip. This island has really forced me to adapt: I came looking for the most isolated community in England. I found it. But I also found a group of employees who, quite understandably, wanted a bit more privacy than the project usually allows.
To be honest, I’ve been surprised by how little the whole idea has phased people, too. Before I came, I kind of arrogantly assumed I’d be the centre of attention on Lundy. But, as I walk back to the harbour, I’m reminded of something Rob said to me on the first night in the pub.
“Every day it’s something different. You might have a poet here today. We’ve had a guy come checking all the bottoms of the chairs because they’re quite old. There was the first woman to swim here from the mainland. We have a mushroom man.”
I realise now that, to the residents of Lundy, I am merely another nutter, one in a long line of nutters who arrive like clockwork every 3 days. But, as I get back on the ferry, I can honestly say I feel proud to be one of those nutters.
* I’m a Door-to-Door Poet,
I’m scruffy and hungover,
but this could be worse though,
I could be a Jehovah.
I won’t say that you’re the devil
if you disagree,
I won’t talk about the afterlife,
one’s enough for me.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust
on country manors, deathly shrouds,
serious lords and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate,
I grew up on a rough estate-
walls thin as paper used to trace,
the clouds an endless tone of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping, but less frightening,
so I’m at your door to find
the subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about your life.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll stick it in a poem
or at least have a decent go at it.
Maybe you heard a great story
you’d love to hear in rhyme.
Maybe your blood is boiling
from a recent council fine.
Maybe you dropped your smart phone
and it fell down the toilet,
I don’t know, I can’t decide for you
‘cos that would spoil it.
So cheers for listening to these verses,
I hope I got across my purpose,
don’t slam the door, don’t be nervous,
the Door-to-Door Poet is at your service.
This trip and the subsequent blog post was generously funded by Apples and Snakes.