Fascinating history of Flat Holm Island which could be put up for sale
Gerry Brooke looks at the fascinating history of Flat Holm island, a wildlife refuge which could soon be put up for sale...
Well known for its lighthouse, and clearly visible from Clevedon, Brean Down and Weston-super-Mare, the small island of Flat Holm lies just a few miles off the South Wales and Somerset coasts.
A nature reserve, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) since 1972, the island is currently managed by a Cardiff Council Project Team.
As well as running a ferry service to the island, the council also employs around half a dozen staff to look after the buildings and show people around.
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But now its future as a tourist destination, or a place where school children can study wildlife, is in doubt.
Drastic cuts to Cardiff Council’s budget, to be finalised later this month, could mean selling off the ferry boat and putting the island up for sale.
A report to the council has revealed that considerable investment – money that Cardiff doesn’t have – would be needed to turn Flat Holm into a profit-making destination. Councillors have been told that tourist demand for island visits, which is highly concentrated in the summer months, is insufficient to cover the operating costs.
Many scheduled trips, officers added, had to be cancelled this year due to bad weather – rough seas and strong tides.
Weston boat operators, MW Marine, who also run scheduled tourist trips to Flat Holm in the season, are now awaiting a definitive decision about the island’s future from Cardiff Council.
The 86 acre, almost circular, island has a fascinating history of on-off occupation, stretching from Bronze Age peoples (900 to 700BC) through to the 6th century Age of Saints and Saxon and Viking times.
A bronze axe head, an exciting find, was discovered here in the 1980s.
Before rising sea levels, caused by melting ice, flooded the Bristol Channel about 10,000 years ago, both limestone islands were joined to Brean Down, Uphill and the rest of Mendip.
The island’s highest point, where the lighthouse stands, is 105 feet above sea level.
Legend has it that St Cadoc, a Welsh hermit, lived on the island for several years, with St Gildas, later Abbot of Glastonbury, being on nearby Steep Holme.
The Ango-Saxon Chronicle tells us that, after the defeat of 1066, and the subsequent fall of Exeter, King Harold’s mother took shelter on the island.
Archeologists have since found evidence – pots, jugs, oyster shells and roofing tiles – that the island was inhabited, perhaps continuously, throughout Medieval times.
Its possible that a chapel – Christian burials and gravestones have also been found – stood where the farmhouse is to-day.
It was monks from St Augustine’s Abbey (now Bristol Cathedral) who, in the 12th century, first established a mixed farm on the island, given to them by Robert, Earl of Gloucester.
Two hundred years ago the farm was recorded as having seven cows, two bulls five sheep, one horse, two pigs and two dogs.
Converted into a short lived hotel, complete with bar and skittle alley, in 1897, the much rebuilt farmhouse has been renovated and lately used as visitor accommodation.
The island’s first proper lighthouse was built in the 18th century, a time when the smuggling of tea and brandy was rife.
The customs men, it’s said, were powerless to act as they were without boats to apprehend the culprits.
It was from here, in 1835, that the Bristol Channel Mission, later the worldwide Mission to Seafarers, was started by John Ashley from Clevedon.
At that time 400 ships, many of them sailing between Bristol and Ireland, plied the muddy waters of the Channel.
Although more than a third of a mile across, the island also contains, like its neighbour Steep Holme, some Victorian gun emplacements which once guarded the Bristol Channel approaches.
In the 1860s a series of 7 inch, 7 ton guns – similar to those on Steep Holme – were placed into deep pits as protection against any threat posed by the French navy.
The four battery pits, 7 feet in diameter and 10 feet deep, can still be seen to-day.
A stone built barracks, originally intended to sleep 50 men, but vacated in 1901, has now been restored for educational use.
Flat Holm was re-fortified, with guns, searchlights and radar, during the Second World War when up to 350 men were stationed on the island.
In the 1890s it was decided that an isolation, or cholera, hospital for sick sailors be built on the island.
The unit, which closed in 1935 and now lies derelict, is unique in being the only isolation hospital sited on a British offshore island.
Although Grade II listed, it’s nevertheless on a “Buildings at Risk” register.
In May 1897 the brilliant young Italian inventor Marconi made the world’s first radio transmission, from the island to the Welsh mainland, using a 112 foot high mast.
The original Morse Code message, “Are you ready?” can be seen in the National Museum of Wales.
For administration and legal purposes Steep Holme belongs to England and Flat Holm – since Norman times at least – to Wales.
In fact the island, whose Welsh name is Ynys Echni, comes within the ancient boundaries of a Cardiff parish church.
No firm decision about Flat Holm’s future will be made until the end of this month but the public are being invited to have their say on the council’s proposals via an online survey at www.surveys.cardiff.gov.uk/budget.
There is also an online petition, run by the Flat Holm Society, to save the island at www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/cardiff-council-save-flat-holm-island2.
SHIPWRECKS ON THE SHORE
The treacherous conditions around the islands, plus the Bristol Channel’s high tidal range of 49 feet, have led to many shipwrecks.
In the winter of 1773 the ship Tapley lost seven passengers when it became stranded on Flat Holm on a passage from Cork to Bristol.
In 1817 the sloop William and Mary, en route from Bristol to Waterford, foundered after hitting The Wolves, two small rocky islands nearby, and sank within fifteen minutes.
Fifty-four passengers were lost, with only fifteen survivors, who had clung to the ship’s rigging.
The bodies were buried on Flat Holm.
In 1938 the steamship Norman Queen ran ashore on the island but was re-floated and in 1941, during the war, the steamship Middlesex was lost.
The first light on Flat Holm, a warning to shipping, was a simple brazier, or beacon, mounted on a wooden frame which stood on the highest part of the island.
In 1733 Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, unhappy about the arrangements, petitioned Trinity House for a proper lighthouse to be built, but this request was turned down.
Two years later a William Crispe from Bristol agreed to build a lighthouse, at his own expense, but this offer was also turned down.
But the following year, after 60 soldiers had perished when their ship was sunk off The Wolves, Crispe finally got his way.
Work on a tower, which cost him £800, was finished in 1737 with the lighthouse becoming operative the next spring.
In 1790 a lightning strike resulted in a 10 foot crack appearing in the top of the tower, plus damage to the oak beams supporting the platform.
In 1819 the tower was raised from 69 to 89 feet and a more powerful beam installed.
The lighthouse was still in private ownership when, in1822, Trinity House finally bought the lease.
In the years that followed a new lamp and lantern was installed and then, in 1881, a clockwork mechanism which rotated the light.
The restored foghorn station, built by Trinity House in 1906, and officially re-opened in 2000, would give blasts at two minute intervals, a sound which could be heard on both coasts.
In 1988 the lighthouse was automated, the foghorn silenced and the keepers withdrawn.