Monday, 20 June 2016

EXILES OR EXPLORERS?

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went.
   R S Thomas ‘Pilgrimages’

Always the sound of the sea, the singing of the seals, the wind in the grass.

We come over on Benlli III, Colin’s bright yellow catamaran , our luggage and food for the week double-wrapped in plastic. 

I am staying at Llofft Plas, a converted barn, on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) with my friend, Kathryn.   We have a one room kitchen/living room with a steep ladder stair to the hay loft where we sleep under the eaves.    Photovoltaic panels run the fridge-freezer.  We cook on a calor gas stove.  We rely on torches for light when it eventually gets dark but it’s easier to turn in early.   A single self-closing push tap provides well water for drinking (we boil it, then filter it to remove the grit) but for washing we fetch rain water from the big tank in the cobbled yard and heat it on the stove.  A door from the kitchen leads down a dark corridor to the compost toilet – we have the only accommodation on the island with an inside loo!  Staying on Enlli means accepting that you have to empty your own compost toilet bucket every day.

No internet, no phone, no news(papers).

We explore.  There are about 150 seals around the shore – pale, dark or dappled Atlantic greys.  They swim languidly towards us, pop their heads out of the water and regard us curiously.  Others drape themselves over the rocks doing banana impressions.  They snort, belch and sing.  A giant black bull seal snarls at a rival who comes too close.  A nesting oyster-catcher, nerves on a knife edge, shrieks repeatedly as we walk over the short turf woven with pink thrift.  A small group of birds call chack, chack, rise and fall in a fluttery flight with black wing primaries splayed out like fingers – choughs with coral red beaks and legs.  We walk the one track south to north, from Y Cafn, where the slipway is, to the ruined tower of the old abbey.  Then up to the chapel and the chapel house.  I am fascinated by Lord Newborough’s model estate buildings (built in the 1870s): the semi-detached farmhouses and solid farm buildings.  Each walled farmyard has its barns, pigsties, hay loft, wooden threshing floor, and a chimneyed stone hut for boiling pig swill.   Swallows and house martins find shelter for their nests.

The night spirits of the island move in from the ocean: shearwater after shearwater cackled and laughed.
   (Brenda Chamberlain Tide-Race)

We go on a night walk with Steve, the Bird Observatory warden, to see the Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.  We leave at 11.30pm and walk with our torches to the valley at the North End.  To me the sound of the birds is more like a shed full of turkeys and the noise goes on through the darkness.  The “Manxies”,  like the whirring chirring storm petrels, only come in off the sea to their nests at night to avoid predators.  The birds are lit up by our torch beams as they swish through the air and crash down near their nesting holes.  Steve tells us there are an estimated 22,000 shearwaters on the island.  We watch the delicate process of ringing the birds’ legs and Steve invites us to smell a storm petrel.  Salty? Fishy? No, more like a vintage clothes shop.  It’s 2am when we get back to our hay loft.

The glamour of their names’s belied
by old-lady browns and sprinkled grey,
trimmings of tatty fur and faded
paisley.
   Christine Evans “5: The Moth Trap” from Burning the Candle

Steffan carefully lifts the lid off the moth trap.  Inside are old egg trays.  He gently lifts out the top tray.  On it is a beautiful moth – white and furry and marked with dark patches, like the trim on a robe of state. “White ermine”, says Steffan.  In turn we each pick out an egg tray.  It’s like a lucky dip.  The names are a poem – yellow underwing, heart and dart, marbled coronet, plum tortrix, ingrailed clay, grey dagger, bright-line dark-eye.  Mark records the names in a notebook, drawing lines like little caterpillars by those names which occur more than once.   “Where do you get your funding?” asks one of the group.  Various sources, answer the field workers, including the Welsh Government and the European Union.  What happens if we leave the EU? “I’ll be out of a job” is the reply.

... The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
    Shakespeare The Tempest

In the school room hangs a felt cloak, made from sheep’s wool by a former island artist-in-residence, Claire Barber.  It looks as if it is a magic cloak, Prospero’s cloak.   We are listening to writer Christine Evans, who lives on the island, telling us about the island’s history and its inhabitants and reading some of her poems.  Her enthusiasm and knowledge is evident and we are swept along by her words.   She tells us about settlement and depopulation, about Lord Newborough (whose relatives owned the island from 1538 to 1972), about the brief ownership by Michael Pearson and about the formation of the Bardsey Island Trust which managed to find £100,000 to buy the island in 1979.  In the audience is Dafydd Thomas, who was the first trust officer to run the island (1980-1999).  Christine emphasises that the island must not become a museum.  I realise what a delicate task it must be to try to balance different interests on the island: the bird observatory with its concern for wildlife recording and conservation, farming, preserving the archaeological heritage, Trinity House (the lighthouse), income from letting out the houses, the use of alternative technology, art (there have been several artists in residence over the years) and spirituality (pilgrims still come to the island). 

Is it time to call back
to the small field civilisation
begun in the small
people the giants deposed?
   R S Thomas ‘Minor’

What is the appeal of staying on Ynys Enlli? 
Landscape, wildlife, a sense of community.
Not escaping but re-connecting - with the natural world, with one’s own thoughts, feelings, creativity.
The gift of time – to think, talk, read, write, walk, observe.


My notebook is full.  A week is not enough.

www.bardsey.org
www.bbfo.org.uk

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

THE ISLAND IN THE CURRENT

Bardsey Island lies just off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales.  Its English name is derived from a Viking warrior, Bardr, but its Welsh name, Ynys Elli, which translates at the island in the current, is more descriptive.  The sea is squeezed through the narrow sound between the island and the mainland and crossing is impossible if the weather conditions are unfavourable.  There is no ferry service.  The island is off-grid though I've heard it is possible to pick up a mobile phone signal from Ireland.

The main (English) literary associations with the island are the artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain (author of the strange memoir Tide-race), the poet Christine Evans (whose beautiful book Bardsey - with photographs by Wolf Marloh - is outstanding and inspirational) and R S Thomas (allusions in poems, member of the island trust).  Many other writers from Wales and further afield have visited the island, or, in the case of Roy Campbell, claim to have done so (some cast doubt on his story of rowing the doctor over in a storm to attend a woman about to give birth).  Alas, I am ignorant of Welsh writing about the island.  I assume there is quite a bit as Ynys Enlli is in the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales.

I've been twice as a day visitor.  The first visit was when I was eight years old.  I was entranced and trace my fascination (?obsession) with islands to that day.  Afterwards I said to my mother that I would like to stay on the island for a week.  "Don't be ridiculous," she said,  "you'd be bored stiff."

My second visit was with my two sons who were eight years old.  We repeated the same walk I had done at their age - along the island track to the Abbey Ruins (where we ate our sandwiches) and back along the shore to the lighthouse.  When we got back to the mainland I gutted and cooked the mackerel the boatman had caught for us.  The cat enjoyed the remains.

But a week's visit has been on my "bucket list" for years.  On Saturday (weather permitting)  I'm going, leaving the dog and the husband to look after each other at home.  I do not intend to be bored.  But when I get back I will probably be boring everyone else with a detailed account of my stay.