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Oldenburg - A Lively Crossing to Lundy

By Alun Llewelyn

Lundy Island’s supply vessel MV Oldenburg has begun her 2006 season of sailings after a break from the worst of the winter weather and a period of overhaul.

Seeing the Oldenburg’s timetable featured once again on the island’s website brought back memories of some of last year’s final sailings when our family stayed on Lundy in October 2005.

We travelled down to Lundy’s mainland  port of Bideford through the gales that swept South Wales and the West country of England. My wife Rhian was hoping against hope that the whole crazy idea would be called off while our children Guto, Iwan and Heledd were oblivious to the weather, but very keen to know when we would arrive at somewhere where they could eat.

Fish and Chips at Bideford and settling in to our comfortable Kingsdown B&B helped to restore the spirits, and a walk along the quay brought us to the MV Oldenburg rocking gently at her berth as she prepared for the following day’s sailing.

Daybreak on Saturday saw us back on the quayside, with the vessel’s 4 ton crane busy loading passengers’ luggage along with all sorts of essential supplies for the island. This was the last week of scheduled sailings before the winter, and the Lundy Company and the island’s managers the Landmark Trust were obviously keen to fit as much cargo as possible into the hold on the final voyages.

 We settled in the wood-panelled saloon in corner seats overlooking the foredeck as the final items of cargo were winched aboard. Our young daughter was particularly fascinated by a large sheep carried in a trailer as deck cargo. Actually, it was a ram crossing to visit Lundy’s special breed of organically-raised sheep, and he was looking pretty pleased with himself until we hit the open sea. This was the first time that I’d seen a ram turn green at the jowls as he sank further and further to the floor of the trailer.

While the voyage down the river Torridge was very pleasant, past the Appledore shipyard whose future remains uncertain, all passengers-  and not just the ram- were acutely aware when we crossed the bar to the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic beyond.

The previous day’s storms had abated somewhat but the long swell made for a lively crossing from the Devon coast.

Many passengers, including members of the family, lay down in the saloon or just held on to the furniture. The rest of us explored the Oldenburg and enjoyed the coastal views and the experience of an autumn crossing to a remote island.

MV Oldenburg was built in 1958 for German Railways’ ferry service to the Friesian Island and Heligoland, and was acquired by the Landmark Trust in 1986 as Lundy’s supply vessel following the demise of Campbell’s White Funnel Fleet.

She is a handsome 295 ton ship capable of carrying almost 300 passengers in addition to a sizeable cargo capacity. Wooden decks, polished brass, and varnished wood panelling is much in evidence on this very traditional vessel.

The combination of passenger vessel and cargo carrier made Oldenburg a very different experience to family day trips to Lundy from Swansea by the Balmoral under Campbell’s and Waverley Excursions ownership, and this was the first time that we had actually stayed on the island.

We were a mixed bunch on the crossing – late-season day-trippers, staying visitors, islanders returning from the mainland, and a group of musicians with a flask of spirits and a menacing Jolly Roger tied to the ship’s rails.

A word with the Purser and the Master revealed that a disturbed weather pattern was developing out in the Atlantic and that our stay on the island could see some spectacular weather variations, but they were still hopeful of being able to cross to collect us the following Tuesday, provided that the prevailing south-westerlies allowed them to land!

After a couple of hours Lundy gradually transformed from a grey-blue smudge to a long mass of granite cliffs, heather and bracken. We moored at the sturdy and relatively new wooden jetty below the South Lighthouse and the Marisco Castle. Until recent years passengers and their belongings had to be landed by motor launch, as the island supply boats and Campbell’s White Funnel Fleet steamers anchored in the bay.

As we prepared to disembark a glance through the saloon windows across the jetty saw a sizeable group of seals and any number of seabirds on the rocks of Rat Island nearby. We had definitely arrived at Lundy!

While we walked up the steep unmade road from the landing beach to the village, the island workers and Oldenburg’s crew began the task of unloading cargo and luggage. Despite its’ remote setting, Lundy has a quite sophisticated and very helpful system of preparing residential accommodation and ensuring that all the guests’ bags arrive at the right mansion, cottage, shed, lighthouse or castle!

One of the really nice differences from a day-trip was seeing the ship preparing to leave at the end of the afternoon and not have to worry about being on board on time. Lundy was now our home, and for the next few days we were islanders.

The focus of island life is the small village including St. Helena’s Church, the Marisco Tavern, the splendidly stocked island shop, and a Post Office with its’ unique Puffin currency stamps.

Our own accommodation at The Quarters looked like a shed in a field, but inside it was very warm, comfortable and well equipped, and it had wondeful views across the channel to Hartland Point and the north Devon coast. Other accommodation choices included historic Millcombe House, the keep of Marisco Castle, the Old Light, several cottages, a former Schoolroom and the mysterious Tibbetts Coastguard Lookout.

The day after landing we spotted the Jolly Roger from the Oldenburg tied to the fence of an old fisherman’s cottage.

Lundy has no tarred roads or street lamps, and the house lights all go off at midnight when the generators are cut. Torches and gas lamps are the norm after late-night chats at the Marisco Tavern, which has a fine selection of ales and meals.

It is surprising that when you spend the best part of four days on an island just three miles long by half a mile wide you still don’t seem to have enough time to see everything – from castles to lighthouses, seabirds, seals, ponies, goats, and coastguard batteries. We had all sorts of weather from storms, rain, mist and hail to bright sunshine and clear starlit nights, and stunning views of both sides of the channel with its’ innumerable ships, lighthouses and buoys.

On the Tuesday of our return, there was considerable doubt whether MV Oldenburg could cross in the stormy weather, and a helicopter was on standby at Hartland Point to pick up around 60 departing guests.

However, word came during the morning that she was on her way. Through binoculars we could see a spume of spray like an angry whale, and gradually a black and white hull became visible as the trusty supply vessel tacked her way across the channel before a late landing at the jetty.

New arrivals and day-passengers told of hanging on for dear life on the crossing, and MV Oldenburg’s gangway blew off the jetty to be recovered later by divers.

As the crew worked the cargo at the jetty, we only had few more hours on the island, and we enjoyed our last visit to the Tavern before walking back down to the landing beach to see the seals play on the rocks and in the bay.

MV Oldenburg left a bit late from the island, and although improved since the morning the stormy weather made for a dramatic crossing. We were now crossing to Ilfracombe and arrived in gathering darkness to an attractive harbour scene and a respite from the gale in the Channel, before a coach transfer back to Bideford.

We knew that our idyllic weekend was over when we headed back to Wales and stopped at Motorway Services on the M5. The insipid coffee and indifferent service was such a contrast to the friendliness of our favourite island! 

  • For further information about accommodation and crossings to Lundy Island, see the island’s website

Alun Llewelyn








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