Sometimes you don’t have to look too far for a coastal adventure, as RACHEL MEAD confesses as she ‘discovers’ the island of Steep Holm.
There are times when one feels that announcing a gap in one’s knowledge is setting oneself up for a spot of eyebrow-raising judgement. However, in case there are other fellow ‘not-in-the-knowers’, I am holding my hands up and admitting I have only this year ‘discovered’ that Somerset has an island.
Now, with my confession out in the open, let me introduce you to this very special ancient outcrop of rock which has been inhabited on and off (for those who knew it was there) for over 8,000 years. Meet my most recent acquaintance…the island of Steep Holm.
When you choose to step ashore on Somerset’s ‘secret’ island, you’ll be committing from the off because once the boat drops you on The Beach, you’ll be waving goodbye to your ride home for 12 hours. The tidal range here is huge – it is in fact the second largest in the world. So, depending on tide times, your day is likely to begin early (we set sail at 7am) and you won’t be back until the same hour that evening.
For the adventurers amongst you, you’ll feel as though you are channelling your inner Captain Cook, or William Dampier if we’re keeping to our Somerset theme, because you can opt to explore the island blissfully solo. For those of you who enjoy some camaraderie whilst stepping out onto new and exciting lands, then knowledgeable company is on hand in the guise of the volunteering team from the Kenneth Memorial Trust, who own and help maintain the island.
Steep Holm was purchased as a living memorial to the broadcaster and conservation campaigner, Kenneth Allsop in the mid-1970s and since then the volunteers of the trust have been sympathetically restoring the history of the island whilst preserving the unique landscape, flora and fauna for explorers like you and me.
Your day begins bright and early in Weston-super-Mare, where you’ll meet your fellow island-hoppers at the Knightstone Harbour Slipway before climbing aboard the Bay Island Voyages craft. The excitement starts here, because not only is your mode of travel a speedy RIB, it’s one of those sporty ones which invites you to sit astride your seat as if you’re riding a motorbike. With the sea air whipping through your hair, you’ll be across the six nautical miles in about 20 minutes and your day will have begun with a real adrenaline rush.
As you disembark, you are greeted with the remains of the old inn, where the landlord served many a tax-free beverage in the 1800s, before you pick up the zig-zag track of the old incline railway used by soldiers when Steep Holm was fortified during the Second World War. This is the first hint of historical military occupation on the island, but as you explore further you will realise that a vast majority of the defences are Victorian from when Steep Holm was also a crucial link in the set of four Palmerston forts protecting the Bristol Channel from French attack.
On digging even further back into the archaeological surveys and finds, it is believed the Vikings were using Steep Holm as a secure base with which to raid the mainland in 870AD, plus there have been countless Roman artefacts uncovered which suggest the Romans had also set up home here for quite some time too. But fear not, you have 12 hours to uncover all the mysteries and marvels from Steep Holm’s deep past and as you reach the top of the island at 256 feet above sea level, you’re not far from the museum, and The Barracks where you can pore over plenty of books and informative displays.
Converted into the Visitor Centre, the old barracks is your base camp for the day, and it is here where you’ll be able to chat to the knowledgeable volunteers, enjoy your packed breakfast, lunch, and tea, and take cover from any poor weather, or from the gulls.
The gulls are very well established here and will, without fail, make a lasting impression on your trip. If you’re a keen birdwatcher and you want to experience a vivid insight into gull behaviour then make sure you time your visit to coincide with breeding season during the summer months.
The very cute and very fluffy chicks fearlessly toddle around, but what is also crucial to know is that gulls are incredibly protective parents so you’ll need to walk around with a brolly as a defensive mechanism against the occasional swoop, or more likely ‘poop’. If you’ve brought your binoculars along then other notable spots are cliff-top cormorants, water rails (who are a bizarre sighting as they normally prefer the Somerset Levels) and the superstar crowd pleaser (and logo for the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust charity) the peregrine falcon.
By now you’re probably realising a trip to Steep Holm is not a standard walk in the park. It is very much an island which is celebrated as a nature reserve and bird sanctuary whilst also being recognised as a key Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its rare plants such as the Mediterranean Wild Peony. It is rugged, in places it is overgrown, and the facilities are somewhat rustic, but this is where its charm and authenticity prevail.
For the naturalists amongst you, a day trip is the VIP ticket, it’s the front row seat at a nature documentary screening. For the lovers of our coastline, you’ll get unique views of the Somerset and Welsh mainlands in addition to tangible insights into the workings of this exclusive 50-acre island.
Steep Holm is one of those gems which deserves more of a spotlight, and yet due to the very nature of its location, it is able to maintain a sense of exclusivity. It is without doubt a privilege to be one of those few who have ventured across the Bristol Channel to walk amongst her histories and current inhabitants. Humankind very much comes second place here – the island is home foremost to the birds, and I do confess, gull poop and all, that after making acquaintance with Somerset’s secret isle there is a certain magnetism about it which ensures I’ll be back to learn a little more.
It seems there was a bit of a loophole in the law when it came to the selling of alcohol on Steep Holm during the 1800s.
Although the island falls under Somerset’s county jurisdiction, the landlord of the inn believed he was outside the mainland laws of licensing due to the fact that he was six miles off the coast.
He managed to serve drinks for 50 years before being summoned to court. Once the law finally caught up with him, he realised he’d need to relocate his business. He didn’t go far though, just a short boat trip across to the Welsh isle of Flat Holm, Cheers!
The Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust
Best known as a broadcaster, writer and environmentalist in the 1960s, Kenneth Allsop was a regular face on the BBC’s Tonight programme. Steep Holm island was bought as a living memorial to his name and is maintained as a nature reserve and bird sanctuary.
The island survives on monetary donations and the incredible gift of time from the volunteers. The team are always keen to hear from potential volunteers who can help with maintenance tasks as well as helping out in the café, shop or fundraising.