Alex Ingram | Photographer

The Gull, The Leek & The Bitches

Last month I visited 2 different islands along the South Western coast of the UK, as I continued to work on my ongoing series The Gatekeepers. 

For the first of these 2 trips I visited Flat Holm, the tiny 630m wide island in the middle of the Bristol Channel that is inhabited by just one full time resident, the islands warden Mat. To get onto the island, I set off on an exhilarating 30 minute journey through the locks at Cardiff Harbour and then out across the open seas on a small rib to Flat Holm. This project has seen me travel all over the country visiting some of the most remote islands in the UK, but this tiny island is by far the smallest. With an area of just 0.35 km², Flat Holm offers the unique opportunity to stand in the middle of the island and get a full 360 degree view out to sea. 

Whilst Mat is Flat Holm’s only full-time resident, he does however rarely spend a day on the island alone. When I arrived I was greeted by Mat and his girlfriend Jen who was volunteering on the island over the summer months alongside the 2 other seasonal volunteers, Chris and Sam. 

After loading my kit onto the back of the quad bike and driving to the wardens accommodation where I would be spending the week, Mat took me for a tour around the island and showed me some of the old batteries that were built by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in preparation of a French invasion. Whilst this never actually happened, the batteries were later turned into anti aircraft and naval guns spots, which were used regularly during WW2 to shoot down attacking Nazi forces and acted as the first line of defence to the UK. Like other islands around the UK, their strategic location made them the perfect military defence, something that later lead them to be referred to as The Gatekeepers of the UK. 

As we continued round the island, Matt took me through the gull colony which takes up around 50% of the islands size. With 2063 breading pairs of lesser black gulls, Flat Holm is one of the largest gull colonies in the UK. As we walked through we were under constant attack from the Gulls as they dive bombed us from above as they tried to scare us away and protect their chicks.

When we eventually made it through the colony we met Jen Chris and Sam inside the Gull and Leak - the islands tiny pub and the most southerly pub in Wales. We then spent the next few hours talking about life on the island whilst playing pool, table tennis and drinking Tomos Watkin beer and Welsh scrumpy cider before heading back to the farmhouse to make pizzas. 

Over the next few days I spent my time exploring this tiny island and helping Matt and the volunteers as they went about their daily routines. Situated in the middle of the Bristol Channel, Flat Holm has the second highest tidal range in the world, with an amazing 13m difference between high tide and low tide. That meant that on the evening of my fourth day on Flat Holm, I had the amazing opportunity of being able to climb down onto the seabed and walk around the majority of the island at low tide, which offered the a whole new and unique perspective off the island. 

The following day I was meant to be leaving Flat Holm, but I awoke to an email telling me that due to 38mph winds and very rough seas, the boat I was due to go back on was unable to come and collect me for at least another 2 days! As I walked down to the beach that morning I was shocked by the amount of plastic that had been washed in from the sea by the strong winds and currents. The beach was completely filled with plastic and debris, and I spent the morning clearing the beach. In the space of 2 hours I filled a staggering 4 bin bags full of it! As I walked round the island that day I started to notice more and more bits of plastic that had found its way onto the island. A lot of it had been eaten by gulls that had mistaken it for food, which had then been regurgitated by the birds as their bodies try to digest it. Many birds die with stomachs filled with it. I found it incredibly depressing to see the impact that plastic has on this beautiful place. 

On my final evening on the island, we all headed down to one of the beaches on the western side of the island and spent the evening drinking beer and making a bonfire as we sat and watched the sun set and the waves crash against the shoreline. For such a small island, Flat Holm had a lot of character, and the friendship that Mat and the volunteers had formed over their time there was really beautiful. It was such a peaceful environment and they all made me feel incredibly welcome from the offset, but one thing is for certain - I won’t miss being dive bombed by gulls every 2 minutes! 

The following week I set out on the next leg of my island journey and ventured out to Ramsey Island on the Pembrokeshire coastline. Having grown up in Pembrokeshire and spending the majority of my childhood on the beach and out in the water, Ramsey Island was a place that I have always been aware of. In fact, I was even able to see it from my bedroom window at my childhood home! However, despite all this I had never actually set foot on the island, and so, as I set out from St Justinian’s, crossed the water that I knew all too well and through The Bitches, I went out with a real sense of excitement. 

When I arrived onto Ramsey I was greeted by the islands wardens Greg, Lisa & their dog Dewi, along with the 3 volunteers, Pete, Alys & Julianne. I had met Lisa the previous year when I spent a week on Skokholm, another of Pembrokeshire’s 3 inhabited islands. Unlike Flat Holm, which is an absolutely tiny island with very few visitors, Ramsey is nearly 8 times as large and as such, around 80 visitors are able to visit the island each day during the summer months. 

Once I had dropped my luggage off at the volunteers accommodation at the base of Carn Ysgubor where I would be staying, I went with Alys and Julianne along the coastline to the north eastern side of the island to weigh manx shearwater chicks. This was the first time I’d ever seen them in person, and holy shit they are cute!! 

Alys told me about the nearby island Grassholm that the island wardens also manage, which is home to over 80000 gannets, and appears completely white when viewed from the sea due to the sheer volume of birds on the tiny 0.11km² island. The wardens visit Grassholm twice a year to monitor the islands wildlife. Once when the island is inhabited by the gannets to conduct research and logs into the birds, and once when they have left, when they go over to clear up the thousands of pieces of plastic that are brought onto the island from the sea by the birds. 

Later that day, I went and met with Greg at the wardens house, who told me that a huge storm was coming in and that I would have to leave Ramsey the following day otherwise there was the chance I would be stuck on the island for another week. Normally I would stick it out and stay on the island until the weather cleared and the boat was able to collect me, but as I was shooting a campaign in Devon the following week, I couldn’t take the risk.

That evening I climbed up to the islands highest point, Carn Llundain with Pete & Julianne who told me about their time on the island. As we climbed, we could see the storm that Greg had warned us about coming in across the Irish Sea, and as we reached the summit we felt the full force of the storm as the winds battered the island and the rain hammered down. After a rather eventful decent down from the top of the mountain, we all spent the evening sat inside the small bungalow that we were staying in and sheltered from the storm. 

The following morning I woke up early to make the most of my day on the island before the boat came over from St Justinian’s to pick me up at 4 o’clock. As I walked out the front door of the bungalow I was greeted by a group of red deer that were foraging in the shrubbery outside. 

Whilst my trip to Ramsey was unfortunately cut short, it was amazing to experience and spend the night on this incredible place that I have seen from afar my entire life. I am certainly planning on returning to the island in the near future to spend more time with the wardens and explore what there lives are like living in this beautiful island oasis so close to the mainland, and will hopefully be able to take a trip with them out across the water and over to Grassholm.

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