Back in October 2017 I chartered a small fishing boat called The Dale Princess from the tiny bay of Martins Haven in South Pembrokeshire and travelled across the choppy waters to Skomer Island, embarking on the first trip of what would become my new project, The Gatekeepers.
Having grown up in Pembrokeshire, Skomer had always been a place that everyone would talk about; this tiny jewel in the Irish Sea filled with history, wildlife, and thousands upon thousands of puffins. An escape from the modern world and all the challenges that life throws at you, but yet was an oasis that I had found myself having never actually visited.
Whilst working on my last project, David’s House, I met with various members of St Davids and spoke to them about their experiences living in the UK’s smallest city. During one such meeting, I met with Malcolm Grey, the coxswain of St Davids Lifeboat who told me about a couple who lived out on Skomer Island all year round. This was something that I couldn’t stop thinking about. How could a person possibly cope living in such a remote place ALL YEAR with just one other person for company? What did they get up to when the tourists weren’t there? What did they do if they ran out of food? Or if something went wrong in their home? What did they do if they had an argument with one another?? These were questions that would constantly be on my mind, and were questions that I knew I needed to answer.
I began to research about Ed & Bee and their lives on Skomer Island, and began to immerse myself in research on the lives of island wardens and this alternative world that they inhabit. After 3 months of research and planning, it was finally time for me to board the Dale Princess, and head out across the open water to Skomer, and when I arrive I was certainly not disappointed.
When I arrived, I was greeted by Ed as he made his way down the steep path to the harbor in the old farm tractor that they used to transport equipment and supplies across the island, before we made our way back to the wardens house to unload my bags. Within 30 minutes of me arriving on the island I was strapped into a harness and following Ed & Bee across ‘The Neck’ to a section of the island that day visitors weren’t allowed to go, before abseiling down the cliff onto the rocky bay below. For me, this was something completely exhilarating and unique. But for them, it was just another day in the office as they went about recording their daily seal log.
For the rest of the day I explored the island with Ed, walking along the entire coastline of the tiny island as we talked about some of the landmarks, whilst excitedly pulling his binoculars to his face from time to time and exclaiming about a certain bird that flew overhead as I nodded along and looked up blindly having no idea what he was excited about. Whilst we walked, Ed told me about how the backup generator had broken in their house meaning they had no means of getting fresh water, so instead had been ferrying buckets full of water from the well in the middle of the island and carrying it down to the house to cook and clean. It made me realize how versatile you have to be to live somewhere like this, and how utterly useless I was with things like that.
That night I was introduced to the only other human beings on the island, a research scholar from Cambridge University, and 2 volunteers known simply as ‘The Ladies’. Skomer relies heavily on mainland volunteers who come over to the island at the end of the summer season to help restore and repair the islands buildings and infrastructure in order withstand the harsh winter weather. Every year, ‘The Ladies’, sisters, who in their own words “come to the island to escape their husbands”, visit Skomer and spend 2-3 weeks helping Ed & Bee prepare the island for winter.
For the next few days I spent my time exploring the island and wandering across this empty landscape, in awe of the beauty of the place. However, on what was supposed to be my last day on the island, the weather took a turn for the worse, and the small boat that was supposed to be coming over to the island to collect me was unable to get out of the harbor and so I found myself stuck there for another 3 days. Whilst I had anticipated that there was a possibility of this happening, I hadn’t fully prepared or expected it to become a reality, and I began to get a sense of what life is like there when there is really no way off and you are really on your own.
I had run out of film by that point so there was no means of me making any more photographs, so instead I found myself being completely engrossed in the space – something that I later became to really appreciate.
Luckily, a few days later The Dale Princess was able to make its way out of the harbor and over to the island to collect me, and my time there was over. However, shortly after I left, Storm Ophelia hit and devastated the island, killing 75% of the seal population that Ed & Bee had been so closely monitoring for the past year, whilst also ripping the roof off their house.
My trip to Skomer really opened my eyes to this alternative way of living, and made me appreciate how much I take things for granted in my comfortable modern flat in London. Whilst Ed & Bee aren’t completely in the stone ages – they still have electricity, computers and 4G internet – the way they deal with the daily challenges that they are faced and the world that they inhabit is something truly to be admired. It’s a quieter life, a simpler life, but I don’t think it is quite the life for me.