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A glittering jewel in the region's sparkling crown

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 01, 2012

  • Lundy Island is a place of tranquillity, where people come to walk, breathe in the fresh air and admire the abundant wildlife. Below right: Getting to the island requires either sea legs or a head for helicopters

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When King Charles I toured the South West in 1634 he chose to rest his head at a recently built inn at the centre of the prosperous wool town of Chulmleigh.

A night in the same room is the closest most of us will ever get to being treated like royalty – and the huge original Royal House of Stuart coat of arms on the wall above your head adds a special touch.

Sam Moysey, a former Bristol and Taunton police sergeant, bought the thatched Barnstaple Arms in 1995 and immediately began refurbishing it. He changed its name to the Old Courthouse after discovering justice was once seen to be done there.

Today, Sam and his wife Paddy offer a warm welcome and high standard B&B accommodation, fine food and drink – including a selection of well kept local ales – and a local information service second to none.

Pretty Chulmleigh, roughly half way between Exeter and Barnstaple, is a quieter and less significant place than it was in its heady royal days.

The wool trade dwindled and fewer people called after builders of the main road (the A377) and the railway line chose to bypass the town.

But its mixture of quiet narrow lanes, huge merchant's houses and tiny colourful cottages still offers plenty to today's visitor.

Just down the street from the Old Courthouse you will find a variety of prosperous looking shops, a couple of restaurants and the 16th century Red Lion Hotel.

A few years ago during modernisation work at the pub, a glass time capsule was discovered that contained five newspapers and various fascinating bits of paperwork left by two builders who were working there in April 1897. You can read all about it.

The huge parish church of St Mary Magdalene seems at odds with the size and importance of Chulmleigh today. It and its grand grounds, where an hour passes quickly when the sun shines, dates mainly from the 14th century. The church boasts a number of substantial stained glass windows dedicated to the great and good of yesteryear, but the star of its show is its wonderfully ornate 16th century carved wooden rood screen which extends across the width of the 50ft nave.

Chulmleigh is ideally sited as a base for exploring much of the surrounding area.

Exmoor and Dartmoor are easy day trip destinations, as are the shopping centres of Exeter, Barnstaple, Tiverton and Taunton.

North Devon's exceptional beaches (Saunton Sands, Croyde Bay, Putsborough and Woolacombe) can be reached in less than an hour. And a bit further afield, but still within easy driving distance, is the pretty seaside town of Ilfracombe.

We visited the latter as it's one of two departure ports (the other being Bideford) for trips to the island of Lundy aboard the MS Oldenburg.

Lundy, which gets its name from the Norse words Lundi and ey for Puffin Island, is a granite outcrop ten miles off the coast where the Atlantic meets the Bristol Channel.

There are no roads, no cars (actually there is a Land Rover which is used to transport luggage to and from the boat, a fire truck and at least one tractor), there's no doctor, no dentist, no TV, no organised entertainment and, although most buildings do have electricity, it is generated locally and is switched off between midnight and 6am.

It's a place where people come for peace and quiet, to walk, breathe fresh air, read books, stare from steep, rugged cliffs across the water – next stop America – and admire the varied and abundant wildlife…

The island's two square miles are grazed by Sika deer, Lundy ponies, goats, rabbits and Soay sheep.

Birdlife abounds in its variety of habitats – from 100 metre high cliffs to lush grassland and rough heathland – with some 140 species recorded every year.

Puffins, Manx shearwaters and more than 2,000 guillemots are among ten species of seabirds that make their homes here – many now thriving since rats were eradicated in 2004.

The island is also home to about 60 breeding pairs of grey seals. Dolphins and basking sharks are frequent visitors.

And if unique species float your boat, it's also the only place in the world where you can find the Lundy cabbage and its resident beetle.

There's just one pub, The Marisco Tavern (named after a 13th century pirate family), but the good news is it never locks its doors, serves great food (look out for the Lundy lamb, Exmoor beef and venison) and a selection of fine Westcountry ales.

It is the hub of the island – acting as its reception, booking office and problem desk, watering hole, restaurant, meeting place and information centre.

Historic artefacts (including some salvaged from the island's 200-plus wrecks), walking and wildlife guides, climbing and diving rules, and works of art can all be found there.

Man has left his mark on Lundy since the Mesolithic era (between 8,500 and 4,000 years BC). Since then the island has served as a lair for smugglers and pirates, a penal colony and a royal warren.

It is a magnet for scuba divers – aquatic life is rich and varied and ten of the island's shipwrecks are recognised dive sites; walkers and climbers; it has a 13th century castle; and is home to the world's oldest private postal service.

After lunch in the pub and a look round the nearby small shop – a lifeline to those staying in one of the island's 23 self-catering cottages or at the campsite – we wandered across to the west coast and the now disused 96ft high Old Light.

Built in 1820 at a cost of £36,000, it is the oldest of the island's three lighthouses and was once Britain's highest.

We climbed the 147 steps to find a couple of handily placed deckchairs. The fantastic 360 degree views made the effort worthwhile.

If you visit Lundy, you'll notice your fellow travellers are all wearing sturdy walking boots and warm clothes. You would be well advised to follow suit as the terrain is rough and the weather fickle.

And another tip: plan your day. Bearing in mind a "day trip" only consists of about three-and-a-half hours on the island (we left Ilfracombe at 10am, arrived shortly before noon and were back on board the Oldenburg by 3.30pm) you don't have a lot of time.

But we will next time, soon. When we stay for longer.

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