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Bardsey Island Observational Research Project


Aug 7, 2010. On the way to Enlli. The journey is a little choppy but only enough to be fun.

Journey to Bardsey

Journey to Bardsey

I am trussed up to the nines in fleece, waterproof coat and overtrousers then a lifejacket on top.

My cameras, recording equipment and mics are packed in waterproof cases. At least I hope they are waterproof – we used them for experimental testing a few years ago which included filming them as we sank them in the sea, dropped them off cliffs and blew them up. We kept the cases that not only survived the testing but which also kept their contents – a single uncooked egg – dry and intact. Hopefully they still have the same durable qualities now they contain all my most treasured possessions.

A lot of what is treasured in there is power, in the form of rechargeable batteries, power packs, and a solar charger. I confess to also having some normal alkali batteries in case the aforementioned don’t work! I know, not very green. Hopefully I won’t use them. It will be another seven days before I see a mains socket again!

My daughter (fifteen and also a writer) is coming with me on this trip. Between us have a dry bag of clothes. It’s called a dry bag because hopefully that is what it will stay inside. It is old however and while I can report that it had done good service over the years keeping backpacks afloat while crossing rivers and sleeping bags dry on camping trips, it has also served as the permanent storage for all our camping kit in the back of our Landrover which doubles as a shed. So it has seen better days and if the seaspray gets in there’s no tumble drier on the island to get our stuff dry again.

We also have 2 plastic boxes of food. There is no shop there although we can probably buy fresh veg and eggs from the farmer’s wife.

I also have a tripod and a walking stick, which I have attached to the dry bag with a bungee. I hope it stays attached. It will be hard to film without the tripod and it will be harder to get around the island without a hiking stick.

The boathouse

The view of the island is hidden from the back of the boat as we approach it, so my first sight is of the lighthouse just moments before we approach the cove where the boat lands, you can’t really call it a harbour. The red and white striped lighthouse is on low land at the end of the island. In high tide and storms the island separates into two as the water rushes in across the salty isthmus. We spot seals in the water as a boy with no shirt and tanned skin paddles past in a canoe.

We don’t exactly dock on the island as the boat drives onto a trailer which is then pulled up onto the land by tractor. When we climb down the ladder we are officially on Bardsey Island.

A handful of people are gathered on the sand to meet the boat. When the tractor has pulled us far enough up the beach they launch into singing Happy Birthday for one of the passengers. Everyone knows each other or so it seems. Are we the only ones who haven’t been here before or who don’t know anyone? We wait patiently as the farmer’s children transfer everyone’s bags over the side of the boat into the tractor trailer. The farmer greets us then asks if we know which way to walk. I have studied the map a little bit so I know our cottage is at the furthest end of the path.

We start walking. Eventually we find the track. What looked like it would be a ten minute walk takes longer as we are swaddled in waterproofs and carrying the camera cases, which seem to get heavier moment by moment.

The view down the track. Lighthouse in distance

We arrive at the cottage before the tractor which is dropping off the luggage at each house. There are seven houses. The children tell us that we travel light. This is a compliment I think. Or perhaps we are a curiosity. Most of the people have a lot of bags, boxes, parcels, cases, suitcases, holdalls etc. I wonder if they are thinking we don’t have enough food for a week here.

Our cottage on Bardsey

I wonder if we have enough clothes and bedding. The instructions were a little vague. We have brought two sleeping bag liners from our camping equipment and a pillowcase each. The instructions said that blankets were supplied. My mother in law suggested however that we take a sleeping bag and thinking maybe she knows something that we don’t, I do take one. But only one. We shall see.

It’s a delightful collage with four bedrooms, three upstairs and one downstairs. We pile all our stuff into the downstairs bedroom as we can’t wait another second to get our waterproofs and coats off.

The kitchen is large and basic, little more than a room compared to a modern kitchen. The counter tops are slate shelves. The fridge runs on gas which is clear from the profound smell of propane in the air which hits you as soon as you enter the house.

Our delightfully basic kitchen

The dining room – or perhaps this is more of a parlour – has a small wood burning stove, set in front of an old fireplace. This original fireplace range is black, shiny and will have seen many years of use. I can almost hear the families that were raised here around this hearth. There is a long table with a high-backed wooden bench along the wall and dining chairs on the opposite side.


Parlour and Fireplace

One place at the head of the table facing the fire and with it’s back to the high window looks imposing. I wonder, seeing this chair, if I should’t have convinced my husband to stay behind on this trip. This seat – his seat – will remain empty to show that I miss him.

Lolfa - Lounge

Ystafell Fyw - A room to live in

The living room is cozy and yet the central focus is the mantel which is commanding. It is high, higher than me, definitely this would be a man’s mantelpiece. Children of days gone by might have spent their entire childhoods wondering what was up there, probably never seeing, never touching until it was time for them to raise their own families in this house. Surely it would have been the family bible that was the most important object up there. I wonder what other treasured possessions handed down through those families might have lived in pride of place high up on that shelf to be only taken down for high days and holy days and sentimental moments. I am sure I can feel the house warming to me now. I want to live here, not just visit. I want my treasured things safe up there out of my reach. I think this house might let me.

The High Mantel

The fireplace is old, with little sections for baking and one with a tap for what I presume would have been a built-in kettle. There is no light in the ceiling, only a single candle lamp hanging from the mantle.

And indeed as promised there is no lock on the front door. Or on the back. Outside is a little Tŷ Bach (little house or outhouse) with a white wooden door, which doesn’t quite shut properly but who cares. If the door is closed, it is occupied. Otherwise you leave it open and let the breeze do its work. After you’ve used it you drop a little grass in to start the ‘contents’ composting. It will need emptying once a day into the big composting box at the end of the garden. Judging by the contents of that box – well of course I had to take a peek, and then immediately regret my curiosity – I’m not sure throwing grass clippings down the hole into the bucket in the meantime will get any composting started at all. I think it’s more to help our poor modern sensibilities. Out of sight out of mind. Still it’s not so bad, And after all I have been teasing my daughter all week that I only brought her along precisely so she could empty the bucket each day.

The view from the back door

More disturbing to us, than the outhouse is the lack of a bathroom. That is not so much that we need a bath or a shower – at least not yet, ask us again tomorrow – but the lack of a sink and running water to wash your hands after using Tŷ Bach. The water here comes from wells and springs. It is in short supply, especially since this has been quite a dry summer so far. Therefore water for washing, laundry, dishwashing and food preparation comes from a rainwater butt that is fed by a series of pipes and gutters from the house and outhouse roofs. Water to wash ones hands is therefore cold rainwater that doesn’t exactly leave you feeling clean. We learn quickly that if you want to have a proper clean feeling after going to the outhouse a little forethought is required to fetch some rainwater, heat it in a special pan on the stove and leave it steaming in a bowl on the garden wall outside next to a bar of soap. I tie a towel to the handle of the back door. Perfect. We can do this. I put a little pot of antibacterial hand gel on the shelf just inside the backdoor … just to satisfy any remaining OCD tendencies.

We flop onto into pretty armchairs with lace doileys. As we look around we both realise that we have been transported back in time.

I have no clue what kind of ideas this place will give me. I am already using it in the plot for my new novel – a dystopian cyberpunk meets steam punk lark – but as regards the screenwriting observation that I have come here for, I have no inkling of what I might write.

The monastery ruins & celtic cross

The people are fascinating of course. The warden and the farmer and his family must be brave souls living here as they do all year round. But I feel a reticence at intruding into their lives. They have already appeared in the Guardian newspaper. Did they welcome that intrusion? I wonder. Would they welcome another from me? I don’t know. I shall tread carefully. I realise already that I am shying away from doing interviews. So be it. This is me, I think.

There are also the visitors of course. Why are they here? What brought them if they haven’t been before? Some people like me who have rented one of the seven cottages. Many of them already have some connection to the island or the islanders. One is the previous warden who lived here for seven years. He only lives a short distance across the water. He is here to bring his children and grandchildren to this magical and sacred place. HE has a twinkle in his eye and a proud grin as he shepherds his little two year old granddaughter around the island on what is her third annual visit here. He breathes happiness and contentment to be here. He knows that he is home.

There are also the birdwatchers who go to stay at the observatory and the Christians for whom this is a place of pilgrimage and retreat. Is there a story there that I can tell? Do i want to intrude, be nosey? Or will this be my story of my visit here? And could I possibly tell that story in the script for a twenty minute short film? is there a story here like that? Can I tell the story of an island? A story about the lichen covered rock walls? Or of sheep? Would it be absurd to write a short about the trials of using an outhouse and not having electricity and locks. Don’t screenplays have to be about people? Can I get close enough to them to achieve anything here?

Everyone seems nice enough of course, friendly but in a reserved way maybe. Perhaps that is how it is. They need to size you up, find out how you will fit into this place. Whether you will be a part of the jigsaw of this community of strangers or whether you will be a burden, calling for help the first time the toilet bucket needs emptying. Whether we are the sort of people who will complain, that will hate every moment, every lack of convenience then proclaim loudly that they are never coming here again. It’s something you hear a lot of in Wales from the tourists. They either love it or they hate it. My first guess is that on this island those emotions are amplified. Most will love it, but the memories of the difficult guests can probably outweigh all the friendly, happy, enraptured visitors who regard the residents with a level of awe and celebrity. It would make them distrustful I’m sure to have guests leave just as you are getting to like them and to have yet another set of people arrive on Saturday’s boat. One week here is not going to be enough, I can feel it in my bones.

As I look out the window at the sweeping green fields, leading down to the rocky coast and the vast expanse of the Irish Sea beyond I know in my heart that this is my first visit to this place, not my last and I understand the centuries old calling to this place that was declared by the pope that three visits here were worth one visit to Rome.

I too feel that draw. I too know that I am home.

The mainland across the sea

Sunset Day One

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