Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Holy Island of Steepholm

Herring gull and chick on cliff

This isn't a wild island off a remote coastline, this is a cliff on Steepholm island, 5 miles off the Western-Super-Mare beach, look carefully and you'll see the grunge brown water that is so typical of the Severn estuary.

Steepholm from the boat

Chris Sperring and I spent a day on the island yesterday and when I realised we were being dropped off at 12.30 and not collected until 8.00pm I have to admit I felt a little daunted, Steepholm isn't big! But as we walked around with the Tony Parsons, head of the Kenneth Allsop Trust , who own, manage and run the island it was clear it was a place to spend lots of time (if you like natural history, archaeology and views that is).

Gulls, Herring mainly, but also Lesser and Greater Black Backs scream in the air making it as much an audio as a visual experience. The adults, and at the moment the gawky young, are everywhere, on old gun emplacements, skulking under bushes, wheeling overhead, it is a wonderful assault on the senses.

Gulls on the WW2 battery

Gulls screaming over the heads of visitor who are just a bit too close to their young

Steepholm isn't magnificent, it isn't astonishingly beautiful, it isn't very wild - but it is a welcome and much needed haven in an incredibly dynamic, violent even, estuary.

The strong currents that constantly rip up mud and carry it miles throughout the estuary - beware the naive swimmer!

What makes the Severn estuary unique is the sheer energy that piles through it everyday, all day. Vast quantities of mud and water rip up and down, unpredictable currents make the waters treacherous, the tidal range is up to 44 feet - but Steepholm and Flat holm stand rock steady in a storm. They also do what I love - celebrate the ordinary.

Herring gulls are a pest in many seaside towns and cities, but the RSPB has published results that show a dramatic delcine in numbers - shifting them onto the Red list, meaning they are of high conservation concern. Like sparrows and starlings, what was once so common and taken for granted may now become a rarity

On Steepholm herring gulls are the special bird, the one where you get to see the chicks up close and fall in love with them, where they fly freely over the water and perch high on cliffs - you see them as they are meant to be - Steepholm is their haven.

Herring and Greater Black Back gulls flying over the estuary - and rain on the way

Other common things somehow seem more special - commas, red admirals, dunnock - on Steepholm stuck out in the estuary they take on a different hue. And in the Spring and Autumn the island is a welcome stop over for literally thousands of passage migrants who find shelter and rest.

Huddled on the roof of a cave at the waters edge cling beautiful bead anemones. They are quite common in clear, oceanic places but rare on the estuary, too much mud chokes them. But in the more settled conditions of a cave they manage to hang on and look like jewels left behind by smugglers.

Mud, mud, glorious mud - no place for an anemone, except on the roof of a cave.

Bead anemones on roof of Steepholm cave

Another traveller who found rest and recuperation on the island was St Gildas who spent many Lenten seasons in the 6th Century, living in a hermitage. The remains of the hermitage are not known but probably lie under the priory of the Augustinian canons who lived on the island in the 12th C. I'm not surprised the island was a place of peace and prayer, everything about it is secluded, yet still close enough to remind you that civilisation with all its trails and tribulations is only a short distance away.

I'm sure St Gildas did what I did and sit on the cliff tops listening to the gulls crying overhead and staring peacefully over to Flatholm, another holy island, pondering life. Over on Flatholm was his friend and fellow saint St Cadoc. What was he was thinking about I wonder? What was his world like, what were his concerns? Perhaps he worried about the violence in society, the poor, the gap between rich and poor, the injustices that seem to always favor the wealthy. And perhaps he also loved the wildlife that buzzed and flew and rustled all around him, and hopefully he found peace in their very nature and the way life goes on whether we are waging war or not.

View of Flatholm from Steepholm, another holy island with an ancient priory

Steepholm is a very special place not because it is amazing but because it is there, it is a haven and it confidently and quietly protects life no matter what madness (human or otherwise) swirls all around it.

Oh - and The Guardian also seem to have visited Steephom recently...

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