If you're searching for an island off the beaten tourist track, look no further than the UK's Bristol Channel. Here you will find Flat Holm, an undiscovered haven that's just waiting to be explored
When you think of the Channel Islands, naturally the likes of Jersey, Guernsey and even Sark come to mind, but did you know there is another, rather less visited, set?
Nestled in the far from glamorous Bristol Channel, between the coast of South Wales and South West England, are Steep Holm and Flat Holm.
The latter of which, as its name suggests, is the flatter of the two and can be accessed via Cardiff's coast. Unknown to many people all manner of wild and human life does live here and welcomes island hoppers for much of the year, be it just for the day or a longer stay.
Flat Holm, level in terrain and steep in history, is perhaps best known for its role in the development of the telegraphy system, after 22-year-old Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and assistant George Kemp successfully transmitted the first ever wireless messages over the sea to Lavernock Point. The wildlife haven is both a local nature reserve and, since 1972, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and visitors are welcome to explore. The Lewis Alexander, the dedicated boat which can carry up to 45 passengers, steers through Cardiff Bay and the Barrage locks out into the Channel to give trippers just the first of their unique experiences. Specialist day courses, day and residential trips, cater for school groups, work experience students, conservation volunteers, and even children's birthday parties for anyone keen to explore an island on South Wales' doorstep. Guided walks and practical and educational programmes tailor-made for group or individuals are available and the island, the whole 500 metres in diameter of it, is occupied full-time by a small band of wardens and volunteers.
There is much to learn.
Flat Holm's first occupation came about from 1865 to 1869 after an 1850s visit to France made Queen Victoria and Prince Albert concerned about the French Navy's success.
The almost circular island, is home to one of the largest gull colonies in Wales as well as George - the island's tortoise. It was re-fortified after 1940 despite the heaviest raids in Cardiff having ended. The lighthouse, which can be seen for miles, saw its first light kindled in1737 following the 1736 shipwreck near the Holms where 60 soldiers drowned. In its time the island has been a sanctuary for Anglo Saxons, Vikings, miners and smugglers as well as Cholera sufferers in the Isolation hospital.
A day-tour of the island, following a sometimes 50-minute rocky sea crossing in which it is advisable to have a sea-sickness remedy to hand, gives you three hours of island life on a self-guided, courtesy of a purchasable pack, or guided tour from March to October. Wrap up warm and enjoy all that a lacking in tourists island has to offer.
A small souvenir shop will kit you out with some monoculars and caps and other wares and fairtrade drinks and snacks are available to set you up for the day.
Alternatively, in what can turn out to be a very weather dependent experience in the throes of the Bristol Channel, you can choose to stay for more than a day in the farmhouse - the island's only accommodation. But it's vital to try and book a bed well in advance for the limited spaces. Sleeping under canvas is not an option inkeeping with a desire to protect the island's natural habitat rather than waking in the morning to find your tent in the sea.
Birds such as Shelduck, Oystercatchers, Rock Pipits, Finches, Turnstone and Dunlin make it a twitcher's delight and rabbits, Slow Worms, common lizards and butterflies can be spotted among plants such as Wild Leek, Wild Peony,Thrift, Rock Sea Lavender, Sea Campion and Bluebells.
Tourists may flock to the sunny delights of Jersey and Guernsey, but for a raw, authentic taste of Island life there's no need to go much further than Cardiff or Bristol.
For bookings and information: Flatholm Booking Office, Cardiff Harbour Authority, Queen Alexandra House, Cargo Road, Cardiff Bay. CF10 4LY.
Tel:029 2087 7912/ 029 2087 7941
Where to stay
Flat Holm is only accessible from Channel View in Cardiff, with it being under the city's control, so staying central is the best option to explore both island and city wildlife.
Travelodge Cardiff Central (Imperial Gate St. Mary's Street Cardiff, CF10 1FA) is centrally located, no-frills accommodation, within easy reach of Cardiff Central train and bus station and well served by buses which stop-off near the Flat Holm departure point.
Where to eat
The Vegetarian Food Studio (109 Penarth Road, Cardiff; tel: 029 2023 8222, www.vegetarianfoodstudio.co.uk) delivers a vast array of tasty and inspiring dishes from all over Asia. The menu is created using purely vegetarian and vegan produce bringing something lacking for vegetarians on normal restaurant menus - an astonishing array of flavourful, spicy choices all at wallet-pleasing prices.