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As Time Goes By: The Day We Went To Lundy

With a memory as clear as spring water Eileen Perrin recalls a family outing to the isle of Lundy in the 1960s.

To read more of Eileen’s detailed and fascinating memories please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/as_time_goes_by/

“No marks for no brains Monica,” the woman behind us triumphantly sang out as the coach crossed Exmoor. Her loud voice spoilt the drive, we wished she was getting off somewhere along the way. But where? Sheep scattered the steep slopes down to the Doone Valley, and Dunkery Beacon, looking faded in the morning light, was bleak and bare.
Coming up from Porlock there had been very little traffic on the hill’s one in four gradient and sharp turn, for which Mum had been thankful, and when they came out of the trees at the top she breathed a sigh of relief.

But now Monica’s mental arithmetic gave way to questions on weights and measures. Mum supposed the little girl was on holiday and being taken out for the day by some well-meaning aunt, seeking to keep her charge occupied profitably on the long journey from Minehead. But at last the narrow streets and busy shops of Ilfracombe were sliding past the bus windows as it made its way through to the quayside, where all the passengers got out. They heard Monica being exhorted to look sharp and not forget her camera.

There was an anxious five minutes finding where to buy boat tickets, and then a patient wait on the harbour wall from where could be seen the White Funnel steamer alongside the pier. As we went through the turnstiles on to the boat, Mum hurried us up to find the best places.

Eventually with a short blast on the ship’s siren, we pulled away to sail across the Bristol Channel with the sun promising a fine trip. The direction was of course, not the one we had expected. We did a quick change of seats, to get some shelter from the stiff sea breeze, beating by a short head the crowd returning from the bows where they had found it too blowy
In the lee of the midship’s companionway to the upper deck, they noticed a thick-set man of middle age, dressed in a dark suit, looking completely at odds with the rest of the gaily-dressed holiday trippers. He solemnly took a banana from his pocket and began to peel it.

“Now Monica, what is the capital of Portugal?” They had come to sit across from us, making the family with two small children budge up a bit, until their father took one on to his lap to oblige. We were to be entertained once more. The banana man who had just begun to move away to tour the boat, remained where he was to listen.

I suppose we were all secretly taking part in the quiz, seeing how much we could get right. There was nothing to see in mid-channel but sea and a few gulls which were still hopefully sailing overhead. Once we were well out from the north Devon coast they would drop away.

The thin trickle of smoke we had noticed coming from the funnel was now invisible and blown away. Two thin ladies sitting on the safety rafts behind the ordinary seating began a struggle to get into grey plastic macs against the chill wind, having tied head scarves on over their white berets. A man stood before them, himself as thin as a rasher of wind. He was proffering them bags of crisps.

“There – I told you – wandering off. We were wondering where you were, weren’t we Sis?” Seemingly unaffected by the wind’s buffeting, Gilbert gazed across the steely sea, his flat cap shading his eyes. “Can’t see it yet,” he announced. “You’re looking the wrong way,” said his sister. We were wondering if he had been in the Navy when he was young. He had a far-away look in his eyes.

“And what birds shall we see when we get there?” Monica looked blank. The elastic band of her panama under her plump chin held it safe against the wind. It had a crest on the hatband, a smaller version of the crest on her school blazer pocket. Obviously she was a private school pupil being grilled even on holiday for the great future that would be hers one day.

Mum wondered about the parents, and imagined them out on a Kenyan coffee plantation, or in some Embassy post in a country not too safe for the British now. The strident voce carried on. Monica wore a glazed expression.

“Now, come, think. Why are we going to Lundy Island ? What did we read in ‘Birds of the Sea Coast’ ?” The young schoolgirl probably thought it was a trick question. She had learned to bide her time in silence, knowing she would be told the answer. It seemed the banana man was waiting with baited breath. Any minute now........Yes. “Puffins, Monica, puffins !”

The gorilla (for that’s what they had named him) looked smug. He had got that one right. His fingers crackled into a packet of Maltesers. He was stationed almost next to the girl and her tormentor; Mum thought he looked like a private eye, hired to protect them. But, they all knew he was passing the time and silently participating in the quiz and trying to improve on his general knowledge. Mum wondered again why he was dressed so sombrely on a day’s outing from Ilfracombe. Where had he come from? She didn’t remember him on the coach. He was peeling another banana. Culd he be from Paignton Zoo? No, forget the bananas. Perhaps he was a deck chair attendant.

“Gone again, has he? The bar must be open. He might have asked us if we wanted a drink. Still. You know what he’s like. Always been a bit mean. You’re his sister. You must know.” Sis was rummaging in her striped towelling beach bag. She had found them an apple each. She was saying that would have to do: she always made sure to take some sustenance on a day out with Gilbert.

“Well, I don’t know if there’s anything much to buy on the island. I’ve made a few sandwiches we can have later, if not.” And Mum handed us Mars bars and opened a packet of plain digestive biscuits, to be munched in unison with the chocolate. Good idea to make the snack go further, and it tasted really beautiful.

“When we get there”,’’she said, “we’ll find somewhere to have a cup of tea. We’ll save our sandwiches for nearer lunchtime.”

It was a long while since they’d had breakfast in Watchet and driven into Minehead to get the coach to Ilfracombe. It would be a long day, but it was exciting to be going out to a lonely island in the Atlantic.

Then they realised that Monica had gone, and her aunt too, probably down to the dining room to get some lunch. The gorilla had gone too.

They stood up, screwing up their faces, and putting their hands over their ears, as the ship’s siren let out two or three long warning notes, realising they were nearing the island. From the tiny jetty a dirty-looking tender was chugging out to meet them. “That looks like a former ship’s lifeboat” said Dad. Soon the captain addressed the trippers on his loud-hailer. ”We shall be taken ashore in the tender. It will have to make a couple of trips. But there’s plenty of time to see the island, will you all please make your way below, ready to board. Thank you.”

People started a slow shuffle towards the centre of the deck to go down the companionway to sea level. Down on the deck there was quite a crush in the gangway, and the two thin women were anxiously looking for Gilbert.

We were pushed out on to the gangway staging and climbed down into the smaller boat. The sea rose gently in a calm swell, as we puttered across to land on Lundy. As we stepped out of the boat and crunched up the shingle, we heard the wife say that Gilbert must have gone to the Gents, but he would be sure to be over with the next boat-load.

The steep path up from the beach led us round and across to the lighthouse. No one was allowed inside. We found the one pub, but we were wanting cups of tea. At the Post Office cum General Store they bought postcards and some stamps with puffins on.

After an uneventful space of time, they made their way down again to the boat, thinking that this visit had been rather flat, and frankly Mum was disappointed. The only puffins they had seen were the ones on the stamps. They had had to buy lemonade. Not a cup of tea to be had.

On the coach again they were quick to notice that our Monica was slumped against her sleeping aunt. Thank goodness for that.

The banana man was nowhere to be seen among the passengers returning to Minehead. The light dawned for our undaunted Mum, still squeezing every last bit of imaginative joy from the day.

“You know” she said, “that man, - (the gorilla)” she whispered, I think he must have been the relief lighthouse-keeper, don’t you ”

Which reminds me of a thought-provoking saying, ‘Enjoy the little things, and one day you will look back and realise they were big things.’


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