This is the story of Flat Holm.
The Anglo-Saxons called the island “Bradanreolice”, which comes from an Irish word meaning churchyard or graveyard. An axe head that was found on the island is thought to date back to the late Bronze Age, between 900 and 700 BC; however, there is no other archaeological evidence to suggest that the island was settled during that time.
In the 6th century the island was occasionally the home of Saint Cadoc, the first recorded Welsh Saint, who was the Abbot of llancarfan, a village in the Vale of Glamorgan. St. Cadoc visited the island on many occasions in the late 6th century in search of a peaceful place to meditate, especially during Lent.
It is hard to believe that in the 6th century one would have to go to such lengths to find a quiet place to meditate.
Since I started researching the history of Flat Holm I have been slowly taken over by an urge to follow in St. Cadoc’s footsteps and go to the Island for a few weeks to escape from the crowds and meditate for hours and hours each day, surrounded by the sea, listening to the crashing of the waves and the cries of the sea gulls, to be at peace with the world and as free as possible from the contamination of humanity.
Three disciples of St. Cadoc, Gildas, Barruc and Gwalches also visited Flat Holm. One day Gwalches and Barruc were asked to travel to Flat Holm by St. Cadoc to retrieve a book he had left behind on a previous visit. On the way back to the mainland their boat overturned and they were both drowned. Barruc’s body was discovered washed ashore and subsequently buried on Barry Island, whilst the body of Gwalches was carried by the tide to Flat Holm and buried there.
For me it seems strange that their bodies were taken by the current in different directions. I’m no tidal expert, but I would have thought that two objects placed in the sea at the same place and at the same time would drift in the same direction, more or less.
People now pay lots of money to go to gymnasiums to get this kind of exercise, in the past you got paid to do it, though probably not very much. To keep the light lit required about 25 tons of coal every month so it was good weight training.
In 1819 Trinity House took over the operating of the lighthouse from a man named William Dickenson and the circular stone tower was adapted to take a lantern enclosing an oil-burning lamp. This new light was first used on the 7th of September 1820. In 1825 the lantern was raised by 1.5 metres, and in 1867 a new 4.25 metre diameter lantern was installed.
In 1881 a clockwork mechanism was fitted to alternately hide and reveal the light and thus cause the customary flashing light of a lighthouse. In 1969 the light was converted to electricity and today has the characteristic pattern of white and red group flashing lights three times every ten seconds. The light can be seen from a distance of 21 miles, approximately 34 kilometres.
In 1997 the light was converted to run on solar power – every time I read this fact it strikes me as being very funny, I just can’t believe there is enough sunlight to power the light for long periods during the average year. There is also a foghorn station on the island which was built in 1908.
At this time an impressive tiled water-catchment area was constructed, sloping towards a large underground water-storage tank. This tank is still in use today to collect rainwater to provide the island’s water supply.
As I mentioned in a previous post the island was used by Guglielmo Marconi to transmit the first radio signals over sea.
In 1883 Flat Holm was used as an isolation hospital to protect the mainland against a cholera epidemic. Then in 1892, after a deadly outbreak of cholera in Hamburg, Germany, five infected ships were discovered and moored off Flat Holm. The patients from the vessels were treated at the hospital on Flat Holm. In 1893 cholera broke out again and two more patients were taken to the hospital.
In 1896 a new hospital, consisting of two six-bed wards was built. A crematorium was also constructed, which presumably didn’t exactly instil much hope in the patients arriving for treatment at the hospital. In 1935 the Ministry of Health condemned the building and so it no longer exists.
During World War II Flat Holm was fortified, and over 350 soldiers were stationed on the island. A narrow gauge railway was constructed and used to transport ammunition, materials and provisions across the island.
During this war time period one ward of the Cholera Hospital was turned into a NAAFI, Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes entertainment group, and the other was used as a cinema and concert hall. Films were shown almost every fortnight, and concert parties took place once a month.
Flat Holm has now moved on from that sadly destructive period in history and is today a nature reserve. If you have the necessary requirements It is possible to work on Flat Holm as a volunteer.
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