Cardiff Series: Flat Holm Island – Guns, Gulls, Germs and Getaways

Flat Holm or Ynys Echni (its Welsh name) is a little island, just 4 miles off the coast of Cardiff is rich in wildlife and has masses of history. It is the most southerly point in Wales, and the sea in between Flat Holm and neighbouring island Steep Holm is the border between England and Wales. It is only 500 metres across, and is an essential site for scientific interest and is a nature reserve. Its history is fascinating; from Viking raiders, a Victorian fortification to becoming the first line of defence, protecting Cardiff, Penarth, Barry and Newport during the Second World War.

It was on my list of ’30 things to do before I’m 30′ and at 35 I still have not made the short trip across the waters. Having sat through an interesting talk on the island last week, it has re-ignited and inspired me to take the short voyage.

Flat Holm
Image courtesy of Visit Cardiff

Flat Holm – A Walk Through Time

The Bronze Age

An axe head has been found on the island; it is believed to be from the late Bronze Age between 900-700 BC. As there is little other archaeological evidence, it is not known if the island was settled during this time.

Holy Visitors

The earliest known visitor to Flat Holm was St Cadoc, who made frequent visits to the island in the 6h Century for meditation. It is also believed that he may have had a small dwelling on the island. He was born in nearby Cowbridge and was known as Cattwg Ddoeth, “the Wise”. Many places in Cardiff from schools to hospitals are named after him.

Viking Invaders

In 918, Viking invaders were pushed back by the Saxons at Watchet the harbour town in Somerset. In their defeat, they took refuge on the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Here many of them starved to death, as they quickly became very short of food. Some of them escaped to Dyfed and from there moved onto Ireland.

Farming and The Farm House

Monks from St Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol, established a dairy farm and grange on the island after Flat Holm was granted to them in 1150. The land was farmed for hundreds of years and even had cows, bulls, sheep, horses, pigs and dogs living on it. In 1897 the Farm House was converted into the Flat Holm Hotel and even had a bar and skittle alley. The hotel, unfortunately, was closed after a few years. More recently the Farm House has been converted into accommodation, for visitors staying on the island.

Medieval Grave

In a chance find in 1942 a medieval grave was found built into the base of the south wall which forms a boundary to the garden. The original is now in the National Museum of Wales, but a replica can be found on the island. It is a cross slab in limestone and is of a Latin equal-armed cross with a central dot.

Piracy and Smuggling

During the 18th Century, the island was used for smuggling. An old mine shaft on the north side of the island connects with a series of natural tunnels and has a concealed exit to the sea. Although Flat Holm is in full view of both the Welsh and English coasts, customs authorities were powerless to act as they had no boat to take them to the island. It is believed that the cave in the east cliff was used for storing contraband, mainly tea and brandy.

The Lighthouse

With strong tides and being the gateway to Newport, Barry, Penarth and of course Cardiff, having a beacon became essential. The first time the light was turned on was on the 1st December 1737. It was powered by coal, which was carried up from the stores by the keepers to the top of the tower. It consumed large quantities too, and 25 tonnes of coal were brought to the island each month.

In 1820 the tower was adapted. A new fixed light was changed to white and coal was replaced by an oil-burning lamp. In 1881, the light was converted to a clockwork mechanism which has a pattern of white and red group flashing three times every ten seconds at a range of 21 miles. It remained this way until 1969 when the lighthouse was converted to electricity. In 1997 the light was changed to run on solar power.

Flat Holm Lighthouse
Courtesy of Visit Cardiff

The Victorian Fortification

In the 1850’s there were serious concerns that France might attempt to invade the United Kingdom. Formulated by Lord Palmerston who set up The Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom. In 1860 the Royal Commission recommended that Flat Holm was to form part of the strategic coastal defence system for the Bristol Channel. Preparations for the construction began in 1865 and was completed in 1869. Despite millions being spent, an attack never occurred.

Moncrieff Disappearing Carriages were installed on Flat Holm. Each of these carriages carried a 7” Rifled Muzzle Gun. It meant that it was difficult for an enemy ship to locate and range its guns and that the crews that operated them were protected while servicing or reloading. The guns were only ever fired in tests. Most of the weapons were easy to dismantle and were sold for scrap, but some do remain on the island.

The Barracks

During the fortification, administrative buildings and a barracks were erected. It was built to house 50 soldiers, but never had more than 5 or 6 people staying in it, the Master Gunner and five gunners. With no natural source of water on the island, an impressive tiled water-catchment area was constructed, sloping towards a large underground water-storage tank. Today, water is collected off the roofs of the buildings, but the container is still used to provide the island with fresh water. The Barracks still stand today and are used by those wanting to stay overnight on the island.

Flat Holm Barracks
Courtesy of Wales Online

The Hospital

Many Cardiffians are aware that there was a hospital on the island, but often get it mixed up and believe it was during one of the World Wars. In fact, it began in 1883 when it was used as an isolation hospital to protect the mainland against the cholera epidemic. Then Cardiff was a bustling port, with ships coming into Cardiff Bay from all of the world to transport coal. Moving those with Cholera away from the active ports would have been a priority. Infected vessels would often be moored off Flat Holm and the patients removed and taken to Flat Holm’s hospital.

The facilities were insufficient, and a new hospital was built in 1896. The main building consisted of two six-bed wards and an additional four-bed ward. A laundry room and wooden crematorium were also constructed. The Ministry of Health condemned the building in 1935.

Flat Holm Hospital
Courtesy of the Flat Holm Project Archives

Messages Across the Water

The island is probably most famed worldwide when 22-year-old inventor Guglielmo Marconi brought his telegraphy system to Britain. He had failed to interest the Italian Government but after an introduction to William Preece, a Welshman, who was Chief Engineer in the Post Office, he came to Flat Holm with his assistant George Kemp in May 1897. Here, he successfully transmitted the first ever wireless messages across the sea, from Flat Holm to Lavernock Point – making telecommunications history. Marconi sent an initial message in Morse code. It read: “CAN YOU HEAR ME”. Shortly after, Marconi received a reply from Kemp: “YES LOUD AND CLEAR”. The recording slip for the first message is now kept at the National Museum of Wales.

British Post Office engineers inspect Marconi’s wireless telegraphy equipment. Courtesy of We Are Cardiff

The Fog Horn Station

The powerful compressed air fog signal was built and installed in 1908 on top of a cottage. This building can still be seen today and has much of the machinery still present; however, it does need a new roof. The signal was used to warn passing boats of the presence of other vessels and coastlines in foggy conditions. The horn, unfortunately, has not sounded for some time. The cottage has recently been renovated, and has been dressed by John Lewis, and can now be booked for overnight stays.

Flat Holm Fog Horn
Courtesy of Trip Advisor

Prisoners of War

During the Second World War, the island again became vitally important. Re-fortification began in early 1941, and the construction of gun positions continued throughout 1942. Over 350 soldiers were then stationed on Flat Holm. A narrow-gauge railway used diesel locomotives and wagons to transport ammunition, materials and provisions across the island.

Full use of the Victorian Barracks was made, changing one of the wards for recreational use with a concert hall, cinema and projection room. Films were shown every fortnight and concert parties held once a month. The Farm House was used as the Officers’ Mess. This is the only time that guns were ever fired in defence on the island, as the stationed officers were the first line of defence when the German’s came to bomb Cardiff. Flat Holm became non-operation in 1944, and in 1945 and 1946 German prisoners of war were removed along with the equipment from the military occupation.

(I have not been able to find out much about the prisoners of war, so if you know more or can point me in the right direction, I would love to know?)

Flat Holm World War 2
Some of the remaining objects from World War Two. Courtesy of

Wildlife – Site of Special Scientific Interest and Local Nature Reserve

Did you know the Wild Leek is the flower of Cardiff? It can be found growing on Flat Holm, one of five places in the United Kingdom, along with other rare species of plant such as the Wild Peony.

Wild Leek
Courtesy of

During the spring and summer months, the island is home to a significant breeding colony of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, with over 3,500 birds calling it home. Herring Gulls mark their territories on the cliffs, waiting patiently for their life mate to return so they can re-connect and breed in the spring. Currently, there are 300 pairs on the island.
Wardens living on the island document the animals that they see, and these have included a variety of breeds of caterpillars, rabbits and even Common Lizards. In the early part of the year, they watch flocks of finches and thrushes dine on berries, seeds and snails (which there is a lot of on Flat Holm).

Seagulls on Flat Holm Island
Courtesy of

Visiting Flat Holm

You can visit Flat Holm all year round. Pre-organised boat trips are arranged by Cardiff Sea Safaris or Bay Island Voyages for up to 3 hours, depending on the tide times, giving you a unique opportunity to see the conservation, wildlife and historic buildings. A landing fee of £5 per person is payable to the warden on arrival.

You can even stay overnight. Dormitory accommodation is available in the Farm House, which can sleep up to 24 people. You can camp in the Farm House paddocks or stay in the Grade II listed Fog Horn Cottage. The self-catering cottage offers a double bedroom, twin bedroom and a lounge with sofa bed, meaning it can sleep up to 6 guests. It has been furnished in partnership with John Lewis and boasts a biomass boiler for heating, private garden with a stone BBQ and incredible views. All for £19 per person, per night.

Flat Holm Ariel
Courtesy of Cardiff Harbour Authority

Lottery Funding – Re-engaging Cardiff with the forgotten island

Cardiff Council who manage the island with the Flat Holm Society has recently been given National Lottery Heritage Funding to look after Flat Holm’s wildlife and heritage, and to communicate its fascinating story to people on and off the island. They have created a survey to gain insight on your views of Flat Holm. The results of the study will be used to improve visitor experiences and facilities on the island. It takes less than five minutes to complete, and you can do so here.

The Flat Holm Blog

The Warden and the team post their updates here, or they can be followed on facebook, twitter and instagram.

Want to know more?

A Walk Through Time Flat Holm to Brecon has a fascinating collection of old photographs and contemporary images and begins with a boat trip to the interesting offshore island of Flat Holm.

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