The Marisco Tavern

One or two Puffins may well be of a vintage where the adage “you’ll never forget where you were when it was announced that JF Kennedy was shot” rings true.

SWMBO and I are fortunate to still have age on our side and so weren’t around for that particular event but our own JFK-equivalent moment was the news that HM Queen Elizabeth II was dead.

Most of us suspected this moment had been coming for some time based on her increasingly visible frailty and reduced public appearances and whilst I wasn’t exactly her number one fan, firmly believing she could and should have done a lot more to protect the British way of life from both the meddlesome EEC/EU and her own traitorous politicians who opened the borders to the world’s flotsam and jetsam, she has been one of the few constants in both our lives. It wasn’t that long ago that we’d have described ourselves as Monarchists and were proud to be her loyal subjects but the events of the last years of her reign and the pathetic bit of limp lettuce that’s King Chuck III have now turned us into something close to being abolitionists.

But back to our own QEII moment: we happened to be sat in one of the most remote places in the UK, that being the Marisco Tavern on Lundy Island, having arrived earlier that afternoon for another ten day break. Being a Lundy regular I’d been planning on writing an article on said hostelry for some time and now seems to be right moment.

Lundy isn’t exactly connected to the outside world and mobile phone signals come and go with the wind so at 1833 the announcement was made to us pub goers by one of the staff who received the news via the Landmark Trust’s puffin hotline. We’d just taken this photo too, intended for the article and so toasted Her Majesty.

The history of the tavern can be traced back to approximately 1863 when the Lundy Granite Company took over the lease of the island, building a store room that was believed to double-up as an anonymous ale house for the quarrymen however the name Marisco is part of the history and folklore of this offshore paradise and goes back much further. The de Marisco family were first mentioned in 1154 and then held sway over the island for many tempestuous years with William de Marisco using it as a handy base for many pirate raids on the fishing villages along the North Devon coast.

As an aside, his nephew, another William, was executed for being part of a treasonable plot and pour discourager les autres suffered the fate of being hung, drawn and quartered with the parts of his corpse despatched to the principal cities of the kingdom. I’m happy to wager I’m not the only Puffin who believes such a sanction be placed back on the statute books today and for far less-serious crimes than being a mere traitor.

Back to more modern times though, after the Landmark Trust took over the management of the island in 1965, investment has allowed all of the buildings to be totally refurbished to modern standards. Well, most of them, but more of that anon.

The current incarnation of the Tavern is the first port of call for the majority of travellers as it enjoys a primary location at the summit of the lung-busting path up from the landing bay where the Trust’s own boat, the MS Oldenburg, deposits up to 250 passengers thrice weekly.

And when I say “up” I really mean up as Lundy is a large, predominantly granite rock some 400’ or so above sea level and there’s no such convenience as a bus to aid the uphill journey – it’s Shanks’s Pony time I’m afraid. The twenty minute walk is well worth the effort though, offering fantastic views up the azure-blue waters of the Bristol Channel and the island’s east coast path before passing the imposing Millcombe House, built in 1838 for William Hudson Heaven, the island’s then owner who then passed the island on to his ecumenical son, the Reverend Heaven.

Onwards and upwards through the hydrangea and fuchsia bushes and under the trees whose growth is stunted by the prevailing winds finally rewards the panting and puffing walkers with their first view of the Tavern and the welcoming delights inside. It’s an austere-looking building however and will never compete in the looks stakes with the likes of a thatched pub being constructed from the island’s own quarried granite which is famous for its strong physical properties, and has provided shelter and sustenance for many a drinker against the storms that regularly roar in off the Atlantic.

It goes without saying that the joys of modern life and its associated creature comforts have not sailed by and left the Tavern totally untouched, the result being a reasonably well-stocked bar that has links to the Saint Austell brewery for its liquid supplies plus an adjoining restaurant that serves three hot meals a day, every day.

Real ales are kept in a very good condition considering the often bumpy nature of their journey and include a Lundy-branded Old Light (courtesy of the aforementioned brewery) plus a guest ale or two and even better it can be served in a proper beer mug complete with handle. Rumour has it that a certain brewery that is frequented by Cotswold-based Puffins may have also once provided a barrel to the Tavern. There’s usually a box of rough cider for those looking to augment their five-a-day fruit diet and for the young pups who’ve yet to start shaving something called “lager” is also served but we won’t dive into that chemical gloop as it’s best left for cleaning the drains. The bar also has a great range of spirts and wine too – you won’t leave thirsty that’s for sure.

Talking of leaving, licensing hours and “time, gentlemen please!” aren’t policed that well. Being twenty miles off-shore does tend to discourage impromptu night time visits from either Plod or any clipboard-wielding jobsworths from Torridge District Council. So drinking hours start at noon and can then be somewhat flexible but do come at a price when the refreshed and rehydrated walker suddenly realises that the idea of a couple of jars plus a nightcap or two may not have been the best of ideas when faced with a walk of up to two miles back to the furthest rental property. A walk that can be along dark, muddy paths or on tracks close to cliff edges onto which huge Atlantic waves break incessantly – a somewhat sobering prospect. Lundy doesn’t bother with such piffling things as lights, barriers, warning signs or Elfin Safety so remembering a torch isn’t a bad idea to prevent one from becoming either lost or tomorrow’s Peregrine meal.

An island that’s three miles long by half a mile wide doesn’t sound like the recipe for long walks but believe me it’s easy to knock-up 10+ miles in a day by meandering the perimeter and making a few descents down to sea level to observe the seals and sea birds and in so doing burning up a stack of calories in the process. That generates a fair old appetite and the island does enjoy a very well-stocked shop along with a pre-ordering facility and each property has an excellent kitchen for those who prefer to self-cater but most Lundyites opt to eat in the Tavern each evening, choosing from a menu that features meat from the island’s own deer, sheep, pigs and cattle.

You may not have heard of a Soay sheep before as they are a fairly uncommon breed but are well used to living in tough moorland conditions and spend their formative years feeding on a diet of nothing more than heather and grass that have never seen fertiliser or pesticide. They are well worth trying if you ever see one on a menu and make for a wonderful casserole, pie or burger. Venison from the island’s Sika deer is another fantastic dish that’s occasionally served. All this talk of blood and slaughter may cause vegetarians and vegans to have a fit of the vapours so they’re also well-catered for and by all accounts their menu options are very good.

Fancy flooring isn’t really practical as a neat carpet doesn’t exactly go well with sheep shit covered walking boots and the floor is composed of large granite flags that get hosed down every year or so to keep the H&S weenies happy.

Seating in the Tavern is somewhat uncomfortable being limited to wooden benches and stools but once again this is function over form – muddy/wet walking trousers aren’t really practical on soft furnishings but what the Marisco lacks in comfort is more than made up by being very sociable and you’ll often end up sitting next to total strangers and actually have to engage in social intercourse with them. At this juncture I should say that the use of mobile phones in the bar is severely frowned upon (there’s no signal or wifi anyway) and a fine is payable upon being spotted using one. One meets very interesting people in the bar: climbers, bird ringers, bell ringers, divers, Marines over on manoeuvres, professional twitchers, natural history researchers, geologists etc and it’s a joy to hear their tales and life stories. We’re rapidly losing this ability to engage with strangers in our busy, iPhone-dominated, insular, modern lives and to temporarily experience something our forebears took for granted is somewhat of a revelation.

Any news on island developments such as weather, tides or general information is posted on a good old notice board and new-fangled technology such as juke boxes, fruit machines, Sky Sports or god-awful background muzak haven’t yet found their way over to Lundy, and long may that last, but Tavern dwellers are sometimes treated to impromptu music concerts and recitals by their fellow islandmates. New Year’s Eve always features a fancy dress bash with the remoteness bringing out the creative streak amongst the impromptu outfits sourced from whatever materials can be cadged, borrowed, blagged or appropriated.

The Tavern also doubles up as the island’s library and plays host to many books that are often donated by holiday makers plus a series logbooks for island visitors to record sightings of anything that crawls, wriggles, flies, swims or walks on four legs. These records form part of an annual report issued by the Lundy Field Society into the the biodiversity of the island and the threats posed by human interference/influence. The island’s mid-Channel location means it does attract some very rare birds and news of such a sighting will rapidly spread to the feather-fanciers who have been known to charter their own boats or even a helicopter to get to Lundy and hopefully catch a glimpse.

The interior of the pub is pretty austere but does have a replica Victoria Cross medal that was posthumously awarded to John Pennington Harman, the son of the island’s owner, during WWII for his incredible bravery fighting the Japanese in Burma and giving some the cold steel. There’s an amazing memorial to Lance Corporal Harman in a nearby old quarry, one we always visit to remember the sacrifices he and many others paid to ensure our freedoms today.

I mentioned that Lundy is a large lump of granite out on the boundary of the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic Ocean but inclement weather often rendered it invisible to shipping until the advent of radar and modern lighthouses. Its location has resulted in many a captain being surprised when his ship suddenly ran onto the viscously sharp rocks and often being completely wrecked with many lives lost. The Tavern has become a bit of a museum for displaying the lifebuoys and other nicknacks from old wrecks which have become something of a Mecca for divers who enjoy the clear waters and flora and fauna of the Marine Conservation Zone that surrounds the island. However the main decoration is a huge mirror that was taken to the island about forty years ago and is inscribed Truman, Banbury, Buxton & Co’s, a now defunct brewery that was once located in Brick Lane, Spitalfields.

Lundy has received Royal patronage in the past with Queen Elizabeth II visiting the island in 1977 and back in 2009 I was on the island and “fortunate” to be introduced to Prince Edward and wife Sophie who were helicoptered over to meet some oiks in their natural muddy habitat. He was as limp as his father but she was actually OK to chat with and genuinely interested in what it’s like to stay in an old lighthouse. Steady Eddie and Mrs Wessex actually visited the Tavern for a lunch of game stew and later that afternoon for tea and cake and there’s a plaque on the wall to commemorate their visit.

I previously mentioned that not every building has received a makeover and the one that stands out (literally) is the al fresco gentleman’s powder room. Whilst it may seem a great idea for a balmy summer’s evening, try having a pee when a Force 10 gale is hammering the island – the risk of blow back and subsequent splashing is very strong, in such weather you definitely visit it alone due to the risk of splashing from a peeing neighbour. As you can see from this photo, being outdoors allows the twitchers to, well, carry on twitching uninterrupted. The vista of North Devon and Bristol Channel makes this a strong contender in any annual Loo With The View competition.

As with everything in life, there’s a price to pay for all of this great beer and food. The other unexpected joy of the Tavern is that you can run a tab for the entire duration of your stay. It’s not as if you can avoid paying by escaping the island anyway unless you fancy a long swim and being cashless makes evenings out a whole lot easier. What isn’t so easy to swallow is settling up at the end of a long holiday as you do pay a bit of a premium over mainland prices for food but that’s to be expected given the transportation and storage logistics of an island that doesn’t have either mains electricity or gas for power. At the time of drinking a pint of Thatchers or Old Light is a reasonable £4.

You’ll leave the Marisco Tavern refreshed and raring for the next adventure, whether that’s a 2 hour hike to the top of the island after a full English or settling the stomach prior to sailing back to the mainland in a strong gale. Nothing will have changed the next time you visit either, it really is like stepping back in time, to one where the art of conversation is practiced, where strangers chat with other strangers over good food and ale and friendships are formed – those reasons are worth the journey to Lundy alone. It would make for a great Bash location too. Cheers!

For further Lundy reading the following two GP articles are excellent background reading:

Postcard from Lundy Island

Return to Puffin Island


Text & images © Humbug Slocombe 2022