The Character of Wessex: The Culm & Lundy

Welcome to the first in a new series on Natural England's character areas within Wessex. The first of these areas extends beyond Wessex's western border into Cornwall, but it is on the Devonian part that we will concentrate. The main towns and villages include Okehampton, Bideford and Westward Ho!, with the oldest known settlement being Clovelly. Houses built of the traditional Devon cob can be found throughout the area.

The Culm takes its name from the culm measures that dominate the region geologically. Culm (also spelled calum in Devon) is is another word, primarily used in Wessex and South Wales, for anthracite.

The heavy soil and poor drainage make the land of low quality from an agricultural point of view, though Devon Red Ruby cattle are well suited to its environment. Its fens and grasslands are of interest to the nature conservationist, however, and support several distinctive plant species, including tormentil and devil's bit scabious. Native fauna includes the rare marsh fritillary, the grasshopper warbler and the willow tit. The Taw-Torridge estuary is an important site for over-wintering waders including the lapwing, golden plover and curlew. Meanwhile, the range of the Exmoor red deer herd extends into the Culm.

The coastal areas are dominated by steep cliffs. The most dramatic view is found at Hartland Point, overlooking the open Atlantic. In winter, Hartland Point is also the departure point for helicopter transport to the other part of this character area, Lundy Island. Note: Natural England currently treats The Culm and Lundy as separate character areas. However, the original map drawn up by the Countryside Agency in the 1990s combined them, and the book The English Landscape, which I have drawn upon for this article, uses this combined definition.

Lundy takes its name from the Old Norse word for puffin, and its puffin colonies are a distinctive feature of the island. When I worked for Defra in the early years of this century, there was controversy over the extermination of a colony of black rats that had escaped from a ship and established itself on the island, endangering the local puffin population by preying on their eggs. Sadly for the rats, the puffins won the day.

Lundy's remoteness led to it being talked of as a haunt for the Devil in Devon folklore. Nevertheless, it remains a popular tourist destination, with ships sailing from Bideford and Ilfracombe in summertime, and the aforementioned helicopter service in winter. The limited transportation opportunities help keep the numbers manageable, so as not to spoil the tranquility that is the island's chief attraction.

The island has just one village, with houses built from the local stone, which is also used in the dry stone walls that divide it into quarters. There is a tavern, heated by a wood-burning fire.

Apart from the puffins, Lundy is also home to two endemic species ; the Lundy cabbage, and the flea beetle that lives off it. It is also an important habitat for seabirds and basking sharks. Lobsters are caught in its waters, which also give their name to a zone used in the shipping forecast.

Like so much of the planet, Lundy is threatened by climate change. More frequent storms could lead to erosion. Let us all do our bit to ensure that it does not end up with its west side falling into the sea, a la Craggy Island!

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