Extinction at the edge of the world

Lundy Island may no longer be home to the puffin, but nature is still very much in control. And determined that artists suffer for their art

Lundy Island, a windswept speck of rock and greenness off the north Devon coast, is known for one thing above all. Famously, it is the home of puffins, the peculiar burrow-nesters whose multicoloured beaks and comically cuddly shape makes them look as though they were originally designed as children's soft toys.

Lundy Island, a windswept speck of rock and greenness off the north Devon coast, is known for one thing above all. Famously, it is the home of puffins, the peculiar burrow-nesters whose multicoloured beaks and comically cuddly shape makes them look as though they were originally designed as children's soft toys.

The name of the island comes from the Norse - Lund-ee means Puffin Island. Nowadays, too, there are constant reminders that Lundy and puffins are intertwined. The ferry that churns its way across from Ilfracombe or Bideford to Lundy a few times a week boasts a puffin on its flag; the island issues its own stamps - with puffins, naturally. In the island shop, there are puffin postcards, puffin dishcloths, puffin videos. In short: Lundy Island and puffins are as inextricably linked as traffic jams and Bank Holidays.

Except that they are not. Not any longer. Fifty years ago, the island had thousands of breeding pairs. Now, however (and, given all the cutesy puffin promotion, it is a rather large however), Lundy is an almost puffin-free zone. In the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast, puffins still mass together at the visitors' feet; Skomer Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast, is full of puffins. But on the Isle of Puffins, many visitors will not see a single puffin. Tens of thousands of seabirds, yes, from huge white gannets to dinner-jacketed guillemots. But the puffins have almost all vanished; there are maybe 10 or 15 pairs left (Black rats, who are also blamed for the Black Death, may perhaps be to blame; but nobody quite knows).

Lundy is a place where overlapping realities can easily get confused. It is less than 20 miles off the coast, a two-hour boat journey through the alternately green and inky-black waves. But it can feel like an odyssey, leaving tame England behind to reach the wildness of Lundy - in the Bristol Channel or the Atlantic, depending which of the island's self-descriptions you prefer. Both are accurate: the cute green Lundy, or the untamed wilderness isle which has nothing between it and America.

The boat journey itself is not appreciated by all: on a July day, the foaming herds of white horses that surround the MS Oldenburg, as the boat heaves up and down and from side to side (hello, horizon! goodbye, horizon!) make many passengers turn white, green and cheesy-yellow in turns; some spend most of the journey with their heads buried in paper bags. One passenger later declares, fervently: "I can tell you the best moment of today's journey.It was when I got out of the boat."

When we do finally disembark, the sea behind us immediately calms down; the white horses trot home, as if the entire heaving of the past two hours was a malicious joke. The sun comes out, and Lundy, invisible in the mists a few minutes ago, glistens in its emerald glory. At quaint moments like this, Lundy can look ever so English-innocent. Only 20 people live on the island. None the less, all the basics are here: a village store, a pub, and a church from which St George's flag flutters. Both pub and church, it must be said, send out mixed signals. The Marisco Tavern is welcoming, with its home-made food and Lundy ale. But it revels, too, in Lundy's fearful reputation. Lundy boasts that there have been 137 shipwrecks here in all; reminders of these, including a huge collection of salvaged lifebelts, have macabrely somehow ended up on the pub walls.

One way and another, Lundy has always liked to be different. Henry III built a castle here, in a vain attempt to keep piracy down. During the Civil War, Lundy stayed royalist even when the royalists had long since surrendered. Later, the island was worked by convicts. Only with the arrival in the nineteenth century of the Rev Hudson Heaven, "first Lord of the manor of Lundy" and vicar of the (inevitably nicknamed) Kingdom of Heaven did things settle down a little. Heaven built St Helena's Church, which is unsurprisingly tranquil - though two notices outside are unusual, even by the standards of English parish churches. One notice warns visitors to close the gates "to keep animals off the porch"; another warns that the door should be securely closed "especially during easterly winds".

On Lundy, weather has always played a decisive role. That theme is explored in an extraordinary photographic project by the artist Tim Macmillan, who has recorded the changing moods of the island's waters in a remarkable way. Macmillan is the pioneer of the timeslice technique of photography, where a single moment is frozen in three dimensions, as if in some weirdly computer-created image. The technique involves photographing a single event from dozens of angles simultaneously, and then creating from those photographs the effect of a single rotating shot. Timeslicing has become popular in recent years in advertising and feature films (most notably in the "bullet time" of The Matrix), where a single moment is spun out before our eyes. Macmillan compares his technique to that of the Victorian photographer Edward Muybridge, who famously captured the movements of a galloping horse in a timed series of still photographs: "Muybridge was interested in time and motion - I'm interested in space and motion." Macmillan was shortlisted for the Citibank prize - the photographers' equivalent of the Turner Prize - for his Dead Horse, a timeslice film of the moment at which a horse in an abattoir is slaughtered.

In the old Lundy lighthouse, you can see the effect of the Macmillan timeslice technique when applied to untamed nature. For his Island sequence, Macmillan and his assistants erected a gantry in the Devil's Kitchen, whose name gives a clue of what Macmillan needed to expect. He fixed a self-built timeslice camera - 100 camera lenses, wrapped in protective plastic - on to the gantry in the bay. Given that everything gets wrecked on Lundy, there was a general assumption that Macmillan's experiment was doomed to failure. "They were laying bets in the pub as to how soon I'd get washed away," Macmillan remembers, with a hint of pride. He himself - a veteran of filming expeditions from the Alps to the Kalahari desert - acknowledges that the Lundy project was the most demanding he had ever done. "This was very extreme. The camera was getting a pounding; it could easily have got washed away."

For several days, surrounded by the waves of the Devil's Kitchen, he photographed the ebb and flow of tides, the dusk and the dawn, powerful breakers and calm seas. Combined in a single flow in the Island film, we see individual moments of watery weather - the leaping globules of spray, the molten marble of curling waves - expanded in space and time. With the differently angled lenses, we track around the edge of the waves, dissecting nature's anarchy.

The sophisticated technology used to record the images - Macmillan's camera cost £100,000 to make, but would be virtually irreplaceable - contrasts oddly with the wild nature that it records. Island is one of a series of sometimes almost equally offbeat projects for the Year of the Artist in wild places, involving everything from phosphorescent plankton on Skye to electronic knitting in Orkney (net-linked to Tasmania and Canada).

For those who live here, Lundy's isolation is a deliberate choice. There are no native Lundyites; everybody has fled from the mainland. Jenny Clarke, who works behind the bar in the Marisco, is a recent arrival. When she applied for the job, she was not sure what she was letting herself in for. Now, she happily echoes a much-heard phrase. "When they talk about 'Lundy magic' - it's there, but you can't put it into words. I love the scenery, I love the wildlife. But you can't pinpoint one thing. It's just there - the Lundy thing."

Holidaymakers can come just for the day or stay for a few nights in the cottages (and grander manorial buildings) that are scattered about the island; in addition to the obvious bird and seal-watching, climbing and diving are popular activities for visitors.

Jenny Clarke notes that there is only one disadvantage of living on Lundy: on an island only three miles long by half a mile wide, there is nowhere to escape to. "There's nowhere to run except over the edge of a cliff." This need not just be metaphorical, as the blunt inscription on an old gravestone by the lighthouse makes clear: "In affectionate memory of Samuel Jarman, who fell over the cliff on Lundy Island." To adapt the old phrase: just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that you're not about to be blown over the edge.

As Liza Cole, the island's warden, points out: "The weather is always more extreme on islands than on the mainland. You're just there - with you and nature." This can be a place for those seeking absolute peace; but don't forget the seasickness tablets on the way.

'Island' is shown at the Old Lighthouse, Lundy, until 26 July and then embarks on a national tour. For details of this and other Arts 2000 projects in Britain, call 0870 070 2787.

Lundy accommodation can be booked through the Landmark Trust, Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3SW (01628 825925)

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