That Lundy feeling: The granite island in the Bristol Channel makes for a great escape

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As a child growing up in North Devon, I was always fascinated by Lundy Island. I saw it almost every day: a dark, uneven presence on the horizon. On stormy nights its lighthouses winked at us. Ours winked back.

But what happened on that three-mile-long lump of granite? Who were the Lundy Islanders? My juvenile imagination conjured pirates and wreckers, hidden caves and secret tunnels.

When I finally visited Lundy, aged 12, it wasn't as exciting as I had hoped. In common with all but the hardiest passengers, I spent the two-hour rain-lashed crossing in the ship's hot saloon, wincing at the combined smell of engine oil and vomit. After the long climb from the jetty to the cliff-top, I finally found out what did happen on Lundy: almost nothing at all.

I dimly recall cagouled tourists moving slowly between austere stone buildings, gazing out over gale-smoothed scrub towards the grey ocean beyond.

This summer, a quarter of a century later, I went back. This time, I wasn't the pouting child but the chivvying father. This time we intended to stay, camping, for three days. And this time, I loved it. I'm still not sure whether the island has changed, or whether I have.

What has changed is the understanding of Lundy's importance. Twenty-five years ago, around the time of my visit, Lundy became Britain's first statutory Marine Nature Reserve. Last year, the island's waters became the first Marine Conservation Zone in England and Wales, a new level of protection created to "conserve nationally important marine wildlife". At the time, Dr Helen Phillips, Natural England's chief executive, described Lundy as "a showcase of what a well-protected marine environment can become".

Many now visit Lundy solely for its wildlife. Divers hope to glimpse a giant basking shark or a pod of dolphins playing in the pristine water. Seals are easily found. Children search rockpools for limpets, anemones and shore crabs.

"Lund-ey" is old Norse for Puffin Island, and puffins still breed there in early summer. Gannets, guillemots, razorbills and oystercatchers are resident for much or all of the year. Skylarks provide the soundtrack to Lundy's summer. The mammalian population is a little more surprising. There are Japanese silka deer and wild Soay sheep, both introduced by an experimental owner decades ago. There are goats, brought to the island by Trinity House to provide meat for its lighthouse-keepers, and shaggy ponies.

But for us it was the wild spaces, rather than wildlife, which most excited. There are no cars on Lundy – just a handful of farm vehicles – and no access restrictions. We could let our toddler son roam almost freely. Chance encounters with ducks, sheep and pigs sent him giggling back to mummy to tell her all about it. What could be more fun for a small boy?

In the late summer sun the buildings I recalled as damp and austere looked honeyed and inviting. There are only a few of them: a church, a pub, farm and office buildings, a small shop, and a number of properties available for holiday rental. Many were built by the Lundy Granite Company in the 19th century to house and feed its quarry-workers. They are old and solid buildings, constructed from great slabs of stone, and they are immaculate.

What I have observed so far could have been written on the strength of a day-trip. An afternoon on the island is long enough to see that it is a ruggedly beautiful place, and a natural playground for climbers, walkers, divers and young children. But if you stay longer, as we did, then another Lundy emerges; a place which day-trippers cannot see, because it can only be felt.

When the MS Oldenburg – Lundy's own supply ship – pulls away at four in the afternoon, heavy with excursionists, the island itself seems to exhale slowly and relax.

Now, for another night, Lundy belongs only to its 27 staff, and to the fortunate few visitors who thought far enough ahead to secure a rental property, or a berth in the small campsite.

Those early evening hours were, for us, the best. Fellow island-stayers nod and greet one another, smiling, as if sharing a secret, and the darkening sky somehow widens the gap between island and mainland, where real life remains just visible but almost forgotten.

Every community needs its meeting place and for Lundy Islanders, both those who work there year-round and those staying for a just a few nights, that meeting place is the island's pub, the Marisco Tavern. On a tiny island full of good things, the Marisco is one of the best. You might expect its monopoly position to drive standards down and prices up. But that hasn't happened. The food is exceptional. It's also local. Lundy's staff farm and butcher their own chickens, pigs, goats and lambs, and grow a good supply of vegetables, too.

The Tavern has the feel of a much-loved local. It's a noisy and good-natured place, decorated by maritime oddities salvaged from some of the many wrecks which lie in Lundy's waters. It even has its own ales: Lundy Experience and Lundy Old Light. A candid barman did admit to me that both are brewed in St Austell and available on the mainland under more familiar names. "But," he offered, "we like to think the trip across on the Oldenburg gives it a bit of life."

The lack of a brewery is one of the few ways in which Lundy isn't self-sufficient. Derek Green, Lundy's general manager, took us on a brief tour of the island in his Land Rover. He is justifiably proud of the degree to which he and his staff can look after themselves, and their visitors. Many of his staff are trained in multiple roles and between them can man a small fire engine, serve as Coastguards and attend medical emergencies as first responders. They have a helipad and a rough-and-ready airstrip.

Derek's job is to oversee not just the island and his island-based staff, but the shore office and the MS Oldenburg, too. As he described his island empire and the many unexpected challenges it has presented over the eight years he's been in charge, I became a little jealous. His, surely, is a great way of life.

My wife, surveying Lundy's lonely landscape from the Land Rover, wasn't so sure: "Don't you ever get bored here?" she asked. "How could I?" he replied, before reciting his long agenda for the day. It takes effort to make an isolated island comfortable.

As I write these words, I am no longer on Lundy but I can see it. I'm sitting at my laptop in a beach-hut overlooking Woolacombe Sands, where our holiday continues. I no longer think of smugglers and treasure when I see that familiar shape over the water. I don't think of soggy tourists milling aimlessly either.

Now I think of three perfect days in an ageless place, where nature provides all the entertainment anyone could need, and a man call Derek provides everything else. Now when I see those lighthouses wink, I think they are winking at me, and anyone else who knows the secret of Lundy Island.

Travel essentials: Lundy

Getting and staying there

Lundy Island is owned by the National Trust but managed by the Landmark Trust (landmarktrust.org.uk). To find out about accommodation and crossings on the MS Oldenburg, contact the Lundy Shore Office (01271 863636; lundyisland.co.uk). Period returns on the Oldenburg cost £58 for adults, £29 for children, and £10 for infants. There are 23 properties available for hire, and a small campsite. Prices vary. Helicopter transfers are available in winter. The island is closed for three weeks in January.

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