Flat Holm Island

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Walk Synopsis

This is more of a stroll than a walk around the island which you can follow in just about any direction.

Despite Flat Holm being quite a small island, you can easily fill three hours with a fascinating walk.

There's a wealth of history here, including curiosities like the 1860s gun pits, the cholera hospital and the spectacular lighthouse with its bizarre water catchment system.

Island resident and head warden Matthew Lipton welcomed Derek to Flat Holm and guided him around this fascinating island for the day.

Visiting Flat Holm

You can visit the island from March through to October on a three hour day visit.

Cardiff Bay is where you can catch the boat to Flat Holm. While on the crossing to the island you will go through the Cardiff Bay Barrage.

The boat leaves from the Barrage South Water Bus Stop, situated in Penarth Marina but check ahead for details of sailing times.

1. The Cardiff Bay Barrage

Derek in Cardiff Bay

The Cardiff Bay Barrage lies across the mouth of Cardiff Bay between Queen Alexandra Dock and Penarth Head and was one of the largest civil engineering projects in Europe in the 1990s.

The concept of a barrage was first suggested in the 1980s as a way to help regenerate Cardiff's largely disused docklands area.

The barrage created a large freshwater lake by damming the rivers Taff and Ely, and prevented the sea from flooding the Bay and its famous mudflats twice a day.

Nowadays to reach the sea on the other side of the barrage - boats must use one of the three locks and the water level inside each lock is adjusted accordingly to suit the state of the tide.

2. Boat trip


After a short boat trip, Derek stepped foot on the island and met up with our guide, Matthew Lipton who lives and works on the island as its main warden.

Despite Flat Holm being a comparatively small island, you can easily fill three hours of interesting walking here, capturing the wealth of history - ranging from an 1860 gun pit to a spectacular 1920s lighthouse.

From the jetty walk up the steps and head off across the island towards the lighthouse. Just before reaching the old barrack buildings on the left, turn right towards the gull colony.

3. Gull colony

The island has a significant breeding colony of over 4,000 pairs of lesser black-backed gull, 400 pairs of herring gull, two pairs of great black-backed gull as well as shelduck and oystercatchers.


At the height of the nesting season (June and July), it's not uncommon to be mobbed by gulls if you walk too close to a nest site - so take a hat and keep to the paths.

From here, retrace your steps back past the barrack buildings and on to the lighthouse. It's not normally possible to visit the lighthouse but as luck would have it - the Trinity House maintenance crew were there the day we filmed, so Derek was shown around.

4. Flat Holm Lighthouse

The first light on the island was a simple brazier mounted on a wooden frame, which stood on the high eastern part of the island. The construction of a tower lighthouse with lantern light was finished in 1737.

Derek at Flat Holm lighthouse

The lighthouse was renovated in 1929 to include accommodation for up to four keepers. In 1988, the lighthouse became fully automated.

In 1997, the light was modernised and converted to solar power and nowadays just three 100 watt bulbs produce a beam of light that can be seen up to 16 miles away.

Just in front of the lighthouse, on the southern tip of the island, you can see one of the old Victorian gun pits.

5. The gun pit

Gun Pit

In 1860 a Royal Commission recommended that Flat Holm was to form part of a "strategic coastal defence system for the Bristol Channel" and a fort was established there in 1869.

Due to the relatively low and exposed terrain 'Moncrieff Disappearing Carriages' were installed on Flat Holm. Each of these carriages carried a seven inch gun, mounted in a circular or U-shaped pit built of limestone and bricks.

However, despite millions of pounds being spent - an attack on the island never occurred and the guns were only ever fired in tests.

Heading back towards the barrack building, on the right hand side sloping down towards the sea, is a tiled Victorian water catchment area.

6. Water catchment area

Water catchment

Together with other buildings built to house the soldiers who operated the guns, an impressive tiled water-catchment area was constructed, sloping towards a large underground water-storage tank.

Nowadays, water is collected off the roofs of the nearby buildings but the underground tank is still used to store the rainwater which provides the island's fresh water supply.

From the water catchment area continue towards the barracks. In this area around the barracks you might be lucky enough to see rare wild leeks growing.

7. Wild leeks

Wild leeks

These leeks can grow up to six feet tall and Flat Holm is one of only five places in the UK where they are found.

Related to the onion, the leek has a bulb that grows for several years producing only leaves, then blooms with large purple flowers that smell a little of onion or garlic. We visited in July when the leeks were in full flower.

After flowering the bulb dies and produces up to 150 bulbs. The workers on Flat Holm keep a record of exactly how many grow on the Island. If caught damaging a plant you may be fined.

8. Stone barracks


In 1869, stone barracks were built to sleep up to fifty soldiers needed to man the four batteries but only a Master Gunner and five gunners were stationed on the island during that period.

They were used again during the second world war when they somehow managed to cram more than 350 soldiers inside! Today, they are the island's museum and educational block.

Walk through the gull colony again and along the cliff tops on the west side of the island and before the Farmhouse on your right hand side is the old Cholera hospital.

9. Hospital

In 1883 Flat Holm was used as a location for an isolation hospital to protect the mainland against a cholera epidemic.

In 1892, after a serious outbreak of cholera in Hamburg, five infected vessels were discovered and moored off Flat Holm.


Patients were removed and taken to Flat Holm's hospital. The following year cholera broke out again and two more patients were taken to the hospital.

The small building proved to be insufficient and it was decided that a more substantial hospital was needed so in 1896 a new hospital was built.

The main building had two wards consisting of 12 beds as well as a laundry and crematorium.

The Flat Holm sanatorium is unique in being the only Victorian isolation hospital sited on a British offshore island.

Continue along the track which leads directly to the Farmhouse.

10. Farmhouse

Farm house

In 1897 the Farmhouse was converted into a pub - The Flat Holm Hotel. Sadly it closed after a few years - probably due to a lack of business.

From here it's just a short walk back to the jetty in time for the boat ride back to Cardiff

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