It is little more than a third of a mile across, contains an old cholera hospital and almost half the time boats can’t land there – but could the financial straits of our friends across the estuary mean the West might soon be getting Flat Holm island back?
Cardiff Council announced yesterday it was so hard up it was slashing the amount of money it spends on everything from flower beds and a riding school to libraries, toilets and festivals.
And as cash-strapped councillors at Cyngor Caerdydd look around for things to close, the tiny island they own and run as a tourist attraction is in their sights.
Flatholm lies in the Bristol Channel around four miles from the Welsh coast, and slightly further from Somerset. It is considered part of Wales while Steep Holm, a smaller island nearer Weston-super-Mare, is part of England.
But before the Bristol Channel flooded with rising sea levels, both were outcrops of the Mendips and joined to England.
For the past few decades, various local authorities in Cardiff have taken out long leases on Flat Holm from the Crown Estates and run a boat service to the island as a tourist attraction, employing around half a dozen staff to look after the buildings still there and take people round.
It has a farmhouse and in Victorian times was farmed by English families from Gloucestershire. It is perhaps most important as the spot where Marconi made the first radio transmission across open water, and in the years either side of the turn of the 20th century, it was used by the military and as an isolation hospital for sailors arriving at Cardiff docks with cholera.
But now its future is in doubt and it could be up for grabs again. Cardiff Council’s cuts yesterday mean that they are selling off the boat that takes visitors to the island, stopping any future visits and putting the island – or at least the 32 years remaining on the lease they hold – up for sale.
A ‘repossession’ of the island by those on the English side could happen as a result of market forces: a report for councillors in Cardiff before Christmas revealed that considerable investment would be needed to turn Flat Holm into a profit-making, unusual holiday destination and that its attempts to market it as a destination for everyone from GCSE geography field trip students to stag and hen parties hadn’t really worked.
But councillors were told that while its own boat often had trouble docking in rough seas or strong tides – many scheduled trips had to be cancelled – a bigger boat from a commercial operation based in England had fewer problems, and operators in England reckoned that tens of thousands of visitors might want to go to the island, even for a day trip, if facilities there improved.
A consultation exercise on the island’s future also heard representations that Cardiff should team up with local authorities in Somerset to invest more in Flat Holm. But now Cardiff is putting the island up for sale, anybody could, in theory, buy it.
“The visitor and income profile for Flat Holm demonstrates that demand for the island is highly concentrated in the summer months and is insufficient to cover the operating costs of the facility,” councillors were told.
“It is proposed to cease all visits to the island, and dispose of the island to a third party with no further council involvement. Visits to the island could be ceased promptly while options for disposal are explored,” the report added.
A spokesman said no decisions had been made, but anyone interested in Flat Holm should get in touch. “Where it is proposed facilities are closing we will be looking for expressions of interest from groups such as co-operatives and social enterprises to try to ensure they continue,” she said.