Sunday, August 21, 2005

Britain's Other Islands. At Last.

A yacht approaching the metropolitan hurly-burly of St Agnes island, in the Scillies. More pics below.

A few weeks ago my piece on the more obscure islands of Britain was finally published, in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Regular toffeewomblers will recall my banging on about this odyssey, ad nauseam, through the Spring. As I wearied you all with my thoughts for so long, I reckoned you might like to read the resulting article. Yertiz.

Britain's Other Islands

What are the six most beautiful and extraordinary islands off Britain and Ireland? It’s a harder question than it might seem: because there are 5,500 of them. Some are just mudflats, some just sandbanks, many are rocky outcrops and skerries known only to seals, albatrosses, and retired lighthouse-keepers.

Here, nonetheless is our stab at an answer. We’ve ignored the well-known ones - Lundy and Skye, Aran and Wight - because for an island to be truly seductive, it must surely have an air of mystery, an air - for the traveller - of discovery. Naturally, many people will disagree with this roster - will know of an island that is equally forgotten, and far more alluring. But whatever the argument, we think our choice proves a profound point: every year millions of us jet across the world seeking out the authentic and the exotic. Yet, as these following pages show, some of the strangest, loveliest, most unspoiled places on earth can be found just a few nautical miles from our very own shores.

St Agnes

Just one single parking offence has ever been recorded in the mild and balmy archipelago of the Scilly Isles, thirty miles west of Penzance. It happened a few years ago, when a traffic warden on holiday from the English mainland took a dislike to a slightly askew vehicle in Hugh Town, the capital of the main island, St Mary’s. The driver was duly ticketed, then the traffic warden flew home, presumably satisfied with his busman’s holiday.

This remarkable statistic gives a flavour of the placid and otherworldly atmosphere that obtains on the Scillies. Yet even within this mellow and affable scatter of islands there is one place that stands out for detachment. And that is St Agnes, the furthermost island of the entire chain.

A good place to reach out and touch St Agnes’s air of innocent mystery is Gugh, a lump of rock which is attached to Agnes by a sparkling causeway of creamy white sand (which overfloods at high tide, so watch out). There are only two houses on Gugh, both of which have oddly curved roofs, designed to withstand the winter gales. Apart from these humble and eccentric dwellings, the rest of Gugh is given over to the ancients. On the topmost hill is a fine standing stone, the Old Man of Gugh. This menhir is surrounded by a network of enigmatic cairns and chambered warrior tombs. Standing on the top of Gugh, looking out across the widowmaking reefs and the tourqouise shallows, and you can see why the Celts chose this spot for their very own Valhalla, an earthly heaven for the noble dead.

But Agnes isn't just venerable ruins. It has one solitary but splendid inn: the Turk's Head, situated with a landscape-artist’s eye right on the little quayside of Porth Conger. In the evening, just about everyone on Agnes comes to the Turk's, and most of them can fit in the Snug. Spend a few nights here, sampling the single malts and seafood curries, and you'll swiftly get to know these inhabitants, many of whom are inter-related in the most labyrinthine way. At least half of them share the same surname.

Beyond the Turk’s Head, the main 'road' into the island splits in two. Take the southern route and you'll cross the bouldered heath of Wingletang Down, until you reach a cute little beach: the sand here is allegedly sultana'd with beads once lost from a Spanish galleon. Take the other path from the pub and you come to fields full of trumpeting daffodils in winter, and scented by herbs and wildflowers in summer.

This same lane threads through the rugged heart of the island, which comprises a couple of guest houses and self catering cottages, some farms, a post office, a grove of gnarly tamarisk trees and perhaps a traffic jam of golf carts (the sole means of wheeled transport on the roadless island).

At the end of the oval isle the lanes rejoin. Here there is a strange and humble maze, known as Troytown, constructed out of soft white stones by a Georgian mariner driven mad by loneliness - or so the legend goes. Perhaps he was just feeling idle, relaxed and de-stressed - like everyone else who makes it to this most wistful and romantic of outliers.


I’m not quite sure I’m in the right place. Beery, noisy, bottle-strewn Poole Quay is enjoying a Mod Convention; standing amidst these parka-clad ex-hoodlums, reliving their Quadrophenia days, it’s very hard to believe that a chunk of English paradise lies just a mile or two across the rough grey waters of Poole Harbour. But that’s what the guidebooks are telling me.

Twenty minutes on the ferry shows me that I was wrong to doubt. Brownsea Island is an extroardinary survival, a dreamy-green museum piece, a 500-acre glimpse of a lost, Edenic England.

Mostly it consists of sandy woodland and pristine marshes, full of red squirrels and sika deer. But concealed in the very heart of this wilderness is an exquisite green meadow, surounding a perfect English churchyard. On the bright Spring day that greets me, dozens of iridescent peacocks are arrayed across this sward, pecking through the bluebells in a self-conscious way, like overdressed debutantes after a rave.

Brownsea’s remarkable state of preservation, on the congested south coast of England, is due as much to serendipity as to deliberate policy. Over the centuries, the various attempts at industrialisation (a pottery, a copperas mine) have all gone bankrupt in different ways. Meanwhile the island's various bizarre owners (diabolist baronets, hermetic spinsters) have not generally been the sort to encourage significant development. In the 20th century even the Nazis did their bit for Brownsea: bombing the only ugly buildings on the isle. Ever since then the National Trust has taken great care of the place, ably assisted by the global Scouting movement - who view the place as sacred territory, as it was the site of Lord Baden-Powell’s very first scout camp, in 1912.

This protected nature does have its downside: Brownsea lacks facilities. Yes there is a coffeeshop, but unless you want to live on organic flapjacks, you'll have to do your food-shopping in Poole. Equally disconcerting is the choice of accommodation. There isn’t one. The only rentable space is a small but lovable National Trust cottage, right on the quay.

But these minor clouds have a very silver lining. When the last ferry leaves at 5pm: I realise I am the last tourist left on the island. In fact, when the ferry departs I feel like I am the only person left on the island - of any kind. Yes, the other cottages and lodges are inhabited by National Trust wardens, yes the battlemented castle, owned by John Lewis Partnership, is full of shop-workers on a rest cure. But these people keep themselves to themselves. I’ve never felt such a sense of blissful and silent isolation on a moonlit walk. Except when I trip over a sleeping peacock.


The only way to Bardsey island, two miles from the Llyun Peninsula, in North Wales, is by ferry. At least that’s what they call it. In fact it’s a ten-man dinghy, biffed by waves, sprayed with sea, and crewed by daredevil Welsh-speaking seamen. As such it’s a suitable introduction to the feral, spiritual, lonesome, ultra-windy world of the 'island of the sea-currents'.

Bardsey is as wreathed in ancient history as it is swept by salty drizzle. Some say this is Arthur's Avalon, others that Merlin is buried here; what is certain is that this two-mile-long chunk of sheep-nibbled grassland has had its fair share of bearded Celtic holymen wandering its byways: Saints Tydecho, Cynllo, Dochdwy, Mael, Sulien, Tanwg, Eithras, Padarn, Trunio and Maelrys are all said to have done time here, along with, some claim, 20,000 other monks and hermits. Must have been rather noisy if they all greeted each other by name.

These days, saints are pretty rare on Bardsey. As are the ruins of their monasteries and hermitages (apart from a crumbling monastery tower, and a winsome Welsh chapel). But the ambience of Bardsey's holiness abides: stride to the end of the vividly green island, ducking the shearwaters and terns (the island is an internationally famous bird sanctuary) and Bardsey can feel as close to God as anywhere in Europe. Very close to the chilly wet clouds, too.

If you do go to Bardsey, be prepared to rough it. There isn't exactly a bus service to get you around - just a few asthmatic tractors, which will ferry your food from the basic shops. Moreover, the dozen or so cottages maintained for self-caterers are utterly devoid of mod cons - including electricity. And flushing lavatories. But then again, living by candelight and compost toilet has its own earthy, eccentric, Dark Age charms. Well, maybe not the toilets.

The other fascinating aspect of Bardsey, should you decide to book one of the incredibly cheap holiday lets, will likely be your neighbours. As it is so inaccessible, Bardsey plays host to the serious-minded: religious pilgrims and committed birdwatchers, and the occasional passing artist. Yet the sense of austere dedication these people inspire is somehow fitting for this very medieval sanctuary, this island of hermits, ghosts, and trembling Celtic saints.


The poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were both known for the aggression, even the cruelty of their poetry. Perhaps that’s why they both fell in love with this seven-square mile chunk of wave-lashed, West Coast Irish limestone: even by the bloodspattered standards of Irish history, Inishboffin has a violent if romantic past.

Grace O'Malley, the famous Irish pirate queen, used Inishbofin as a base for her marauding escapades in the 16th century. In Cromwell's time the island was filled with mutinous prisoners: one Irish bishop was drowned in the harbour by the occupying English soldiery. Even the island's Gaelic name - 'white cow island' - bespeaks a bloody legend: it tells of a mysterious woman who emerged from an unholy mist driving a white heifer; when she was thrashed by the island's frightened fisherman, she turned to stone in despair.

Happily, my first stroll around the isle shows that its views and landscapes are as inspiring as the island’s stories. From the topmost cliff I can see the rotten-tooth-shaped isle of Inishturk to the north, and the grey-green moorlands of Connemara to the east. Around me is rolling grassland and Ribena-purple heather-beds, all chock-full of birdlife, from choughs to corn buntings to petrels. And dominating everything is the brutality of the besieging Atlantic - even on a calm day, the roiling waves of white and blue that surround Inishboffin look like a load of rioting Chelsea fans, eagerly jumping up and down.

Not that Inishbofin is all savagery and anger. A rollicking night in one of the island's hotels or pubs, like the Doonmore, or Day's, can give a new meaning to the phrase 'hospitality industry'. Just watch out for the swashbuckling local womenfolk drinking Bacardi Breezers; if my experience is anything to go by, Grace O’Malley has some living descendants in these parts.

Tanera Mhor

You have to work hard to get to tiny, violin-shaped Tanera Mhor, the only inhabited isle of the Summer Isles archipelago, in North West Scotland. Indeed you have to work so hard you might feel you’ve merited a Duke of Edinburgh Award before you get there. First you have to make it to Inverness. Then there's a two hour drive across the moors to pretty Ullapool, Queen Victoria's favourite herring port. Then you have to head north, avoiding the encroaching crags and sea-lochs, before driving along a spectacular but lengthy single track road to the dozy little port of Alchitibuie.

Here, unless you have booked a berth on one of the cruise boats that ply these waters in summer, you will have to ask Bill Wilder, the English owner of the island, to ferry you across the waters of Loch Broome. This can be quite exciting in a force eight gale, especially when you remember that until a few years ago Bill was a very landlocked farmer in Wiltshire.

Yet Tenara is worth a few scares. Two square miles in size, and entirely carless, it is demurely pretty, and surprisingly accommodating for its size and remoteness. There's a couple of well-appointed self-catering cottages, though you will have to do your shopping in Alchiltibuie, or even Ullapool. There's a Post Office which prints its own stamps (a government dispensation to the lonelier outposts of Scoland), there's even a tea-shop which does sandwiches, cakes, and basket-weaving classes (courtesy of Bill’s wife Jean). And there are dozens of curious paths that snake past Viking docks, and herring-boners' cottages, and a famously windswept garden, loved and cursed in equal measure by Frasier Darling, the pioneer ecologist who lived here, and started the garden, in the 1930s.

Most of all there are the views. These are sublime. Stand on the sun-drenched (or rain-lashed) terrace of the cafe. The mountains and headlands of Ross and Cromarty stretch south in an infinite, misty recession, as far as the hippy commune of Scoraig and the wild-cat haunted shores of Gruinard Bay.


Tanera Mhor and Bardsey might be wild, St Agnes and Inisboffin might be inspiring, but along with every other island in Britain and Ireland, they all yield in terms of savage beauty to infamous Foula, a six-square-mile outcrop of storm-mugged sandstone, twenty miles west of the Shetlands.

Foula (it’s pronounced Foo-lah) is arguably the most isolated inhabited island in the entire British Isles. Even if this claim is sometimes disputed with Fair Isle, a larger island north of the Orkneys, Foula is certainly a place of quite astonishing toughness, and a fitting place to end any British island odyssey.

For instance, the seas here are so furious (the Admiralty records an average of one calm day a year) the local ferry-boat, that voyages to the Shetland mainland, can sometimes be marooned on Foula for weeks. And when the little boat is in port they have haul it onto a high platform in case it gets crushed in a storm. Even the daily Loganair service to Foula, from Tingwalls airport in the Shetlands, is hair-raising: it lands on a home-made airstrip, which ends twenty yards short of the surging Atlantic.

But don't let that put you off. As long as you are prepared to rough it (in the only B&B on the island, or one of the spectacularly situated self-catering cottages) a few days on Foula is a grand and exhilarating insight into life on the precipice. People still cut their peats as they did two hundred years ago. The local crofters have to shelter their growing vegetables in stone corrals, so aggressive are the winds. These vegetables will likely fill your plate (if you dine at the B&B) as there are absolutely no shops or pubs: for any other supplies you'll need to rely on boat or plane. As for getting around, there are a few cars, but they are as battered and salt-chewed as their drivers - the concepts of driving licenses and MOTs are regarded as mainland affectations by many Foulans.

Away from the inhabited eastern coastal strip, it gets even wilder: puffins and petrels wheel beside Foula’s twelve hundred foot high cliffs, some of the most daunting drops on earth. A third of the world's arctic skuas, big fierce birds nicknamed Bonxies, nest on the great hills of the island. And right at the far westen edge of the isle is a daunting chasm called the Sneck o' da Smaalie, which slices through the sandstone in the most cardiac-arresting way. Beyond the Sneck the cold sea writhes and rages, like a madman in his straitjacket.

The very highest hill on Foula is called The Sneug. Climb this and look south. On a very clear day they say it is possible to see the snowy mountaintop of Ben Howe in north Scotland, sixty miles distant. This lofty vantage point is certainly a good place to consider the variety and beauty of all the British Isles: from Jethou to Coquet, from Scalpay to Mullion, from Steep Holm to Mingulay to Papa Stour. Happy island-hopping.

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