Tiny Islands tells the story of 60 islands of Britain. From an island legally owned by a brownie to another declared an independent kingdom, travel writer Dixie Wills explores the rich history of these islands, and their use over the centuries as prisons, havens, hermitages and hideouts.
Burgh Island, Devon
Burgh Island certainly has a violent history, although thankfully much of it is fictional. In the 18th century the island was a smugglers haven, and the Pilchard Inn is supposedly haunted by a smuggler who was killed by a customs official in its doorway. Creepier still is the rumour that a tunnel runs from the cellar of the Inn, where another smuggler tried to escape and was walled in, trapping him for eternity. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, the knowledge that two Agatha Christie mysteries are set on the island might encourage a sense of unease. Christie wrote in the private garden of her favourite room at the Burgh Hotel, which was also a getaway for such illustrious figures as Noel Coward and the future King Edward VIII. One of the stories, And Then There Were None, is her biggest-selling novel ever, a considerable feat bearing in mind that Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. The island was requisitioned by the military in World War II, and Churchill and Eisenhower are rumoured to have met here in secret. To reach the island, visitors should start from the resort of Bigbury-on-Sea, where a ride in the charming ‘sea tractor’, a toylike vintage carriage, will help you cross to the island at low tide. You can stay overnight in the Burgh Hotel, a luxurious ocean-liner style, art deco building that recalls the glamour of the 1930s. For keen walkers, the South West Coast Path National Trail passes the island, and Devon’s south coast is a haven of sandy beaches, picturesque towns and opportunities for a famous Devonshire cream tea.
Monkey Island, Berkshire
Built upon rubble dumped in the Thames following the 1666 Great Fire of London, Monkey Island gained its unusual name much earlier in its history, when a colony of 12th Century monks used it for fishing, making it the ‘Monks Eyot’. However, actual monkeys abound in the island’s history. In the mid-18th century Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, bought the island and commissioned Andien de Clermont, a French Rococo artist, to paint the parlour of his island lodge with images of monkeys participating in typically human activities including hunting and smoking. Later, George III was brought here with his pet monkey to unwind during attacks of mental illness. In the next stage of its evolution, Monkey Island became a popular destination for the famous and the artistically-inclined. Edward VII, notorious for his own fair share of monkey business, came here to spend time with his family, H.G Wells wooed fellow author Rebecca West (her novel The Return Of The Soldier is set here), and musicians associated with the island include Edward Elgar and Dame Nellie Melba. The island is easily reached over a footbridge from the picturesque village of Bray, and would be a good place to work up an appetite for a meal at Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin star restaurant, The Fat Duck. You can spend the night on the island at the quirky Monkey Island Hotel. The Berkshire countryside makes a getaway fit for royalty, and is home to many castles, stately homes and country parks, most notably the gothic splendour of Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.
Situated at the mouth of the Dee Estuary, three small islands can be reached at low tide from West Kirby on the Wirral. The two mile route over firm but wet sand crosses the islands of Little Eye and Middle Eye, finishing at Hilbre, the largest of the three at around 11 acres across. The islands are formed from the striking red sandstone that is a distinctive aspect of the region. There was a small community on Hilbre in the 19th century, centered on a rather disreputable inn reputed to have been involved in smuggling and wrecking of ships, and during World War II, Middle Eye blazed with light in order to distract bombers en route to the strategically vital Liverpool docks, but as of 2011 the island has officially had a population of zero. It still attracts plenty of binocular-wielding visitors in summer, however, as the pilgrimage across offers fine views of the Welsh coast and Irish Sea, healthy fresh air and the possibility of spotting playful Atlantic Grey seals rolling around on the sand banks of the Dee Estuary. The village of West Kirby has attractions of its own, including Gilroy Nature Park, the Marine Lake and numerous little shops, cafés and wine bars. The Wirral Way coastal walk starts here, and further along the peninsula you’ll find golfers’ paradise Hoylake, affluent Caldy and Parkgate, a spot on the marshes famous for Nicholls ice cream shop. West Kirby can also be easily reached by train from Liverpool, a hub of shopping, museums and theatres in the North West, and the walled Roman town of Chester is an hour’s journey by train.
Bass Rock, Firth of Forth
Accredited by Sir David Attenborough as ‘one of the 12 wildlife wonders of the world’, over 55,000 pairs of gannets occupy Bass Rock, making it the largest single-rock nesting site in the world for these remarkable birds. In fact, the island buzzes with so many of the slender white creatures that from the shore it appears snow-covered. Located in the Firth of Forth, at the point where the river disappears into the crashing waves of the North Sea, Bass Rock can be circuited by boat from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick. The island has earned the moniker ‘the Alcatraz of the North’ for its rich history of conflict, imprisonment and daring escape. Whilst we usually think of him as the Merry Monarch, Charles II was as capable of cruelty as many monarchs with more bloody reputations, and he kept Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters in the castle in appalling conditions. Misdemeanors were punished by a night in the lower cells, where the prisoners were exposed to freezing sea spray. Shortly after the Glorious Revolution, a gang of Jacobites took the prison from their guards, holding it for four years sustained by supplies from passing French ships, before negotiating a deportation to France. The windswept rock has even inspired literary incarceration – it appears in Robert Louis’ Stevenson’s Catriona, sequel to Kidnapped. North Berwick is notable for its golden sands and the North Berwick Law, a conical volcanic hill that served as a Napoleonic signal station. East Lothian is a popular destination with surfers and golfers, and you’re not far from Edinburgh, famed for its beautiful streets, good food, Fringe festival, and spectacular views from the top of Arthur’s Seat.
Samson boasts sparkling blue water, white sand and grassy dunes with sprays of wildflowers. The island was originally populated in the 16th and 17th centuries, and soon received rave reviews from Medici Cosimo III the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Things took a turn for the worse in 1855, when philanthropist Augustus Smith bought the lease for the Scillies and ordered all inhabitants to leave. He announced the news on the beach at East Porth, where an islander, Ann Webber, reportedly cursed him so profusely it caused him to fall to his knees on the spot. After she left, Smith found that strange fates befell the animal colonies he tried to establish on the island. Oddly, this was not the only curse placed on these shores. In 1798, the warship HMS Colossus, returning from the Battle of the Nile capsized in a storm South of the island spilling out a rich cargo of antiquities and treasures belonging to the diplomat Sir William Hamilton. Locals came out to rescue the men of Colossus, but failed to bring back the booty, earning a curse from Hamilton that led to failed harvests and sea disasters right up to the moment of Augustus Smith’s arrival. Despite its fearful history the island is a laid-back beauty spot. In fact it was here that in the 1960s, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to abandon his holiday to deal with a crisis in Westminster, conducting a press conference on the beach at East Porth in his shorts. Whilst you’re there, explore the more populated hub of St Mary’s, the sub-tropical Abbey Gardens at Tresco, and enjoy a real ale at Britain’s most South-Westerly pub, The Turk’s Head.
Worm’s Head, Gower Peninsula
In the 1930s, a flock of 70 crazed sheep supposedly attempted the crossing from land to Worm’s Head, drowning in the process. Be mindful of safe crossing times and try not to make the mistake a young Dylan Thomas made and fall asleep when you get there – he missed his chance to get back to land and was stranded for the night. Don’t be daunted, however, as this is an exhilarating island for walkers. Starting from the village of Rhossili, the island is at the end of a 15-minute walk down a long, curving and trackless causeway which is sometimes visited by grey seals. The island itself has Devil’s Bridge, a striking example of the strange metamorphosis of the natural landscape. At the furthest point of the island, Outer Head, you can see Worm’s Head Cave, a blow hole through which the motion of the sea makes rather haunting noises. Given that ‘wyrm’ is the Old English name for dragon, Worm’s Head has generated surprisingly few dragon-related myths, although the cave has been excavated to reveal the bones of great beasts, including a mammoth and a bear. The strange tale of St Cenydd also tells that he was cast adrift in a wicker basket and carried to Worm’s Head by seabirds. The island is a must-visit when enjoying the delights of Rhossili Bay, a three mile arc of golden sand voted the UK’s number one beach and tenth in the world by TripAdvisor in 2013. The delights of South Wales include Brecon Beacons National Park, home to amazing Old Red Sandstone peaks, gorges and caves.
Brough of Birsay
At 59 degrees North, the Brough of Birsay has the same latitude as Oslo. A seaweed covered, concrete causeway takes you from Birsay to the Brough, but keep your eyes on the water, as archeologists here found a symbol stone which depicts a swimming elephant. As well as Pictish settlements, the Brough of Birsay was home to a 9th century Viking community and remains include saunas and a blacksmith. A Romanesque church dating from around the 12th century, which may have been mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga, also stands here. Clifftop paths offer spectacular views and the chance to spot guillemots and fulmars. Orkney is an astounding place, wild, windswept and littered with the remains of ancient civilisations; you can hardly move for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The neolithic village at Skara Brae is one of the most extraordinarily well-preserved settlements in the British isles, dating back further than Stonehenge, and the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar are exceptional beauty spots. With 70 islands making up the Orkneys, there are plenty of opportunities for even more island hopping.
Tiny Islands: 60 Remarkable Little Worlds Around Britain, Dixie Wills £14.99 (AA Publishing)