Notes from a small island: Six lesser-known Great British islands
The British Isles is comprised of more than 180 inhabited islands, each with its own unique landscape, history and heritage. Martha Alexander explores six lesser-known gems
What is it about islands that we find so alluring? It must be something to do with being marooned, the physical separation from the mainland forcing us to embrace a sense of isolation. Islands offer us another world – and this concept alone is both romantic and exciting.
A stone’s throw from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, Herm is an idyllic place characterised by quaint cottages and a no car policy. There’s a lively history here too, with settlers first arriving in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages; their tombs are still visible today near Petit and Grand Monceau – two hills to the north.
In medieval times, Herm attracted missionary monks in search of solitude and spiritual reflection. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, Herm was under the control of Norman monasteries and later became a hunting ground for the rich elite from Guernsey.
Then as the Industrial Revolution was engulfing Britain, the 1.4-mile-long island was quarried for granite. Some 400 workers arrived here during this period and also helped
to construct the harbour and establish a community of shops.
Herm entered a more genteel period as a result, becoming home to a Prussian prince, Gebhard Blücher Von Wahlstatt, followed by The Monarch of the Glen novelist Compton MacKenzie and Sir Percival Perry, chairman of the Ford Motor Company. The latter put a lot of work into restoring Herm, not least so he could use it as a way of impressing his important friends.
One of the loveliest things about Herm remains its diminutive size. You can walk the circular coastal path in under two hours, or follow the Spine Road through the middle of the island while still able to see the sea on both sides. At low tide, the rock pools at Belvoir Bay are bountiful; the crab sandwiches on Herm are hard to beat. Elsewhere
on the island, the Mermaid Tavern serves cold beer and the gorgeous White House Hotel boasts an award-winning garden.
St Michael’s Mount
There are few images more magical than that of a castle atop an island, completely surrounded by sea. St Michael’s Mount manages to be both remote and imposing, adrift as it is off the coast of south Cornwall. At low tide, you can access the island by a narrow causeway. At high tide, you’ll need a boat.
The island – and everything on it, which includes the castle itself and its antique contents, a handful of cottages and a beautifully landscape sub-tropical garden – has been part of the St Aubyn family since 1659. The current resident is James St Aubyn, whose daughter’s wedding reception was held on the castle roof – the same space previously used by the children to skateboard on.
Yet St Michael’s Mount’s narrative goes further back than the St Aubyns. One of the most notable milestones was 1588, when the first sighting of the Spanish Armada was made from the top, and the first of many warning beacons on the south coast were lit to ward off the invading 130-strong fleet of Habsburg ships.
Relics from an array of time periods are evident across the island. These include “pillboxes” or bunkers for soldiers used during the Second World War and there is even a hermit’s cell beneath the chapel.
The gardens on St Michael’s Mount are spectacular, thanks to a unique microclimate, which is warmer than the rest of the country and results in a subtropical environment. Cactuses grow easily here making the space surrounding the castle feel exotic and exceptional. Interestingly, the gardens were also designed to be looked at from above. As the castle towers over the island, when you are inside you get a bird’s eye view
of what lies beneath.
The Isles of Scilly have much to recommend them, from the subtropical gardens of Tresco to Bryher, with its rolling hills.
Worthy of special mention is St Agnes, known as England’s final frontier thanks to its position beyond Cornwall at the southernmost reach of the archipelago. This is truly another world.
Attached at low tide to Gugh by a sand bar, St Agnes is tiny, measuring just a mile across, making it easy to explore. Visitors love combing the beaches for treasures at Beady Pool or contemplating the Old Man of Gugh, a three-metre standing stone believed to be associated with Bronze Age rituals.
One of the most charming things about St Agnes is the place names, including the brilliant Wingletang Down, notable for Bronze Age stone stacks and rare flora and fauna. The west of St Agnes, exposed as it is to the turbulent, dramatic Atlantic Ocean, has a landscape to match. There are gnarled, jagged cliff faces, braced hard against crashing waves. By contrast, the eastern coves are protected, so the water is calm and clear as it skirts swathes of white sand.
In the heart of the island, there’s abundant greenery and even a small dairy farm, Troytown, home to holiday cottages and quality ice creams. The lighthouse marks St Agnes’ highest point. Completed in 1680, it is no longer in service but serves as a romantic symbol of the island as a whole.
The Cumbrian island of Piel lies just half a mile off the English mainland at Barrow-in-Furness. The first recorded name of the island was Foudray, which means “fire beacon” in Old Norse and gives an indication as to its possible purpose.
By 1127, the 50-acre island was given to Savignac monks, along with the land on which Furness Abbey now stands on the mainland. The island was the Abbey’s safe harbour; all manner of cargo was stored in the 14th-century motte-and-bailey castle to keep it safe from pirates. The abbey was hardly clean as a whistle, however, having been involved in a wool-smuggling racket to avoid tax.
During the 15th century, Piel became a key site in an attempt on the English Crown, after Lambert Simnel and his heavies landed here from Germany. Simnel claimed he was the rightful king of England and made for London. Needless to say, a battle was fought and Simnel found himself imprisoned and not, as he had hoped, aloft the throne.
Piel island might have a long royal and religious history, but, as is often the case in the UK, the pub seems to be its most important aspect. This is likely because The Ship Inn’s landlord not only provides the pints but also assumes the title of “King of Piel”. A coronation ceremony involves the new landlord of the 18th-century pub being seated in an ancient oak chair, sword in hand, and essentially doused in alcohol.
The Ship Inn is not the only remarkable structure here. There is a castle ruins, which is managed by English Heritage and a great place to wander. You can walk to Piel across the sands from Walney island at low tide, but it’s easier to take the ferry from Roa island. The Ship Inn has accommodation, and it also issues permits for camping.
Boasting off-grid travel for wildlife enthusiasts, this tiny Welsh island in the Celtic Sea is famous for its puffins. Skokholm lies two miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire, a riot of natural beauty and rugged charm, all sandstone cliffs and open skies. The beauty of the landscape varies with the seasons too. In spring and summer thousands of seabirds return to nest, bringing clamorous noise and infectious energy with them.
Skokholm can be explored easily on foot – it’s just half a mile wide and twice as long – and no more than 26 people are allowed on the island at any one time too. Those select visitors can wander at leisure, however, appreciating the unspoilt open spaces and even staying in renovated farm buildings. These thick stone structures are crisply whitewashed, and simply decorated with only basic amenities, in keeping with the ethos of the island.
Situated off the north-west edge of mainland Scotland in the Outer Hebrides, this bleak and wild outpost is one for brave walkers and avid ornithologists. St Hilda has been uninhabited for almost 90 years, when its 36 residents collectively decided their way of life simply wasn’t viable anymore. On 29 August 1930, a community dating back thousands of years – there is various evidence of Neolithic sites – was no more.
Much of the island’s history is a mystery, including the origins of the name, which is not, as one might imagine, a holy name but probably taken from the Norse “sunt kelda”, which means “sweet water”.
Life on St Kilda was always tough, despite the abundance of crops and fowl. However, for those who did live there the sense of community was robust. In the late 1800s,
each morning there would be a parliament, where the male residents gathered to discuss the order of the day.
St Kilda is also home to just shy of one million seabirds, most notably a unique species of wren and the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins. The echoing cries of the seabirds are the perfect aural accompaniment to the desolate and tempestuous vistas.
The climate of St Kilda is harsh and beholden to the Atlantic Ocean, which collides relentlessly against the cliffs. But Main Street is impossibly quaint and you don’t have to work hard to imagine yesteryear’s way of life. Keep an eye out for the cleits – small stone domes which were once used to store food.