What is it about islands that makes them so appealing? Is it the seclusion and a sense of escapism, or simply the nearness of the sea? When we fantasise about island escapes they tend to be of the tropical, far-away variety, yet here in the UK we have access to some of the most diverse island landscapes in the world – remote, wild, ancient and obscure. Here are ten tiny highlights…
Lundy Island is a small but spectacular granite outcrop in the Bristol Channel off the north Devon coast, just three miles long and less than a mile wide. Its dramatic history as a 17th century Barbary pirate outpost belies its present day reputation as a nature lover’s utopia. Since 1969, it’s been managed by the Landmark Trust who rent out a variety of holiday accommodation, including the castle keep and the lighthouse, and its status as England’s only Marine Nature Reserve makes it the ideal getaway for hardy divers and birdwatchers.
Beautiful St. Agnes is the southernmost of the five inhabited Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the southwestern tip of Cornwall. The even tinier neighbouring island of Gugh is connected to St. Agnes by a sandbar which is only exposed at low tide, creating two perfect little bays for swimming in the famously translucent sea. But there’s more to the island than water-based activities. With its almost frost-free climate, many islanders work in flower farming, harvesting early narcissus and cultivating bulbs for export. Elsewhere, the local dairy farm produces its own ice-cream from a tiny herd of Jersey cows. There are guesthouses, cottages and a campsite for those who want more than a day-trip.
One of nine tiny islands in Poole Harbour, Brownsea is best known as the location of the very first Scout camp. Here in August 1907, Robert Baden-Powell’s book Scouting for Boys was put to the test by youngsters from all social backgrounds who learned about woodcraft, camping, survival techniques, chivalry and patriotism. The event is widely regarded as the origin of the Scouting movement. Now run by the National Trust, visitors – who arrive via a scenic ferry ride from Poole Quay or Sandbanks Jetty – come to Brownsea for the peaceful forest walks and rare wildlife: the elusive red squirrel thrives here. There’s even a highly regarded Shakespearean open-air theatre company who stage a play for three weeks every summer.
No, not the whimsical Northumberland folk-rock band, but the tidal island whose name they appropriated. This is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne – just Holy Island to locals – and it’s one of northeast England’s most popular sights. The biggest draws are the ruined Christian priory and 16th-century castle, which has just re-opened to the public after an 18-month restoration project to repair damage from more than a century of wind and rain. The island is also a tranquil haven for migrating birds, and it even has its own winery where you can indulge in a glass of Lindisfarne Mead – a fortified wine made with honey and herbs.
Foula, one of Scotland’s Shetland Islands, is utterly remote. Twenty miles west of its nearest island neighbour, it’s home to just 30-odd people, most of whom are crofters who keep cattle, native Foula Shetland sheep and, of course, Shetland ponies. What makes it really special is its geology. Glaciers and the sea have carved some staggering features into the landscape including sheer-drop sea cliffs – the second highest in Britain – alongside mountain peaks and towering sea stacks. Fans of total solitude should take one of the thrice-weekly ferries from Shetland Mainland and check into a traditional stone built croft house for a few days.
Moving onwards to the western side of Scotland, Berneray lies between the islands of North Uist and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Once home to Prince Charles for a week as he was secretly taught the islanders’ agricultural ways, Berneray is best known for its remarkable beaches and the incredible quality of its light, making it a perfect destination for photographers and artists. There’s a smattering of B&Bs and farmhouse accommodation on the island, but for the ultimate waterside location, check out the hostel – a traditional thatched croft on the beach.
Rathlin is Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island and lies six miles from Ballycastle on the County Antrim coast. Although the island is home to thousands more puffins and peregrines than people, it’s seen its share of human drama down the centuries: in 1306 embattled Scottish King Robert the Bruce sought refuge in Rathlin Castle, and bloody battles between rival clans raged for years in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nowadays though, it’s mainly just a peaceful refuge for seabirds and their observers, with a notable interruption in tranquility when Richard Branson’s hot-air balloon came down just out to sea on his record-breaking transatlantic crossing in 1987.
Also known as the Island of 20,000 Saints and in Welsh as Ynys Enlli, Bardsey has long been an important centre of religious pilgrimage. In medieval times, three pilgrimages to Bardsey were considered to be the equal of one to Rome. Modern day visitors can just take the ferry from the Welsh mainland, and in the summer Bardsey is home to a few hundred grey seals who can often be seen chilling out on the rocks or larking about in the sea. If you fancy making the crossing, check the weather before you go. In the year 2000, 18 tourists found themselves stranded on the island for two whole weeks while gale force winds lashed the shore, preventing rescue boats from reaching them.
Still in Wales but further south off the Pembrokeshire coast, Skomer is a real-life fantasy island for bird-lovers. Although it’s known for a massive variety of seabirds, it’s the comical puffins who steal the show. This is one of the most important puffin colonies in the country: from mid-April to mid-July, over 10,000 breeding pairs call the island home, nesting in rabbit burrows and running around with eel-stuffed beaks, completely oblivious to visitors. Only a limited number of tourists can visit the island each day so plan your trip in advance if you can.
At a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, dazzling Herm sits three miles east of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, though you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally ended up in the Caribbean. No cars or bicycles are allowed (just the odd tractor for locals), and there are no phones, TVs or clocks in the island’s only hotel. This is an old-fashioned holiday destination in the best sense of the word: think coastal paths, rock pools, snorkelling, ice-cream sundaes and a couple of cosy pubs. Pure, unadulterated bliss.