Britain is an island made up of a thousand smaller islands. ANN AND PETER FROST go island hopping.
The British Isles are made up of hundreds, if not thousands of individual islands. Some are large, some tiny, not all are inhabited and some can be really difficult to reach.
Many have a convenient bridge to the mainland, some have a causeway, like the one that takes you to Mersea Island in Essex, pictured above. Or this causeway in Orkney that allows you to walk out to a small island for an hour or so at low tide.
Many islands, of course, need a ferry crossing. In this feature we’ll be taking ferries large and small, bridges and causeways to explore some of our fascinating British islands.
Big or small, islands have a romance all of their own – it’s always a bit of an adventure visiting an island. We will visit offshore islands at the four points of the compass.
We’ll head to the most northerly part of our homeland to the islands of Shetland, much nearer Norway than London.
We’ll head south and visit one of our most popular holiday playgrounds – the Isle of Wight.
Next we’ll visit a small, secret and watery place just off the east coast of England. Essex’s Mersea Island might not be well known but it is certainly one of our favourite places.
Last but certainly not least we’ll head West; to the second biggest island in this archipelago we call home just off the coast of Europe; Ireland.
Ireland, North and South, has many attractions but for me one of the best things about the island of Ireland is that it has hundreds of smaller islands all of its own
Both of us were born near an island. The romantically named Browning island is in the canal at Paddington, London. Two canals join just half a mile from Marble Arch and the poet Robert Browning gave this junction the rather grand title ‘Little Venice’.
In return the good folk along the Paddington canal named the tiny triangular island at the junction after the poet. Browning Island was a place off mystery and beauty during our childhoods.
Britain has many hundreds of islands. The Scillies are off Lands End in Cornwall. The warming waters of the Gulf Stream make them a semi- tropical garden paradise.
Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, now owned by the National Trust is a birdwatcher’s heaven, what more would you expect from an island named after its most interesting feathered inhabitant. Lundy is the local name for the puffin.
Still in the South west we come to the Channel Islands. Guernsey, Jersey and tiny Sark. Sark has been in the news recently holding its first ever elections a few years ago.
The speed limit free roads of the Isle of Man have made the island popular with the road testers of TV’s Top Gear. The island is also home to the famous TT motorbike races.
With horse-trams, steam railways, water mills (below) and spectacular mountain and coastal scenery, and the best kippers in the world, the Isle of Man is definitely worth a visit from any island loving traveller.
Wales has its share of attractive islands. Best known is perhaps Anglesey it certainly the biggest by far. Sadly too many people just drive through on their way to the Irish Ferry at Holyhead but Anglesey is worth a visit in its own right.
We actually prefer the smaller Welsh islands. Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm; all off the coast of the Pembrokeshire National Park. They offer amazing numbers of seals, sea mammals and seabirds on spectacular cliffs. Small boats from the mainland take visitors to these islands to view the wildlife.
Scotland has hundreds of islands, more than England and Wales put together. The Hebrides can offer many opportunities for holidays. A great network of ferries makes island hopping easy although it can prove expensive.
A magnificent bridge now takes you ‘over the sea to Skye’. The bridge makes a visit to this wonderful island much easier to organise than when we first visited many years ago.
To the north of Scotland you will find the Northern Isles. Orkney and Shetland are often mentioned in the same breath, actually they are two very different places.
Orkney is a gentle island full grazing cattle and ancient mystery. It is a land of myth and legend. Shetland is grander, with wonderful coastal views and rolling moor and bog.
Oysters and Champagne
Mersea Island, Essex
There is something exciting about driving across the long low causeway that takes you to Mersea Island. If you arrive at high tide you may have to wait or splash through an inch or two of seawater on the flooded road.
The island itself is low and many muddy creeks cut their way into the countryside. Soft fruit is one of the main agricultural product and roadside farm shops offer fresh local produce.
We always head for the islands own Vineyard. Grapes grow well here and the fizzy wine they make might not be called champagne in case the description upsets the Brussels bureaucrats or the French winegrowers, but its as good as any champagne I have ever sampled anywhere in France.
And what to eat with the Local fizz? Why, what else but local oysters. These are farmed in the clean shallow waters that surround the island along with clams, shrimps and crabs. You’ll find them on sale at shops and restaurants on the island.
The small ports of Mersea are alive with traditional fishing craft and colourful yachts. If you are lucky you may see the brown sail of a Thames barge, once the only way of getting goods on and off the island.
Mersea island has its share of good beaches for traditional holiday pursuits and somehow these beaches are never as crowded as others on the popular Essex coast. It must be because Mersea is an island.
Rupert’s holiday Isle
Isle of Wight, Hampshire
If I had to guess where Rupert the Bear takes his holidays I’d plump for the Isle of Wight. It so gloriously old fashioned and none the worse for that.
Queen Victoria chose it for her favourite holiday destination and built a romantic and relaxing home at Osbourne house. You can still visit the house today.
You can ride a steam train across the island or take an open top bus on a sight seeing trip. At Carisbroke castle the famous donkey still works the treadmill raising water from the well.
Over half of the island has been declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) so there is no shortage of fine walks or cycle rides. Beaches have different characters depending on where they are situated on the coast; wild surf or sheltered havens – take your pick.
The most famous beach is probably at Alum Bay where the colourful striped cliffs deposit various coloured sand on the beach itself as sea and wind slowly erode the sandstone.
Traditional thatched villages like Shanklin offer cream teas and walking the local chines (a island word for steep gorges that run down to the beach) are a great way to work up an appetite before visiting the tea shops of the island’s beauty spots.
Several ferry services carry cars and motor caravans from the mainland to the Island and as you cross the Solent you are likely to see the brightly coloured sails of the racing yachts that are so much part of the island’s culture.
Top of the world
The lighthouse on Muckle Flugga is the most northerly building in Britain. At the top of the islands that make up Shetland this curiously named outcrop is much nearer Norway than it is Edinburgh.
Shetland has much to recommend it. Each different Island in the group and there are over a hundred has a slightly different feel. All are dominated by spectacular coastal scenery. Shetland has over 900 miles of coast.
Many of the larger islands are linked by small ferries, which offer some spectacular views. On one visit we were on the Sunday lunchtime car ferry from Yell to Unst. Over the loudspeaker came a message from the Captain. “Was anybody in a hurry?” he asked. “We have just spotted a pod of six killer whales and if nobody minds I’m going to try and get a closer look”.
We didn’t and he did. The short crossing was an hour late but we drove off happy having had some great sightings of these amazing denizens of the deep.
Whale sightings are not uncommon in Shetland and seals are to be seen all over the islands. At Sumburgh Head, the most southerly point of Shetlands Mainland there is a dedicated sea mammal watching point and bleached and weathered whale bones along the roadside remind us of earlier times when Shetland men hunted these proud and magnificent beasts.
Not all the wild life is so grand. At Sumburgh we were just as happy to watch the playful puffins feeding their young in their burrows on the cliffs.
Culture wasn’t forgotten either. We discovered our Viking and Celtic roots in historical sites, impressive museums and, best of all at the traditional music sessions in the pubs and community halls of these magical islands.
John Bull’s other Island
Northern Ireland and Eire.
George Bernard Shaw, an Irishman himself was surely being ironic when he wrote his play ‘John Bull’s other Island’. He was talking about the island of Ireland and 600 years of troubled history with its nearest neighbour – us.
Today that island is still divided, six counties in the north are part of the United Kingdom, they use the pound sterling and paint post boxes and phone boxes red.
The independent Republic in the south uses the Euro, and those familiar street objects are painted bright green. Today there is an open border between north and south and the colour of the phone boxes is often the only indication you have crossed from north to south.
Both north and south are worth a visit, or better still a full holiday. Not least because both have many smaller islands all of their own.
Cross the Indiana Jones style rope bridge to a tiny rocky outcrop at Carrick-a-Rede on the Causeway coast in Northern Ireland as salmon fishermen have done for decades and you’ll see what I mean.
Or drive over the bridge to Ireland’s biggest island; Achill in county Mayo on the wild west coast and buy sea bass from the fishermen who have been out to catch them in their fragile canvas and tar covered boats – the curraghs. This is island living at its best.
I haven’t room to even scratch the surface of Ireland here. Try it for yourself. Wherever you choose, from Yeat’s Lake Isle of Innesfree to the delights of a ride through the hills in a jaunting car one thing I can promise is a really warm welcome. Its an island thing.
This article was syndicated in various Times Warner Magazines in 2008
In 2011 we returned to the theme of islands for an article in Practical Caravan Magazine. Here it is.
Britain is an island nation and a nation of islands. Churchill called us the Island Race and Shakespeare talked of Britain as This Sceptred Isle. There is always something romantic about any piece of land surrounded by water and that often has a lot to do with how visitors get on to the island.
Whether you tow your caravan across a bridge, a causeway or take a ferry it’s always a bit of an adventure. We have caught large overnight ferries to bigger islands such as Orkney and Shetland and we have pitched our caravan on the mainland to visit a smaller island perhaps even walking across the sands at low tide as you do to reach the tiny Hilbre Islands. We have waited for the tide to go out so that we could drive across the wet and glistening causeway to Mersea Island – our most easterly isle. All the islands in this feature are different and all have something about them that is special and unique.
Skye’s the limit
Head through the Highlands on the A87 to the Kyle of Lochalsh and then take the toll-free bridge over to Skye.
Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing,
Onward! The sailors cry.
Carry the lad that is born to be king
over the sea to Skye.
When Bonnie Prince Charlie fled north of the border it was no surprise he chose the lonely and remote island of Skye. Even today when a modern bridge has replaced the romantic boat trip it’s still a place to lose yourself in splendid isolation, still somehow a secret place with its own mysterious beauty, peace and historic sites. Walk in the awesome and beautiful Cuillin mountains and you begin to understand the overused word wilderness.
Orkney – the ancient Isle
Overnight ferry sailing from Aberdeen to Kirkwall www.northlink.com. Shorter crossings from the very north of Scotland, Gills Bay to St Margaret Hope www.pentlandferries.co.uk and Scrabster (near Thuso) to Stromness www.northlink.com.
There are 70 islands in Orkney some are reached by causeways, other islands by small and inexpensive car ferries. There are a huge number of archaeological sites throughout the islands such as Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae – all have been given World Heritage Status. More recent are the remains of the German High Seas Fleet which was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919. Puffins and many other seabirds as well as seals, porpoises, whales and dolphins can be seen all around the shores of Orkney. If you are lucky you may even spot a pod of Killer whales.
Quality of Mersea
Take the B1025 south out of Colchester until you reach the tidal causeway that takes you across to the island.
Mersea Island is approached across a tidal causeway and there is a chance that your caravan will need to splash through an inch or two of seawater as you cross to the island. Mersea Island is best known as the home of the famous Colchester Native Oysters. What could be nicer to wash those home grown oysters down than a glass of local bubbly? Mersea Island’s very own vineyard makes one of the best sparkling wine in England. You are never far from the sea on the island you may see the famous Thames barges which often visit the small creeks of Mersea island.
Anglesey and Holy Island
The New A55 and the old A5 cross on to the island of Anglesey and then continue across a causeway on to Holy Island and to the ferry port of Holyhead.
Holy Island is part of the larger and just as fascinating island of Anglesey, a place of Welsh speakers, pretty bays and beaches and a tiny railway station with the longest name in the world. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. On Holy island we sought out some of the many standing stones, menhirs and dolmans and other pre historic burial sites that gave the island its Holy title. South Stack’s tall cliffs confronts the sea. This is puffin country and these colourful and comical birds are to be seen at the local Ellin’s Tower RSPB reserve.
One to Mull over
The ferry from Oban takes just 45 minutes to reach Mull.
Mull is Scotland’s second largest island and the forth largest of all Britain’s islands. The brightly painted seafront houses of the main port Tobermory have become well known and well visited since they became the fictional location of children’s TV’s Balamory.
The golden eagle is the most spectacular bird of the British Isles, the white tailed sea eagle was once much rarer that its golden brother but now sightings are increasing all along the British coastline. One of the best places to see these two mighty raptors is the Eagle Watch Centre on the isle of Mull. www.rspb.org.uk
On Northern Ireland’s legendary Cauuseway Coast you will find the pretty town of Ballintoy, just outside is Carrick-a-rede.
The tiny island of Carrick on Northern Island’s Antrim Coast is mostly famous for the rope suspension bridge, worthy of a Indiana Jones movie, that is the only way to reach the island. The original bridge was built hundreds of years ago, roughly constructed of vines and rough boards with a single rail. Over the years it has been rebuilt many times. Today it is very safe way to get to the island although it still swings. The bridge is very high, covering an 80-foot deep chasm often with troubled waters beneath.
Walking on water to Hilbre
Take the A540 from Chester to West Kirby. The walk to the islands starts from the slipway here. Notices will show you the route or contact the Country Park Rangers. You can find the rangers in the Country Park Centre next door to the Caravan Club Site.
Islands worth visiting don’t have to be big. One of our favourites are the Hilbre Islands with seals, migrating waders and many other water birds. The best thing about these three tiny islands is the way you get to them – it’s a real adventure. You will need to consult the tide tables as access is across firm sands but only for a few hours each side of low water. Check the notices at the slip as the route isn’t straight across the sands to the island. Plan carefully; you won’t want to get trapped by the returning tide. Guided walks are available.
The Aran Islands
Aer Arann (www.aerarannislands.ie ) fly from Connemara airport to Aran, Passenger ferries go from various ports including Galway, Rossveel and Doolin.
Fans of TV’s Father Ted may know that Craggy Island was based on the Aran Islands. You can fly or take a ferry to reach the group of rocky outcrops in Galway Bay where time seems to have stood still. Tiny pocket handkerchief fields divided by dry stone walls, ruined thatched cottages, ancient stone ring forts and crumbling churches dot the landscape. Blue flag beaches seem to go on forever and a pony and trap is still an important means of transport on the Islands. Every shop on the island sells the distinctive Aran sweaters.
The most popular ferry route to Shetland is the overnight sailing from Aberdeen to Lerwick www.northlink.com.
The last untamed corner of the UK – that is how travel guide Lonely Planet described Shetland. We love Shetland and go back year after year. We go for the culture, the music, the history, the wildlife – we have seen whales, otters, seals, puffins and many other species. Mainly we go for the amazing landscape and the spectacular views. We love the rugged coastline and epic cliffs as well as the serene white beaches and tranquil inland lochs, perfect for gentle strolls or more challenging hikes. Fascinating archaeological sites are also a part of any visit to Shetland.