Island Hopping around the UK
When you travel to North America, Australia or even parts of Scandinavia, it becomes kind of expected that the more remote your ultimate location, the more reliant you will be on unusual forms of transport. At this time of the year, I have driven from one part of Finland to another on a frozen waterway. I have enjoyed similar thrills in Canada too, although I have never done bush flying in the antipodes.
If you have ever seen that terrifying Channel Four TV programme about ‘Ice Road Truckers’, believe me, the thought of disappearing through the ice does not leave you, all the time you are driving across it! The reason I mention this and also think about the float planes that I have used to land on lakes and rivers, in all seasons and far-flung outposts, is that you might expect a not dissimilar transport issue arising for the 803 islands that Ordnance Survey says are dotted around the UK.
You have to admit, it is a lot of territory to explore, much of which is uninhabited and all but impossible to reach unless by helicopter and, even then, landing might be unlikely. Of course, attempting to grab an ‘air taxi’ in the UK is improbable enough. Our nearest equivalent would be by charter flight and, without wishing to reduce your enthusiasm to have a go, they are anything but pocket-money expenses.
Yet, some of the populated islands do have useful local services and there are island hopping propeller planes in Scotland that will whisk you from one sandy beach to another on scheduled services. They are operated by Logan Air and one of them has a flight time of just two minutes between the islands of Papa Westray and Westray in the Orkneys. Incidentally, as tourists are also presented with a signed certificate by the captain (although it used to include a bottle of Orcadian whisky too), in return for the £17 fare, it might be worth taking the flight just for the devil of it.
Small Scottish populations
Should you be standing at Dunnet Head (the Scottish mainland’s most northerly point), looking across the Pentland Firth to the Orkneys, you will see the isle of Hoy first, which is largely uninhabited. In fact, the car ferry takes travellers from Scrabster, just north of Thurso, around Hoy to Stromness on mainland Orkney. It carries on to Lerwick thereafter, which is on Zetland, the main island of the Shetland cluster.
Arboreally bleak but stunningly beautiful in their starkness, both sets of islands possess strong local communities, despite the small populations, and surprisingly good services for adventurous tourists. It is possible to fly into Kirkwall, on Orkney, or to one of three airstrips on the Shetlands for speedier visits and you can rent cars at the airports, for visiting the sights, or for reaching your chosen accommodation.
South of Shetland is Fair Isle, a name familiar to buyers of woollen goods, which is populated by some very hardy sheep and a few shepherds and sells its unique wool that is knitted into some of the most renowned pullovers and cardigans in the world. The cultural links to Scandinavia are quite clear in this part of the world.
Under the classification of ‘The Western Isles’, the Outer Hebrides, which consist, in north to south layout and diminishing stature, of Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist and Barra, lie to the west of the Isle of Skye. However, the Inner Hebrides consist of Tiree, Coll and Mull, with Rhum, Muck and Eigg separating them from Skye to the south. It is possible to fly or ferry into almost any of them, despite their remoteness. However, the flights can be expensive and the ferry rides time-consuming, as well as costly.
Yet, Skye, has a growing appeal to many visitors, especially since the toll bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh ceased charging what was the most exorbitant fee of any bridge in the UK. Even on a good day, it might take less than 90 minutes to drive on all of Skye’s roads but I can guarantee you that the craggy and very moody Cuillins mountain range on the south of the island will captivate you with its phenomenal beauty. There are some excellent hotels on the island and with free-range highland cattle filling their guts with equally free-range samphire at the water’s edge, dining on a rare fillet, or partaking of some of the most exquisite seafood is a must-do activity.
Within easy reach of Glasgow is the Isle of Bute, one of Scotland’s more accessible islands. It is linked by ferry to the mainland, using either short or some longer Clyde estuary routes. There is also a sea-plane link from Glasgow. Apart from the Gothic Mount Stuart House and the 28,000 acres owned by the Marquis of Bute’s family, all of which are worth investigating, the island has a wonderful history, some lovely architecture, excellent accommodation and five of the best beaches in Scotland.
Just off the North Wales coast, close enough to allow a bridge to link it to the mainland, is the Isle of Anglesey. Do not worry, I am not about to recite the longest Welsh village name (Llanfairpwll…etc) but it does have an inevitable tourist attraction. Until I needed to catch the high-speed ferry from Holyhead to Belfast, I had never visited the island before and had overlooked it comprehensively. Yet, I have returned a dozen times since, so attractive and accessible is it.
Silly to miss them
A place like the Scilly Isles, which consists of an archipelagic cluster of enchanting beauty, totals no less than 140 islets, although just five of them are inhabited, the main island of St Mary’s and the satellites of Tresco, St Martin’s, Bryher and St Agnes. The climate is wonderful virtually all year round thanks to the gulf stream that passes nearby and it benefits from moderate temperatures that allow some highly unusual sub-tropical plants to grow. In fact, St Mary’s productive bulbfields ensure that early stocks of daffodils hit flower-shops in the UK well ahead of Dutch or Lincolnshire varieties.
St Mary’s offers a wondrous welcome to tourists, who arrive by ferry, after a 30-miles voyage from the mainland, or who fly into the local airport. Although cars are allowed on the islands, they are notable for their relative rarity, although there is a proliferation of yellow golf buggies that seem to operate as local rental transport. Rest assured, St Mary’s knows its strengths and it also knows that it must appeal to tourists, even though the actual numbers that can be accommodated within slightly less than 2.5 square miles of island are actually severely limited.
In case you wondered what entertainments exist on Scilly, had you viewed the delightful BBC TV series, ‘An Island Parish’, a couple of years ago, you would have noted that life on St Mary’s is varied and surprisingly hectic. Visitors can bask on the beaches, cycle the
lanes, walk wherever they wish, sail from one island to the next, or just pick flowers and paint pictures. There are plenty of shows and events that take place throughout the year and, even as a temporary resident, it is easy to become thoroughly encapsulated and entranced by St Mary’s and the rest of the islands that make up The Scillies.
If The Scillies are notable for their number, then one island in the Bristol Channel is the complete opposite, even though its diversity in almost every other respect is many times that of St Mary’s. Nowadays inhabited by no more than a couple of dozen people, among whom are a publican, a postie (the island does have its own stamps), the island manager and several volunteers, Lundy, which seems to translate loosely into Puffin Island, can offer tourists a campsite and even accommodation in 23 island properties designated for holidaymakers.
The three-miles long island has been home to murderers, vagabonds and the Marisco family, some of whose antics would curl the hairs on your neck. At various times, Lundy has been a garrison, a vital stronghold, a home, a castle and a settlement of considerable note, none of which it is today. Yet, Lundy thrives on a constant flow of tourist contributions (from the rented accommodation), arranging day trips and from donations made to the Landmark Trust, which leases the island from the National Trust.
Lundy’s wildlife is predominantly sea birds, although the puffin population is recovering, since the eradication of the black rat from its shores. The grey seal, Sika deer, pygmy shrew and feral goats are among the mammals that include sheep and rabbits residing on it. Sailing from both Bideford and Ilfracombe, the Trust’s own vessel, MS Oldenburg, transports visitors on the twohours voyage to the island during summer, although a helicopter ‘taxi’ operates from Devon (Hartland Point) from November to March every year.
The Channel Islands’ smaller brethren
In a case of ‘Whose Dependency Are They Anyway?’, the Channel Islands have always held a strong place in British hearts, as much for the troubling defence put up againstthe conquering Germans in World War Two, as for the tax haven provided to British nationals in more recent times. In fact, the Channel Islands were the only British dependency to be occupied by the enemy forces during WW2.
Although the islands are British crown dependencies, they are not part of the UK. Yet, they have been part of the Duchy of Normandy since the 10th Century and HM The Queen is referred to by her ancient title of the Duke of Normandy, which means that all loyal toasts are made to, ‘The Queen, our Duke’ and not ‘Her Majesty, The Queen’. They possess their own legislature, issued by either the States of Guernsey or Jersey respectively.
There are so many settlers on the islands, trying to hear the different dialects can be quite difficult but at least four exist on the islands, all of which are related to Norman French. Specifically, Sersquiais is spoken on Sark and Herm, while Auregnais is reserved for the residents of Alderney.
Travelling to the islands is possible by sea or air and Alderney operates its own airport. Sark relies on boat access and with a virtual ban on motorised transport, apart from local tractors, it is down to Herm to be the only island on which even cycling is actively
discouraged as a possible mode of getting around. Yet, tourism remains the primary income and the people who desire the peace and quiet are prepared to pay well for it. Incidentally, the islands are significantly closer to the French coastline than the British one and day trips to St Malo by fast ferry are distinctly possible.
Despite both geological and geographic proximity, the islands can attest to quite different characters and while the gorgeous sandy beaches might be similar in appearance, if you want to get away from the crowds, then Alderney, Herm and Sark will increase that gap in that order. They all benefit from a tax haven status, which affords some much-needed cachet.
Each of them has a wonderful history, although Alderney does possess the most tempestuous of them. A large concentration camp was operated on Alderney and the remains are worth exploring. However, there is a lot more to Channel Islands’ history than WW2, as it does go back over 5,000 years. Accommodation varies according to which of the islands you settle on for your holiday.
When you look at Sark, with its tightly girdled waistline, the high causeway that transports visitors from the main part of the island to Little Sark, you start to appreciate the sheer majesty of its coast. From a personal standpoint, I believe that Sark possesses a striking beauty that is wonderfully unique to it, as suggested earlier. Its chocolate box looks are supported by the hand-made Caragh Chocolates, the premises of which sits above the bay at Port es Saies, which should give some idea as to the commercial enterprise resident on this tiny island. My favourite is the ‘Sark After Dark’, although the white and creamy ganache-filled ‘Sark Hearts’ are a bit special.
Just looking at Herm, from the air, it has all the appearance of a green and gold velvety cushion in a sea of blue. Herm people boast of the lack of crowds, the absence of motorcars and the unhurried atmosphere. They do right. Perhaps it is a characteristic unique to the Channel Islands, because even on Jersey and Guernsey, which do allow motorised transport, a similar easygoing, easy-breathing aura is obvious.
However, despite its compact size, Herm is simply packed with an amazing sense of vitality that it is only possible to comprehend once your feet land on its harbour, or you walk across the fine white sand of its beaches. There are no issues on accommodation either, despite the sparse population, with self-catering cottages and apartments supplementing the island’s famous White House Hotel, which opens seasonally from the last weekend of March to the first week of October. I likened my last visit to being ideal for getting to know the family all over again, which proved to be one of its most positive holiday attributes.
However, while not wishing to, I shall end this feature on Alderney, mainly because it is the easiest of the Channel Islands to reach and from which to return to the hustle and bustle of regular life, predominantly because it has both sea and air access. Slightly larger than Herm or Sark, Alderney covers just five square miles and, on a good day, you can actually watch the ferries arriving and departing at Cherbourg on the French coast, which is just eight miles distant.
Alderney is not about mainstream tourism. Yet, it is a font of history, both factual and natural, wrapped up in a cloak of warmth and welcome that is known as the ‘Alderney feeling’. Again, it is quite different to the other islands and, while it possesses its own governance and even a growing relevance in the finance and investment scene, it retains a strong and heady essence of retreat. There is a greater choice of accommodation on Alderney, including a handful of hotels and plenty of flats, cottages and even houses for holidays. Go once and you will return. That is what island-hopping in the UK is all about.
Accessibility: by air to Alderney; by sea to the others as well. Flights are available from several regional airports to the Channel Islands. Ferries from main UK ports but local boat services between islands, which also applies to Lundy. Same in Scotland, except ‘air taxi’ does exist too. Rental vehicles at destinations. Skye and Anglesey can be reached by road.
Accommodation: some useful web-sites will gain you access to hotels and residences on British islands. Book well in advance to be sure of getting what you want.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel.