The Complete Guide To: England's islands

From Northumbria's volcanic rock to the mudflats of Essex, hundreds of islands, large and small, temporary and permanent, flank the English coast


HOW MANY OFFSHORE ISLANDS DOES ENGLAND HAVE?

It depends what time it is. Twice a day, the rising tide creates islands by flooding the causeways that connect them to the mainland. Others disappear altogether beneath the waves. Off the coast of Northumberland, there are 15 Farne Islands at high tide; 28 when the water recedes. At low tide, the Scilly archipelago has about 140 islands and islets, as numerous ships have found to their cost. Overall, there are about one thousand pieces of land that at some point during the day are surrounded by water. The vast majority are now uninhabited by man, and as a consequence have become home to a profusion of wildlife.

WHICH IS THE LARGEST?

By some margin, the Isle of Wight, which at its closest point almost touches the mainland, but in every other way is far removed from the hustle of the Hampshire coast. How different might it have been if plans to build a road and rail tunnel under the Solent between the wars had not been rejected by the islanders? Today, around 125,000 occupy their diamond-shaped retreat, enjoying Britain's most benign climate and some of its best beaches. Old-fashioned seaside and well-heeled yachting resorts sit happily alongside the peaceful, chalky downs and the exposed west coast, punctuated by narrow ravines known as chines. A profusion of car and passenger ferries access the island from Southampton, Portsmouth and Lymington.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS?

The undulating island has more than 500 miles of undemanding, picturesque trails, and 15,000 ramblers are expected for the annual two-week walking festival (6-21 May), featuring more than 100 guided hikes. Details from Isle of Wight Tourism (01983 813813; www.islandbreaks.co.uk). From June 9-11, the revived Isle of Wight pop festival (08705 321 321; www.isleofwightfestival.com) is headlined by Coldplay and the Foo Fighters. The original festival was discontinued after 1970, when upwards of half a million fans descended on farmland at Afton Down and paid a princely £3 to see Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Joni Mitchell and many more in a five-day expression of music and liberation that severely tested the island's infrastructure and tolerance. This year's event has now sold out, but tickets are still on sale for the Bestival (08700 667753; www.bestival.net; 8-10 September), a "boutique music festival" in nearby Robin Hill Park which last year set the Guinness World Record for the Biggest Fancy Dress Party. Cowes Week, the world's oldest and largest sailing regatta, runs from 29 July until 5 August, and from 16-24 September the holiday season ends with a cycling festival (01983 823355; www.sunseaandcycling.com).

ANY OTHER ISLANDS OF INTEREST ALONG THE SOUTH COAST?

Because much of the coastline is high-lying, there are relatively few. Cornwall's most famous landmark is St Michael's Mount, a spectacular granite plug rising sharply out of the water to a height of 300 feet. It's crowned by a 14th-century church and battlemented tower that can be reached by a causeway, or by boat at high tide. The island also contains a small village, ornamental gardens, and a Victorian underground railway that carries visitors to the summit. Owned by the National Trust (0870 458 4000; www.nationaltrust.org.uk), it opens between 26 March and the end of October, 10.30am-5.30pm. Admission to non-NT members is £6. For more information, call 01736 710507.

Off the coast of Devon, at Bigbury-on-Sea, another tidal causeway leads to Burgh Island, whose owners have preserved it as a luxurious art deco retreat. The much-renovated Burgh Island hotel (01548 810514; www.burghisland.com), built in 1929, was frequented by such high-society luminaries as the Duke of Windsor, Agatha Christie and Noël Coward. The house and grounds dominate the island, leaving little for non-residents to see beyond a small village and a 14th-century smuggling haunt, the Pilchard Inn. At high tide, the breakers are negotiated by a curious, canopied sea tractor, which takes you there and back for £3. Residents, for whom double rooms start at £295 per night, travel free of charge.

Much larger, and less exclusive, is the remarkable Brownsea Island in the middle of Poole Harbour, a short ferry ride from Britain's wealthiest suburb, Sandbanks. It was on this clump of heath and woodland that Lord Baden-Powell held his first experimental scout camp in 1907, and the island remains ideal scouting territory, with forest trails, beaches and bird sanctuaries strictly protected by a number of wildlife and conservation trusts. Brownsea also boasts Branksea Castle, built by Henry VIII to defend the harbour, now restored and leased by the John Lewis Partnership for staff recreation. Japanese deer roam the woodland, and other delights include rare red squirrels, an exquisite church lit only by candelabra, and a village green where open-air opera is staged every summer. This year's production is Much Ado About Nothing (26 July to 11 August). Ring 01202 251987 for details. In summer, there are ferries every half-hour from Poole Quay (£6.50 return) and Sandbanks (£4.50). Admission to the island is free for National Trust members; £4.40 for non-members.

TIME TO DON OUR SOU'WESTERS?

Yes, to head out into the Atlantic. Lying about 30 miles off the Cornish coast, the Isles of Scilly are England's most remote outcrops - and its only archipelago. A close-knit community of about two thousand occupies the five largest islands. The vast majority live in or around the "capital", Hugh Town, on St Mary's, the only place where the words "busy" or "stressed" might ever seem appropriate.

The best way to appreciate the Scillies is to approach by steamer from Penzance, an often choppy voyage of more than seven hours. If time is pressing, there are regular 20-minute helicopter flights (weather permitting) from Penzance to St Mary's and the second largest island, Tresco. Fixed-wing aircraft fly to St Mary's from Southampton, Bristol, Exeter, Newquay and Land's End. Sailing (£67 return) costs about half the price of flying. For current fares and booking, ring 0845 710 5555, or visit www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk.

ARE THE ISLES OF SCILLY WORTH VISITING?

Each of the inhabited islands has a distinctive character, and some of their uninhabited neighbours benefit greatly from the lack of human interference. Sturdy passenger boats criss-cross the shallow sound that divides them all. On St Mary's there are wide, white beaches and rocky coves. The town is flanked by a 16th-century fortress - now a hotel - and its graveyard is the resting place of the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who had a holiday home on the island.

Tresco, sheltered from the Atlantic storms and warmed by the Gulf Stream that brings spring to the islands soon after Christmas, offers the extraordinary Abbey Gardens - luxuriant terraces of more than 5,000 subtropical plants, some of which flower all winter and are unique in the northern hemisphere.

Bryher and St Martin's have superb beaches, and St Agnes exists in a contented time-warp, with a patchwork of small fields bordered by tall hedges, just like rural England of yesteryear. Dainty shops sell bulbs and postcards, and the pretty church commemorates one of the many ships that have come to grief on the rocks and reefs. A prayer on the wall reminds us of the harsh lives of previous generations, with its bitter-sweet message: "We pray Thee Lord, not that wrecks should happen, but if they do Thou wilt guide them to the Scilly Isles for the benefit of the poor inhabitants."

On a clear night, it is possible to see the beams of eight lighthouses - notably Bishop Rock, the tallest in the British Isles, built to a height of 175ft to keep the beam clear of the blinding Atlantic spray. Bird-watchers train their binoculars on the uninhabited smaller islands, where puffins and black-backed gulls are able to breed undisturbed. The first and last outpost of England is among its finest jewels.

OTHER NOTEWORTHY LIGHTHOUSES?

Every disconnected lump of rock needs a light to warn mariners of its presence, and the coastline is dotted with magnificent examples of man's ingenuity and daring. A luminous example on the Cornish coast is on Godrevy Island, across the treacherous channel from Godrevy Point, built in response to a public outcry following the loss of the 700-ton steamer The Nile, with all hands, in 1854. A manned light began operating five years later, and by the early 1900s Godrevy had a tea house and holiday chalets. The imposing structure, now solar-powered, inspired Virginia Woolf to write To The Lighthouse. On Northumbria's Farne Islands, the Longstone Lighthouse gained world renown when Grace Darling and her father rescued survivors of the steamship Forfarshire, when it struck the rocks in 1838.

SOMETHING MORE SHELTERED?

Protected from the Atlantic by the coasts of South Wales and North Devon, the Bristol Channel islands of Lundy and Steep Holme provide some respite. Lundy, a granite lump about three miles long by one mile wide, rises 400ft out of the sea and is cosily sheltered on its eastern side. It has a 13th-century castle, church, shop, pub, two working lighthouses and a permanent population of about 20. Run by the Landmark Trust (01628 825925; www.landmarktrust.org.uk), two dozen of its properties have been restored and can be rented for a week at a time. These include a disused lighthouse and sections of the castle. Visitors sail from Bideford in North Devon on the trust's supply ship, attracted by the rich diversity of its flora and fauna, wildlife that includes basking sharks, grey seals, wild goats and the rare soay sheep, and England's only marine nature reserve - a haven for divers and snorkellers.

Steep Holme, a mainly sunken outcrop of the Mendip Hills between Weston-super-Mare and Cardiff, has been abandoned by man and colonised by birds. To construct its anti-aircraft defences in the Second World War, a railway line was installed to haul the equipment to the summit. The tracks have been left in place to make the climb easier for walkers. In summer, there are boat excursions from Weston-super-Mare.

WHAT ABOUT STEEP HOLME'S 'TWIN' ISLAND, JUST THREE MILES AWAY?

Historically, Flat Holm is the more interesting of the two, because it was the site of the world's first radio transmission - three and a half miles across the water to Lavernock Point - by one Guglielmo Marconi in 1897. Unlike Steep Holme, it belongs to Wales, and getting there from "foreign" Steep Holme involves a tortuous journey back to Somerset and across the border to the Welsh port of Barry, from where the boat leaves.

WHERE IS ENGLAND'S LARGEST CONCENTRATION OF ISLANDS?

With the exception of the Scillies, the surprising answer is Essex, where the low-lying coast slides into the North Sea, and the mudflats and marshlands are sculpted by numerous tidal rivers and creeks. This soggy, bleak hinterland has been largely abandoned by man, which has had two main consequences: intensive smuggling and phenomenal wildlife - the area is home to millions of native and migratory birds.

WHAT ARE THE BEST KNOWN OF THESE EAST-COAST ISLANDS?

The nearest "resort" to London, only 45 miles from Piccadilly Circus, Canvey Island, was reclaimed from the sea in the 17th century by Dutch engineers, and two traditional Dutch cottages survive among its bungalows and holiday chalets. A massive concrete wall now defends the low-lying land from the sea, which overwhelmed the island in the severe storms of January 1953, claiming 58 lives.

Foulness, lying between the Thames Estuary and the Crouch, is England's fourth largest island, but for much of its modern life has been out of bounds to the public because the Ministry of Defence chose it as a testing ground for munitions. Its profusion of Brent geese and other wading birds were not to be deterred, and they saved it from further pollution when the plan to build London's third airport on the adjoining Maplin Sands was dropped on environmental grounds. Now peaceful and extensively farmed, permission for access is granted by the parish clerk (01702 217538).

Mersea, at the mouth of the River Colne, is the most easterly inhabited island in the kingdom, with some of its tastiest oysters. The island's 6,500 inhabitants reach the mainland via The Strood, a half-mile causeway that probably dates back to the Romans.

Osea, a private island on the River Blackwater, was bought by the brewery heir Frederick Charrington in 1903. Horrified by the effects of his family's product, he founded two homes on the island for alcoholics. When the island, with its manor house, scattering of cottages and 300 acres of woodland and marshland went up for sale at £6m in 2001, the Essex couple Posh and Becks reportedly showed an interest: by helicopter, it's only 20 minutes from London.

ARE THERE ANY ISLANDS OF INTEREST IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND?

Only in the far north. A few miles off the Northumbrian fishing village of Seahouses, the Farne Islands are one of the UK's most important bird sanctuaries, home to an estimated 70,000 puffins, 20 other breeding species of sea bird, and colonies of grey seals. The islands are owned by the National Trust, which has an information centre on Inner Farne, one of only two islands on which landings are permitted. Because the volcanic rock lies in deep water and rises sharply out of the sea, it is possible to sail remarkably close to the birds and seals. There are regular excursions around the islands all year round. Admission to both islands for non-NT members costs £5.20.

Almost within sight of the Scottish border, Holy Island (also known as Lindisfarne) is a notable landmark because of its castle, standing proudly at the summit of a volcanic mound, accessible by a causeway that is usable for 11 hours every day. Its history is rich. Founded in 635AD by the Irish monk St Aidan, it was the birthplace of the Celtic church in England, and 60 years later its monastery produced an illustrated gospel - a masterpiece of Christian art now kept in the British Museum. The lofty Lindisfarne Castle was built in the 1550s to discourage Scottish raids, and became the private home of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1902. The island's 120 inhabitants live in a sheltered village in its considerable shadow. The castle (01289 389244; www.lindisfarne.org.uk) opens for four and a half hours every day, depending on the tides. If the National Trust flag is flying, you're in luck. Admission for non-NT members is £5.20.

AT LOW TIDE TO THE STRANGEST ISLE OF ALL

The north-west coast is almost island-less, apart from a little-known cluster just off Cumbria at Barrow-in-Furness. The shelter and security provided by the 12-mile strip of the Isle of Walney assisted Barrow's growth as a manufacturer of naval ships and submarines. Modelled on the Cadbury dormitory town of Bourneville, the military manufacturer Vickers created Vickerstown as a complete community, linked to the shipyards by a road-bridge. The island, which has two nature reserves and a 10-mile beach, narrows to a quarter of a mile in parts: heavy seas have occasionally swept clean across it to inundate the coast.

At very low tide, it is possible to walk across the sands to Piel Island, a 20-acre mound of grassland notable for being the launching point of the last foreign invasion of England. In 1486, Irish and Flemish supporters of royal pretender Lambert Simnel gathered at Piel and began their march on London, intending to seize the crown of Henry VII. They got no further than Stoke, where they were routed by the king's men. The island has a ruined 14th-century castle and a working pub which has neither mains gas nor electricity, but still serves a full English breakfast.

In that spirit of quirkiness possessed of many of England's islands, the pub's landlord is entitled to call himself the "King of Piel".

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