It’s been a good summer for Alain de Botton’s accountant.
The man behind the spreadsheets must have been rubbing his hands with glee after a procession of newspapers ran articles penned by the PR-friendly philosopher.
In them, his central hypothesis was that we need to be challenged by our holidays. Time away should, he mused chin strokingly, take us beyond our comfort zones.
He wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“The point of travel shouldn’t be constant bliss; it should be an encounter with interesting new disturbances of the soul.”
Mr. de Botton is, of course, talking out of his de Botton.
I’m just back from an escape to the island of Anglesey in North Wales. I arrived exhausted and in need of a retreat with just a few home comforts and some soul-salving company.
I hadn’t come to be challenged.
I didn’t cruise down the A55 to push myself to new limits of tolerance and personal discomfort. After the trials and tribulations of recent times, I was there simply for some peace and quiet.
But relaxing wasn’t easy.
The thing about escaping the daily grind is that you don’t put down your worries like the bags in the entrance hall of the holiday cottage. You can’t pack them up neatly away in the sock drawer of a strange cupboard.
You carry them with you and turn them over in your mind on the first night in a new bed, chipping away at them slowly over the ensuing days as an act of reckoning. That’s challenge enough.
Slowly I started to find my peace.
It drifted by on the breeze as I sat in the back garden of the cottage eating breakfast. It swirled around me like ancient spirits amid the ruined cloisters of Penmon Priory. And it pursued me down 500 slippery-stone steps as I ventured out to South Stack on a blistery afternoon.
It light up the sky on a cottonwool-cloud lunchtime over Puffin Island [pictured above].
Call me cynical. The coverage de Botton garnered over summer was, it could be said, a thinly veiled promotional push for the repackaging of his 2002 book as The New Art of Travel.
I read the original and admired it greatly.
In particular I was drawn to the section in which he discussed how, on a luxury trip Barbados, he realises that he had “… inadvertently brought myself with me to the island”.
To me, it seems a shame to sully the thought-provoking original work with a rehashed follow-up and a few headline-grabbing soundbites during silly season.
I came to Anglesey nursing my own challenges. But I didn’t need some cash-in claptrap to help me find my own peace.
So apologies to the man with the profit and loss ledgers.
But, when it comes to PR guff dressed up as philosophy-based travel advice, I’m simply not buying.
They are rural retreats – a remote Shangri-La away from the madding crowd.
The numerous small islands off the British coastline offer a glimpse of life at different pace.
We discover some of the best island escapes around the UK.
Brownsea Island, Dorset
It has been used as a daffodil farm, a pottery works and a decoy to protect Poole during the Second World War.
Two-thirds of the island was burnt in 1934 and, from 1927-1961, the island was owned by Mrs Bonham-Cristie, who let the island become a virtual wilderness.
On her death it was bought by the National Trust and today this island nature reserve is an ideal natural setting for walks, picnics and wildlife – look out for the rare red squirrels.
Brownsea Island is the largest island in Poole Harbour with half-hourly boat services running from Poole Quay and Sandbanks throughout the summer.
The island offers superb views across to Studland, Old Harry Rocks and the Purbeck Hills, while the natural habitat offers the run of pinewoods, heathland and lagoons where breeding birds collect.
Most of all, Brownsea is known worldwide as the birthplace of the Scout and Guide movement after Robert Baden-Powell held the first ever experimental Scout camp here in 1907.
Silver Holme, Cumbria
Following the recent release of the film Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellwegger as the author Beatrix Potter, there has been a boom in literary tourism to the Lake District.
But this is nothing new. The islands of Lake Windemere, England’s largest lake, have provided inspiration to Britain’s literary heavyweights for centuries with references dating back to Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude.
Today Silver Holme, located about 50m from the western shoreline, may look like just a rather nondescript lump of rock for nesting wild fowl and birdlife.
It is, however, the best known of the lake’s 14 islands as being the inspiration for Wildcat Island in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. Ransome himself is buried at nearby Coltin Parish Church.
All but one of Windemere’s islands has open access and boats can be hired from charter companies in Bowness Bay; the cruise boats on Windermere also stop at the island.
This island sanctuary off the coast of southeast Wales is rich in wildlife and historical lore.
Located just five miles from Cardiff in the busy shipping lanes where the Bristol Channel meets the Severn estuary, boat trips depart from Barry Island Harbour for the 30-minute journey from March through to October.
Flat Holm’s first incarnation stems from the Dark Ages, when it was a retreat for monks. Since then it has been the domain of silver miners, smugglers and cholera victims. It is perhaps best known, however, for receiving the first ever radio message across water sent by Marconi in 1897.
Today, 500m in diameter and totally flat, Flat Holm is a site of special scientific interest and a local nature reserve at the most southerly point in Wales.
It is home to one of the largest colonies of gulls in Wales plus a summer carpet of rare and exotic wild flowers.
Visitors are warned to wear a hat to ward off the defensive dive-bombing of the gulls during breeding season.
For local residents, the iconic image of Flat Holm is its lighthouse, which was first lit on December 1st, 1737, following a tragic accident in 1736 when sixty soldiers were drowned and their vessel wrecked near the Holm.
This has steered sailors through the perils of the Bristol Channel ever since with Trinity House responsible for its upkeep since 1823.
Eel Pie Island, London
Nestled amongst the twists and turns of the River Thames are a handful of highly salubrious island getaways with a surprisingly colourful past.
The most rock n’ roll of these is, without doubt, Eel Pie Island, which is tucked inside the Thames at Twickenham.
Formerly known as Twickenham Ait, it has been connected to the London borough of Richmond since 1957 by a footbridge.
Today the island has a population of around 120 people and nature reserves at either end. It is home to Twickenham Rowing Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs on the Thames, and a community of artists.
Its biggest claim to fame, however, is as a hotbed of musical heritage.
The Eel Pie Studios, owned by The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, provided the location for the recording of numerous rock albums. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was a major venue for Britain’s burgeoning rock scene in the late 1960s with the likes of The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones all taking the island by storm.
The hotel met a sad demise in a fire in 1971, but the island’s infamy lives on in the stories, poems and songs of the musicians who played there.
Alney Island, Gloucestershire
Around one mile from the centre of Gloucester, where the River Severn splits, Alney Island Nature Reserve is a wetland area within spiting distance of an urban centre.
The island boasts traditional wet grassland and marshy areas that attract all sorts of wildlife, such as buzzards, kestrels and grey herons.
All this is a far cry from the original use of the land: Gloucester’s original 1.5-mile racecourse.
The races were regularly held here until 1839 and, at the time, the course was deemed far superior to the one at Cheltenham, which today dominates the local racing scene.
At the peak of racing fever, campaigners handed out leaflets to the crowd warning of the dangers of gambling and drinking, while police reinforcements and plain-clothes detectives were called in from Birmingham and Bristol.
Today it’s a more tranquil location with guided nature walks in summer taking in the natural attractions – book through the rangers office. In particular, it island offers a rare opportunity to spot wading birds.
Inchmurrin Island, Loch Lomond
Inchmurrin is the largest inland island in Britain and the most southerly on Loch Lomond.
Located just thirty minutes from Glasgow and a short ferry crossing from Midross, it has been privately owned by the Scott family for the past 70 years. Open access ensures, however, that walkers and birdwatchers are welcome to visit this lost-in-time rural idyll.
The island is steeped in history with its roll call of visitors, according to legend, including Scottish folk heroes Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots.
The ruins of a 7th-century monastery and Lennox Castle can still be visited, but today there’s a population of just 10 residents, plus beef cattle, goats and pheasants.
The most evocative way to visit the island, however, is by taking the Mailboat, which delivers mail to four islands on the Loch – Inchtavannich, Inchmurrin, Inchcruin and Inchfad – every day during summer, except Tuesdays and Sundays, and less frequently in winter.
The mail service since been a fixture of life on the Loch since 1948 and riding the boat out amongst the tranquil waters is like stepping back in time.
Derwent Island, Cumbria
The largest and only inhabited island on Derwentwater [pictured above], Derwent Island is a reclusive place open to the public for just a few days each year.
Those lucky enough to enjoy an exclusive visit have access to the 18th-century house, which is managed by the National Trust and set in an idyllic woodland setting.
The island has a varied history ranging from the 12th century, when it was owned by Fountains Abbey as part of their Borrowdale estate, to being sold it in 1778 to Joseph Pocklington of Nottinghamshire, one of the first men of wealth to settle in the Lake District for its scenic beauty.
He named it Pocklington’s Island and built a giant, elaborate villa, which moved Wordsworth himself to ridicule the building as “A warren-house reared upon an eminence for the detection of depredators.”
Access to the island is by boat on timed ticket only. It’s a rare opportunity to visit a local legend.
Carsington Water, Derbyshire
The valley now filled by the Carsington Reservoir dates back to around 2000 BC with archaeological excavations uncovering flints and knives from the Bronze Age.
Carsington Water was officially opened by the Queen in 1992 and has gone on to become one of Derbyshire’s most popular tourist attractions for its family-friendly ethos and sense of discovery.
Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Carsington Water now features several elements around the central reservoir.
Stones Island, erected in 1992, follows in the long tradition in Derbyshire of hill-top monuments with a series of contemporary monoliths which have holes to offer different views across the island.
Close by is a wildlife centre from where you can study Carsington’s varied birdlife, while along the bankside towards Carsington village are three bird-hides where you can spot nesting bird species.
For walkers, bikers and horse riders there is a circular path around the conservation villages of Carsington and Hopton, while anglers and sailors are common place on busy summer weekends.
Located in the Bristol Channel, about 11 miles off the coast of North Devon, Lundy Island is a granite outcrop rising 400 feet above sea level.
Unlike some other islands, however, this place has both a life of its own: a 13th-century castle, a Victorian church, shop, pub and a population of about 18. You can even buy Lundy stamps as proof of your visit.
The island is best known as a marine conservation area and remains a haven for nature lovers with communities of migratory seabirds and seals. Popular activities include climbing, walking and bird watching.
You can also stay on the island in a holiday cottage administered by The Landmark Trust, which manages the island. Properties range from a stone cottage that sleeps just one person to a lighthouse and a converted pigsty.
During summer months the island enjoys good connections to the mainland with regular boat services from Bideford or Illfracombe, a journey that commands breathtaking views of the North Devon coast.
A helicopter service also operates from Hartland Point for a quick lunch stop with a difference.
* I was back in Cumbria at the weekend, researching a story about forest exploration with kids for the Guardian – read it Saturday, August 3. Meanwhile, here’s another Cumbrian tale of folk legends and wild places from a previous family-travel assignment. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more stories from from my travel-writing archive.
I‘ve come to see a man about a knighthood.
It’s too late for the Queen’s Birthday Honours, I’m not planning a trip to Buckingham Palace and I’m not due an audience with HRH. But I’m still hopeful.
Huddled into a tiny, red ferryboat, I’m sailing away from the South Lakes mainland into the dark swells of Morecambe Bay. My destination? Piel Island, a 52-acre stretch of shingle beach and wild-flower scrubland, topped by a ruined 14th-century castle managed by English Heritage [pictured below].
I’m here to find Steve Cattaway, the current King of Piel Island and the man invested with historic powers to appoint the Knights of Piel.
His rural fiefdom shows no signs of regal pomp and ceremony as I approach. The remote island community, formerly a retreat for the monks of Furness Abbey and an erstwhile hotbed of smuggling, is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. A community of wading birds and a couple of fisherman catching sundowners rather than mullet off the seaweed-slime pier are the only vital signs.
The landlord of the island’s 17th-century Ship Inn, complete with its smart new B&B accommodation and adjoining campsite, is traditionally crowned the King of Piel Island.
The tradition refers to an episode in 1487 when Lambert Simnel landed on the island, claiming that he was Earl of Warwick and, therefore, the rightful King of England. Simnel’s mercenary army subsequently marched on London only to be defeated by Henry VII at the Battle of Stoke. His attempt on the throne has been parodied ever since by crowning the pub’s landlord.
Today, the crowning of the new monarch is still performed in the original 17th-century chair, hollowed out from an old oak tree. The ceremony features the ceremonial use of an ancient crown and sword stored above the bar at the Ship Inn, and a thorough dousing in beer.
Steve was crowned in 2008, beating 350 other candidates to the job of landlord after a lengthy recruitment process. “It’s the ultimate honour,” says Steve, serving pints of local ale in the bar that night.
“It’s amazing to think my family name will be recorded in the history books.”
The next morning I join Steve for his daily constitutional around the island, a brisk, 30-minute stroll through the castle ruins, along the foreshore and past a huddle of six weathered-stone cottages kept as holiday homes by local families.
“The closeness to nature gets under your skin,” says Steve, looking out for oystercatcher eggs buried in hollows on the seashell-scattered beach. “When it blows a gale here, it’s fantastic. So cleansing.”
Kings and ladies
But by the end of the day my hopes of a knighthood are failing. The knights are, I learn, a select club with only some 30 knights and baronesses appointed over the last 50 years. The recipients are all people who have given selfless service to the island from rescuing lost fishermen to preserving the island’s natural environment. Many have been visiting since childhood.
The honour bestowed upon them entitles them, when shipwrecked off Piel, to a night’s free lodging plus all they can eat and drink.
Nina McMullen, an accounts manager from Barrow-in-Furness, has some advice for me. Nina is the island’s latest baroness, knighted at a ceremony in May this year.
She visits Piel every weekend and helped Steve and Sheila throughout the recent four-year refurbishment of the pub on an unpaid basis, including a stint serving drinks in a makeshift bar in mid winter. “Piel is a medieval island with modern facilities but traditional ideas,” she says, as sundown casts an amber glow across picnic tables in the beer garden.
“You keep coming back until, eventually, you become part of the family.”
After a fresh-seafood dinner I head off to Hawes Point, overlooking the southern nature reserve at neighbouring Walney Island with its community of grey seals, to contemplate my knighthood quest. The evening is perfectly still with only the call of owls and turns to accompany the dusk.
Finally I understand the lure of Piel: the island demands devotion but rewards richly those who return.
The next morning after breakfast, the pub is quiet. Sheila calls me into the conservatory area and lets me try out the throne for size – after a contribution to the local lifeboat fund.
As I settle into the historic seat of Cumbrian royalty, I may not yet be a knight of the realm, but I do feel like a king for a day.
* This story was first published in the Weekend FT in 2011.
* This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive with no active link. I’m running them here in full. Subscribe to posts at this website for more. Read another of my stories from Ireland, A Cultural Tour from Belfast to Derry.
It starts with a single rocky outcrop and ends with a scattering of 365 islands.
In between the sweeping County Mayo coastline provides a dramatic counterpoint to the mainly rural inland area where life is slow, Gaelic widely spoken in some areas and the traditions of a bygone era still very much alive. Visitors are the exception here, not the norm.
But that’s all about to change. Word of an ancient folk tale, lost for years and until recently undocumented, is stirring interest in a lesser-known region.
County Mayo, with Westport as its maritime hub, offers a gentle-paced spring escape with relaxed coastal drives, walking on deserted, open beaches and excellent local seafood – all without the hordes of nearby Galway.
It also offers a brush with a pirate queen.
The tale revolves around Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century folk heroine, as uncovered by Dublin-based writer, Anne Chambers.
Known as Granuaile (Bald Grace) in Gaelic, a reference to the time she cut off her hair to stow away to sea, her eventful life spanned two husbands, two stints in prison for piracy and numerous seaborne battles at a time when the Machiavellian court of Queen Elizabeth I was seeking to overthrow the Gaelic law of the Irish aristocracy.
The O’Malley clan, with its strong seafaring tradition, dominated County Mayo through trade and force.
Grace, although barred from becoming a clan chief under Gaelic law, readily adopted the mantle of head of the fleet after the death of her father, Owen ‘Black Oak’ O’Malley.
Known as a tactician as well as a fearless warrior, she commanded a flotilla of three galleons and an army of 200 men at the height of her marauding powers.
“I was fascinated as a child by the folklore surrounding Grace and always wondered if she was more than just a legend,” explains Anne, who spent four years painstakingly poring over ancient manuscripts to piece together the true life story of Ireland’s long lost folk heroine.
“She was preserved by Elizabethan state papers and verbal folktales, but ignored by the history books as she was not only a woman, but an outrageous woman. Hence she was systematically written out of the history books for over 400 years.”
Armed with a copy of Anne’s book, Granuaile, Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530-1603, a sense of adventure to explore the rugged coastal landscape and a taste for a drop of the black stuff, I set out to follow in the footsteps of the woman behind the legend.
My base was Westport, a genteel little town with two sweeping boulevards of restaurants, traditional high-street traders and cosy pubs. The town makes for a good base to explore the region and feels untroubled by modernity.
To the western fringe of town, close to where Westport Lake opens up into the harbour, I make Westport House the first stop on my quest.
A stately home built in 1730, and still owned today, by the Browne family, direct descendents of Grace O’Malley, the approach is marked by a bronze statue of Grace, who stands guard over the ample grounds.
John Browne III married Maud Bourke, Grace’s granddaughter, to link the two family dynasties, but it was their grandson, John IV, who set about transforming the erstwhile O’Malley castle into modern-day Westport House.
“Grace was a mythical figure, a women out of her time, but as a child, we didn’t talk about her much at home. Before Anne’s book, we had only folk tales, not facts,” explains Sheelyn Browne, Grace’s thirteenth great-granddaughter, over coffee in the library.
“I’m proud to be her descendent. For me, she reflects the natural environment of the West: rugged, wild and uncompromising.”
A short stroll along the promenade from Westport House, the harbour looks south across Clew Bay, offering my first views of the majestic, mist-shrouded Croagh Patrick, the holiest peak in Ireland where St Patrick – allegedly a Welshman, since you ask – banished venomous serpents from Ireland forever.
I board a small passenger rib that ferries visitors around the sweeping expanse of Clew Bay and chug out towards the island of Carraigahowley.
One of only a handful of inhabited communities amongst the 365 islands in the bay, it’s home to the well-preserved ruins of one of the myriad of castles built by the O’Malley along the west coast.
On a bright morning with sea-spay in my face, the harbour is alive with wildlife: herons, a colony of seals and a last few local colonies of nesting choughs.
Upon arrival, Carraighowley Castle, where Grace sometimes lived, feels a suitably atmospheric liar for a pirate queen with its stone tower, winding, spiral staircase and lofty top floor with slit windows to keep watch over the nearby harbour.
Achill Island, located 30 miles north of Westport, is home to another O’Malley castle, Grainne Uaile, in the village of Kildownet.
A dramatic stone tower looming menacingly over the tiny village, it’s best approached by following the glorious Atlantic Drive. This vista-packed route hugs the coastline and leads, via the surfing beach at Keel and a Blue Flag beach at Keem Bay, to Achill Head, where Atlantic foam crashes against stark rocks.
It feels like the end of the world – and almost is. The next stop is the east coast of America, some 300 miles across the North Atlantic.
But the most evocative location to feel the presence of Grace is Clare Island, just one of three inhabited islands in Clew Bay. Grace grew up here, learnt her seafaring skills in the small harbour and later returned to build her castle on the headland.
Today, Clare Island, a sweep of sandy beach and a workaday harbour with fisherman hauling lobster pots, is deliciously tranquil. I hike along the harbour wall, cutting inland along a flower-strewn country lane in search of the final stop on Grace’s trail, the island’s 12th-century Cistercian Abbey.
Overlooking Achill to the north and the island of Inishturk to the southwest, Grace is allegedly buried here amongst the stone graves having died peacefully in 1603.
Grace had travelled to London in 1593 and brokered a deal – woman to woman – with Elizabeth I, allowing her to live out her days in peace, securing the release from prison of her second son and stopping the royal-appointed governor, Sir Richard Bingham, from infringing on her territory.
Some historians suggest that it was her actions, kneeling before the queen and ceding control in the name of peace, which led to her being written out of Irish history.
“She inspired local music, drama and she’s now even on the school curriculum in Ireland. But, most of all, she has finally been written back into history,” says Anne Chambers.
“Maybe she’s the epitome of early feminism – she was as much a matriarch as a warrior.”
As my eyes adjust to the gloom inside the abbey, ancient paintings and murals depict scenes of life: hunting with spears, dragons, greyhounds. On a wall by the altar I find the faded limestone, carved with the O’Malley coat of arms, which marks the end of my quest.
The clan motto, terra marique potens, carved in faded letters, reads, appropriately enough for a pirate queen, “powerful by land and sea”.
* This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2008.
Have you got an angle on a story from Westport, or County Mayo?