Wednesday 29 February 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No 6 - Shiant Islands

Shiant Islands, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

We couldn't get to St Kilda, so we settled for the Shiant Islands. Second best, or so we thought at the time. A short boat trip with Sea Harris carried us to this tiny archipelago that lies to the east of Tarbert, Lewis and Harris. 

A row of jagged islets, called the Galtachean, point the way to the two main islands. The largest is split in two, but joined by a ridge of pebbles occasionally breached by extreme high tides or storms. Garbh Eilean (Rough Island), to the north, is dauntingly steep and perilous to climb. We heeded our guide's warning and stuck to the more accessible Eilean an Tigh (House Island). As the name suggests, one small dwelling stands upon it, providing temporary shelter for the Shiant's owner and the occasional plucky visitor, as well as being a permanent home for the black rats that inhabit the island. The second island, Eilean Mhuir (Mary's Island), stands apart, yet remains close enough to form a bay that was filled with puffins when we visited in June.

The Shiant Islands receive less visitors than Staffa and St Kilda, yet boast some spectacular geological features of their own: columnar basalt sea cliffs, made from the same type of rock that forms Staffa, rear vertically upwards to a height of 120m above the sea. Various seabirds nest on the exposed ledges like ornaments on a shelf, while Great skuas and Great black-backed gulls circle the rim of the cliff in anticipation of an easy meal. It's an inspiring sight whether you're at the bottom looking up or at the top looking down. 

The Shiant Islands is in the top 10... for their magnificent 120m sea cliffs.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No. 7 - Staple Island

Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, England

We set sail on Billy Shiel's Glad Tidings IV on a two-stop voyage to the Farne Islands, disembarking at Staple Island and Inner Farne. Our vessel was crammed with photographers, each trying to outdo the other with the size of their telephoto lenses. Collectively we had one aim: to see and photograph the puffins. For those less star-struck, there were also a few thousand terns, guillemots, shags and kittiwakes to observe.

As we neared the islands, increasing numbers of birds began to plop into the water, streaks of puffins criss-crossed the sky in mechanical flight, and the entire landscape fizzed with creatures energetically going about their business. 

Hopping onto Staple Island, we were thrust among the nesting seabirds – a low rope fence being their only protection. You couldn't get closer to a wild animal without holding one. Every colour, texture and marking was apparent as they preened, ate, built nests, took-off, and landed right in front of us. Undoubtedly the Farne Islands are a paradise for photographers as much as for birds.

Staple Island is in the Top 10... for being home to one of the most extraordinary wildlife experiences in Britain.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No. 8 - Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne, Northumberland, England

No ferries are needed to reach the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. One road leads to the island, but not all of the time. Twice a day the North Sea surges across the tarmac, cutting off the island from the mainland. For the more romantic, or religious, the island can be gained using the Pilgrim's Way. At low tide a three and a half mile route, marked out in a straight line of tall wooden poles, stretches across the sand. Pilgrims have followed this footpath for centuries to visit the Holy Island. A wooden monastery was founded here in 635AD by the Irish missionary Saint Aiden with the aim of spreading the Christian message throughout pagan England. These days the religious side of the island jostles for the tourist's attention with the castle, tearooms and natural wonders, but the underlying spirituality remains key to the unique atmosphere of Lindisfarne. 

If at all possible, we'd recommend staying a night so you can get a better sense of isolation and a quieter, more private experience of the place. 

Lindisfarne is in the Top 10... for the historical, beautiful and spiritual experience of walking the Pilgrim's Way to reach the island.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Postcards: Valentine's Hayling Island

T found this postcard in Lewes Town Hall market today. It was bought for the lovely scenes of Hayling Island in 1964 that are, for the most part, still familiar nowadays. It was only after closer inspection at home that we realised it was printed by Valentine's of Dundee. How satisfying.

Monday 13 February 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No. 9 - Lewis and Harris

Lewis and Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Lewis and Harris is Britain's largest island, aside from mainland Britain itself. Although it's only one island it is often thought of as two, with Lewis to the north and Harris to the south. Harris in particular is a place to savour.

The journey from North Uist to Harris' capital Tarbert has to be one of the most scenic in Britain. It begins with a CalMac ferry trip from Berneray that weaves a precise route through the scores of rocks and islets of The Sound of Harris before docking at Leverburgh. From there the west coast road skirts huge sandy bays, and milky blue water. Eventually the road coils up into the rounded, rocky hills – a desolate expanse scoured and blunted by the weather. The road then descends again to Tarbert, which lies on a narrow isthmus and acts as a crossroad for the entire island. Head northwards for the mountains that include An Cliseam at 799m, eastwards to the island of Scalpay or westward along another incredible coastal road to Huisinis – none of these options will disappoint.

Harris is in the Top 10... for its sharply contrasting landscapes that range from idyllic beaches to lunar-like mountains.

Friday 10 February 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No. 10 - Tiree

Tiree, Inner Hebrides, Scotland

We had never heard of Tiree before we began our project. It looked tantalising on the map – being the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides, it gives the impression of drifting away from the archipelago towards the Outer Hebrides.

The CalMac ferry took us from Oban, through the Sound of Mull to Coll, where we stayed for a week before continuing the short journey to neighbouring Tiree. From the ferry, the island appeared to float like a thin disc on the sea. Due to its incredible flatness most of the island barely rises above sea level. Standing on the enormous, never-ending beach at Gott Bay it's hard to believe the island even exists – there seems to be no room left between the sea and the sky for the land to fit. Adding to its magical feel, a ring of sandy beaches encompass the entire island. Inland, almost every inch is divided up into neat, green rectangles of crofting land, then scattered with sheep. The people speak Gaelic, their traditional culture is strong, and it goes without saying how friendly and welcoming everyone is.

We knew nothing of Tiree, but now that we've visited, the island seems just as imaginary – a fictional island from a children's book, too good to be true.

Tiree is in the Top 10... for its awe-inspiring collision of sand, sea and sky.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Our favourite British islands... so far

With the island counter standing at 447, we thought it was high time we published a list of our 10 top trips so far. Although it might sound like a lot, we're still a long way from our goal and must admit to some major blind spots. The Orkneys and Shetlands are the obvious ones, but we've also been thwarted by the sea conditions in Wales whenever we've tried to reach the smaller islands.

When we reminisce about our favourite islands, it's amazing how often our memories are influenced by the weather. If we could return to Coll during a sunny week in early summer, for example, we're certain it would be battling for a place in the Top 10. But as it was, we travelled early in the year, without a car, and with the wind in our faces getting anywhere on a bike was seriously hard work. This experience couldn't help but cloud our view.

Undoubtedly all 447 of the islands have rewarded the effort spent getting to them, because there is always something unexpected to see. However much you know about a location beforehand, the element of surprise is still a huge part of the experience. Every island is different every day, so that makes our list entirely personal and subject to change as we visit more of them. Having said that, we would heartily recommend any island in our Top 10 as a brilliant destination for a holiday or day trip.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

A British Island Adventure is now on facebook

If you love Britain and its remoter reaches 'Like us' on facebook and keep up to date with our island adventure. Help us to choose our next destinations, recommend your favourite island places and share your own island experiences. We'll also aim to keep track of any developments in island tourism, regional produce and special offers.

Monday 6 February 2012

Outdoor Photography: Island Journal Pt 18

The latest installment of T's Island Journal takes stock of our experiences so far, while reflecting on some of the best moments.  In Outdoor Photography magazine, Issue 149, February 2012, you can read about T's best walk, day trip, fish and chips, wildlife experience, bit of kit, beach and photographic experience.

Saturday 4 February 2012

A winter visit to Hayling Island - day 2

The alarm goes off at 6:25AM and we bundle into the icy car for another day at Hayling Island. The sun is well and truly up when we arrive at 7:30. Later on, the ferryman will kindly point out that we should've been here at 5:45 to see the sun come up, proving so with a nice shot he took on his phone. The yacht club is incredibly busy – vans and cars with trailers arrive constantly. Parents and kids unpack the gear and set up the boats with their bare, frozen hands! It's not until 11:00 that we get a well earned coffee and bacon bap from the spotless Ferry cafe. T's satisfied with her pictures but we carry on to The Kench, check out the Sinah Warren Hotel and stop by Northney Marina before we agree it's time to head home.

Dune protection at the yacht club
The ferry arrives from Eastney, Portsmouth
Dunes at Sinah Common
Bacon baps from the Ferry Cafe
Icy crust on the shoreline
The strange pool at Sinah Warren hotel

Friday 3 February 2012

A winter visit to Hayling Island - day 1

T sets up a shot of a stripey beach hut

We visited Hayling Island last summer and enjoyed a wonderfully sunny day on our bikes. Now, in the midst of winter and a while since we last reached an island, we thought we'd pay it a winter visit. It was just as sunny as last time but so much colder. Photography was on T's mind, and a pressing deadline for Outdoor Photography magazine. Hayling Island didn't disappoint. Subject matter abounds from the Funland amusement park to the masses of beach huts, the quiet shingle shoreline to the busy yacht club. The manmade and the wild sit side-by-side with those exciting rough edges you find whenever you reach the margins of the country.

Rounded-up beach huts await their owners visit
South-side sea defences soak up the sun
A lonely groyne stares out to sea
T assesses a pink hut
The Beach Hut
Winter roller coaster
Night time Funland
Beachland amusements, Hayling Island

Thursday 2 February 2012

How big is Jura?

Hamish Haswell-Smith is still the undisputed expert on Scottish islands. While comparing the commonly held top 10 largest islands in Britain against our list from Ordnance Survey I was surprised to find a few points of difference. Casting around for some official figures I was astonished to find that there didn't seem to be any. Indeed, both Wikipedia and RJ Berry in the New Naturalists' Islands quote Haswell-Smith's calculations. For his results he used a planimeter to measure "the total surface area lying above sea level at Mean High Water Springs." Out of curiosity I thought I might check his results using some "digitalised map data" that he predicted would be available in the future. I used Daft Logic's online map calculator tool and after some initial excitement spent way too long plotting points around the perimeter of Jura, mimicking the planimeter but with less accuracy. Anyway, the result of my fruitless evening suggest no reason to quibble with Hamish.

My calculation for Jura is 36,359.38 hectares, Hamish's is 36,692 hectares.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Barra airport: the most scenic airport in the world

The Telegraph has a feature this week on the planet's top 10 most scenic airport approaches and landings as voted for by readers of It's no surprise to see Barra included, as it's the only beach runway for scheduled flights in the world. Unfortunately, T and I haven't been on the plane but we did get a very close look when it flew straight over our heads to land. As The Telegraph used one of T's pics to illustrate the article, I thought it might be a good time to show off a few more photos to describe this unique event.

Flybe and British Airways fly to Barra in the Outer Hebrides from as far afield as Southampton, Paris and Dusseldorf. The Twin Otter plane lands on the two mile cockle beach at Traigh Mhor, in the northeast corner of the island. Whenever the windsock blows, the beach needs to be evacuated for the approaching aircraft. Unsurprisingly, the timetable must remain flexible as the runway is submerged beneath the sea twice a day.