Friday 27 July 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No. 3 – Barra

Barra was the one island we had always wanted to visit before we began A British Island Adventure. Drawn as we were by its tropical white sands and the very idea of landing a passenger plane on a cockleshell beach. When we finally reached Barra, it wasn't by aircraft but it didn't disappoint. We sailed from Oban to Castlebay on the CalMac ferry, taking around five hours to reach our destination after sailing through the Sound of Mull, and into the Sea of the Hebrides with glimpses of Coll, Skye and the Small Isles along the way.

In many ways Barra is the ultimate Hebridean island – remote from the mainland it has a strong independent community that speaks Gaelic as often as not, and still fills the local churches. The size of the island seems just right, striking a satisfying balance between a 1,000 strong population and the wild, empty landscape of mountain and moor. It offers the experience of being apart from the world, yet without too much of the hardship that can be found on smaller islands.

The 383m summit of Sheabhal is perhaps the best place to understand Barra. From here you can see how Barra lies at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, linked to Vatersay by bridge. How the north and west sides are edged with sandy beaches and the east coast frays away, giving in to the claim of the sea in the form of ragged inlets and hidden bays. Looking south, the chain continues way beyond Barra in a submerged mountain range of uninhabited islands: Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray to finish.

Barra is in the top 10... for being the epitome of a Hebridean island

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Top 10 best British islands: No 4 - Skye

There are two main ways to get to Skye from the mainland: the old fashioned way by ferry from Mallaig to Armadale or the modern way across the Skye Bridge. Either way, you'll end up on an island of many parts. From the green slopes of the Sleat peninsula, to the outdoor adventure playground of the Quiraing; from the colourful harbour at Portree, to the doom-laden spires of the Cuillin Ridge. If you like being outdoors, you shouldn't have any trouble in finding astonishment here.

For us, the most astonishing place of all was Loch Coruisk – a slim body of water squeezed on either side by the Cuillin Hills. A boat from Elgol delivered us into this closed wilderness, where for a few hours we absorbed the velvety silence and the crisp reflections of the jagged peaks on the water.

At times, we may have walked at angles into the wind, and I may have had a brain-lock at the Talisker Distillery (not drink related), and T may have emptied a cupful of water from each boot after paths turned to rivers in the unceasing rain, but Skye is as close as you can get to the spirit of Macbeth's Scotland, so you shouldn't expect it to be too comfortable.

Skye is in the Top 10... for its incredible rocky landmarks: the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing, and the Cuillins.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Portland, Dorset - day 2

Chesil Beach

We couldn't leave it there, we had to go back – lured by the South West Coast Path around the edge of Portland.

Chesil Beach

Never has a pile of stones looked so good. From the viewpoint at Verne Yeates, the 18 miles of Chesil Beach stretched out beneath us, all the way to Bridport, Dorset.

Verne Prison

Also visible was an old army garrison (Verne Citadel), which is now home to Verne Prison.

The prison, looking like a South American ruin, is surrounded by a deep moat on its south side filled with creeping vegetation. If only the walkway was retractable.

Verne High Angle Battery, Portland

Nearby is the Admiralty Battery, dating from the 1890s. Although it still retains many historical features it works just as well as a giant abstract sculpture that you can wander about in. Like something from an apocalyptic Chelsea Flower Show, perfect circles of wild flowers push up through the concrete, against a backdrop of rust.

Portland Harbour breakwaters

Eventually, after many photo stops, we picked up the path we were on yesterday...

HM Young Offenders Institute, Portland, Dorset

... and skirted around the Young Offenders Institute, heading south along the east coast.

Portland Museum

Portland Museum was our first, new port of call. It's £3 to enter, and you'll find heaps of artefacts explaining the island's history.

Mummified cat and rat

Including the old Portland custom of trapping a live cat in the sealed roof space of newly built houses. It was supposed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. This mummified specimen was found in an 18th Century cottage in the village of Easton.

Church Ope Cove, Portland, Dorset

For all of Portland's amazing coastline there's only two beaches: Chesil Beach and Church Ope Cove.

Church Ope Cove, Portland, Dorset

Church Ope Cove shares very few similarities with Chesil Beach, except for its pebble shore. Modest in size, the cove is almost hidden by the sharply rising slopes that surround it. Beach huts, each with its own stone-stacked garden walls, tumble down the hillside to the beach. High above, on a rocky promontory, are the ruins of Rufus Castle.

The path south from Church Ope Cove quickly rises to a cliff top position and undulates over boulders while tacking through low scrub. After joining the road briefly, it dips back to the sea edge, winding its way through disused quarries.

Here, cubes of rock abound, strewn all over the place or sometimes, stacked into makeshift walls where there doesn't seem to be any need for one.

Cave Hole, Portland

Further on is Cave Hole. These gouged-out recesses are popular with climbers who enjoy scrabbling about upside down, hanging from the cave's roof.

Cream tea at The Lobster Pot, Portland

It was 5:30pm and we had only reached halfway! Luckily, we were just in time, by a matter of minutes, to order the cream tea from The Lobster Pot before they closed. The scone recipe has been handed down through generations and they were superb. The texture was more cakey than I would normally expect but nonetheless light and delicious. The generous amounts of jam and clotted cream ensured I left with an added spring in my step for the return half of our walk.

Portland Bill

Clouds gathered as we left Portland Bill.

Approaching Southwell

Practically the whole of the west coast is high cliffs, and it made for a blustery stroll northwards.

Weston housing

The housing on Portland is perhaps not one of its greatest assets. However, these unedifying blocks do happen to stare directly out to sea and to the distant Dorset coast.

Mutton Cove

With the sun breaking through at Mutton Cove, T had just enough time to capture a few shots of the cliffs.

West Cliff, Portland, Dorset

The path hugs the cliff edge, providing some dramatic walking.

West Cliff, Portland, Dorset

St George's Church, Portland

A quick detour in land brought us to St George's Church, completed in 1766. Now redundant, the church is maintained by The Churches Preservation Trust. Outside – the large churchyard is absolutely stuffed full of gravestones. Inside – the lecterns, pews and light fittings are brilliantly preserved, giving a powerful sense of the church as the focal point of a community.

Chesil Beach from West Cliff

Chesil Beach returned to view as we reached the end of West Cliff, and cut back to Verne Yeates and the car.

Sunset over Chesil Beach

What an amazing island Portland is. I can't imagine that there's anywhere else quite like it. It's a place of prisons, cliffs and quarries, all visible from the coast path and it's home to the strange quirk that is Chesil Beach.

Monday 9 July 2012

Portland, Dorset - day 1

Grove housing, Portland

Yes, Portland is an island! Well, kind of. It is tied to the mainland by one of the most famous tombolos in the world: Chesil Beach. Portland's only usable link to the mainland is via the A354 that runs across a short bridge over Portland Harbour.

Portland quarry

Portland is full of quarries, excavating Portland stone. Many are disused now, providing a haven for wildlife among the pits and canyons.

HM Young Offenders Institute

There's also a few prisons.

East coast of Portland, Dorset

It was a two hour drive (in traffic) from the New Forest, so we came down with Liz, Justin, baby Agnes and doggy Ruth for a picnic and walk. Unfortunately, the drive was too long for the picnic morsels to survive the trip.

Grove Cliffs

Much like the Isle of Wight, landslips are a feature of Portland. On Grove Cliffs, successive layers of paths take you from the cliff top to the sea. Each layer has its own character, with the lowest paths winding through boulder spills and thickets of dense shrubbery.

We only dropped down to the second tier – a good, clear track just below short cliffs cracked with fissures.

Portland Harbour breakwaters

Four huge breakwaters create Portland Harbour, two of which are included in our official OS island list.

HM Young Offenders Institute wall

We circled back, and after a tough climb through the undergrowth we emerged by the Young Offenders Institute once more.

Portland Bill

Not done yet, we drove down to Portland Bill and coughed up some coins for the parking. Still, I have to say the attractions are far better than those found at Land's End. The lighthouse itself can be visited but we were just too late.

Pulpit Rock, Dorset

Nearby is Pulpit Rock. A slab of rock, with gouged out foot holes, tipped against a bulky column of stone. It was a bit too high for any of us to give it a go.

The Lobster Pot

And of course there's a cafe, in this case The Lobster Pot, serving food and drink from a hatch as well as a restaurant.

We rounded off the day, with some close-up shots of the surrounding rusting industry.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Foulness Island, Essex

Wakering Steps

Along with a handful of other anorak clad hikers, we were picked up by coach outside the church at Great Wakering in Essex. It was 10:15 in the morning and all 30 passengers were about to be delivered to Wakering Steps. The tide was out, and we were here to walk The Broomway to Foulness Island. The Broomway is an old footpath across Maplin Sands. It is boldly marked on the OS map, but complications arise from an equally bold warning box urging potential visitors to "Seek local guidance" and to telephone the MOD regarding the Foulness Danger Area. Basically visitors are not welcome, except on the first Sunday of each month from April to October, when you can drive over to the Heritage Centre.

Brian Dawson

Fortunately I had come across Brian's website ( when looking for ways to get onto Foulness Island and he happens to organise walks across The Broomway (£29 each) a few times a year. By the time I got round to booking the trip, it was full – some people had booked before Christmas, and since Robert McFarlane's Old Ways has been published, walkers are already booking up for next year. But, happily for us, a couple dropped out at the last minute enabling T and I to go.

John, The Broomway guide

John is a farmer on Foulness Island and he was the man to supply the local guidance, safely leading our ragged troop across the sands, with the aid of a stick and his two kids.

Walking The Broomway

And so we set off, beneath a glowering sky and through standing water dotted with lugworm casts. It was three miles to Asplins Head, our entry point to the island.

We passed Havengore Bridge, joining the mainland to Havengore Island and then carrying the road onto Foulness Island. The bridge opens to let boats through.

John and his children learning the mysteries of The Broomway.

Walking The Broomway was reminiscent of the pilgrims path to Lindisfarne, except for the surrounding landscape being much flatter, and there being no posts to show the route.

Maplin Sands, Essex

Apparently, the tide comes in at walking pace, but apart from that, the Broomway's threats seemed gentle as long as you knew the correct path. The sand was always firm, and there was no deep lying water to contend with. But maybe this was down to the expertise of our guides.

Asplins Head, Foulness Island, Essex

After a few hours of gentle walking, taking pictures and easy chatting we reached Asplins Head without any mishaps.

Observation towers rise up sporadically around Foulness Island, reminding you of the military prescence among the fields and farms.

Wheat fields and rapeseed fields seemed to be the two main crops as we walked another two miles following the footpath to Churchend.

Great Burwood Farm, Foulness Island

We joined the main road from the mainland for the final stretch into Churchend. Every so often a barrier would be present to halt traffic during test firing.

Churchend Battery, Foulness Island

Churchend houses sport the traditional Essex timber cladding, but curiously have a combination of white and black sides. House martins are plentiful here, with each house having dozens of nests under the eaves. Top windows tended to have a plastic bag trapped in them to try and deter the birds from nesting above them.

Churchend street

Churchend open garden

Churchend pub and church

The pub and church at Churchend are both currently out of action. Visitors used to be able to get a pass onto the island if they were visiting the pub, but that's sadly finished now. The church has been bought to be turned into a community centre.

Foulness Heritage Centre

The group had split into lots of smaller groups but we all eventually made it to Foulness Heritage Centre and the end of our walk. We had just enough time to scoff a sandwich and have a sit down before boarding the tractor trailer for the farm tour.

The straw bale seating was comfortably hollowed and we would be grateful later for the roof.

Peter was our next guide – he owns a farm on the island and is head of the Foulness Archaeological Society. Peter talked eloquently and amusingly about both topics. As we drove along one inland track, Peter mentioned that it used to be a sea wall, confirming that the island has grown over the years with successive sea walls and an ever-changing location for The Broomway. He also pointed out the margins of his crops, which were sown with a winter seed mix for birds, offering borage, sunflowers and kale among other plants. Rectangular pockets in the middle of his crops were for skylarks to land in, but his biggest smile of the day was reserved for the current price of rapeseed (around £350/tonne), ensuring he'd be planting much more next year.

The tractor pulled up at Fisherman's Head, the final entry point to the island from The Broomway. The trench that runs around the edge of the island was created by the removal of the earth to build the sea wall next to it.

Fisherman's Head, Foulness Island, Essex

We drove back to the Heritage Centre, where tea and cakes were awaiting our arrival, as well as all the museum exhibits relating to the island.

Crossing onto New England Island, Essex

The coach drove us off the island, across two others, through the military checkpoint and back to Great Wakering just in time to catch the disappointing end to the Wimbledon final on the car radio.

Moving from New England Island to Havengore Island

Crossing Havengore Bridge, looking over to Rushley Island