There is something so appealing about escaping to a paradise island. I know I’m not alone in getting excited at the thought of travelling to new and interesting places. For many people, that may mean journeying to distant exotic shores. For me, it’s about visiting some of our very own enchanting islands around the coast of Britain. Flying in to Barra airport in the Outer Hebrides and landing on the beach there is an unforgettable island experience. Given the right weather conditions, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Caribbean.
However, I usually prefer not to fly or sail out to many of our little British islands. I like to walk.
Yes, you read that correctly – I walk out to islands.
You see, I collect tidal islands, I’m a tidal island hopper.
If you live on the British mainland, like many people, you probably rarely venture out to any of the small islands which surround us. I live in the heart of southern England, miles from the coast in every direction. As often as I can, I try to get to the coast for some much-needed sea air. I love a good walk but I’m no intrepid Munro bagger, far from it. I’m a lazy, leisurely rambler – slow-paced, preferably with no strenuous ups and downs. Flat coastal walks are ideal for me. Tidal island walks are perfect, albeit somewhat wet and muddy.
Amongst the hundreds of small islands around our shores, there are dozens of tidal islands waiting to be explored. According to Peter Caton, author of No Boat Required – Exploring Tidal Islands, there are 43 tidal islands just off the coast of the British mainland – 17 of which are off Scotland. These exclusive islands are closed off to us by the tides, kept tantalisingly out of reach for much of each day by the sea. Some have causeways (natural or human-made), although many don’t, simply a rough route across the sand and mud. Some are only a few yards from the mainland, others a good deal further. All of them though, are special, secret little havens which reveal themselves to visitors for only a few hours each day.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne
Amongst the most popular of Britain’s tidal islands, with thousands of visitors annually, is Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island), off the Northumberland coast. A hardy few follow the Pilgrim’s Way, walking the traditional route across the North Sea sands to reach the island, as pilgrims have done for centuries. But most visitors drive over the causeway, spend a few hours in the village, then head off home before the tide prevents their departure.
Short hops and wet shoes – always check the tide times!
Be warned though – many tidal island walkers have been caught out over the years, having misjudged or ignored the tide times, resulting in very wet feet, or far worse, a call-out to the local coastguard. Lindisfarne has a refuge tower part-way along the causeway road for just such unfortunate occasions. Thankfully, as a tidal island ‘collector’, I’ve not had this misfortune – yet! Good research and planning are essential – always check the tide times.
Some tidal islands are just a short, easy hop from the mainland – St Mary’s near Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear is barely a five minute stroll from the shore. St Catherine’s Island at Tenby, South Wales is probably even less than that, a hulking great rock of an island, dropped on the beach as though it has fallen from the sky. To a collector like me, they’re the easy ones. It’s the other tidal islands I’m keen to collect: the ones that are a bit more of a challenge.
Sturdy, waterproof walking shoes or boots are essential gear. Tidal islands are usually flat walking, but they can occasionally be tricky, slippery scrambles across seaweed-covered rocks, so make sure you go prepared. Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre (three for the price of one!) in the Dee estuary near Liverpool, and Worm’s Head off the Gower peninsula, South Wales are some of the more difficult ones, but still well worth all the clambering required.
The ultimate extravagance
If, however, you’re looking for a touch of decadence while you’re marooned on a tidal island, Burgh Island in Devon is hard to beat. The fabulous 1920s Art Deco hotel on the island is the ultimate in luxury and style, frequented by Agatha Christie amongst others. Travelling over in the hotel’s quirky sea tractor, sipping expensive cocktails before a gourmet dinner in the grand ballroom (hotel residents only and black tie required), whilst looking back over to the mainland as the tide sweeps in around you is the ultimate in tidal island indulgence.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy a night on Burgh Island as my very first tidal island experience many years ago. From then on, I was hooked. Of course, all my subsequent tidal island visits have been somewhat less luxurious! The island’s Pilchard Inn thankfully offers an affordable pub lunch and a pint and there is free public access to a large part of the island, which is well worth exploring, so a visit there needn’t break the bank.
Scotland’s tidal islands
Most recently, I ‘acquired’ Rough Island in Dumfries and Galloway, for my collection. This scenic south-west corner of Scotland is a stunning, well-kept secret. A short stroll through the pretty village of Kippford brings you to a tiny cockle shell beach and, at low tide, a pebble and shingle causeway which snakes out into the Rough Firth, off the Solway Firth. Unsurprisingly, on a cold winter’s morning, my partner and I were the only ones to venture across, not another soul to be seen. (The island is a bird sanctuary managed by the National Trust for Scotland, who request that visitors don’t go over there between May and July, to prevent disturbance to the nesting birds).
Inexplicably, my partner and I often find ourselves doing these walks on cold wintry days. The chilly memory of trekking out into the Firth of Forth to explore Cramond Island, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, in freezing snow one January afternoon, still makes me shiver. Thankfully, the (sadly now-closed) Cramond Inn and its very welcoming roaring fire helped to dry us off.
But the weather was with us at Rough Island last month, even if no one else was. Once on the island, we took the main path up to the top of the small hill. The views out across the Solway Firth towards Cumbria are outstanding. Equally stunning are the views back to Kippford and the causeway you’ve just traversed, over to neighbouring village Rockcliffe and round to Castle Point. Best of all though, from the top of the island, if you look west beyond Almorness Point, peeping out, like a mirage on the horizon, another tidal island comes into view – Hestan Island. That’s next on my list.
So on a dry, sunny day, why not check the tide times, pack a picnic, and head off to your nearest tidal island? Sit for a while, forget the busy ebb and flow of normal life, relax and soak up the unique atmosphere of your very own mini island oasis.
Tidal island hopping really is an escape to paradise.