The Islands of EnglandCategory: Land + People
By J. H. Ingram
Let us make a rapid survey of the islands round the coasts of England, before examining them in more detail. Starting with the north-east coast, off Northumberland, there is Lindisfarne or Holy Isle, with its ruined monastery. Holy Island still retains its population and appears fairly prosperous. Some may challenge its title to be a true island, since it is separated from the mainland only by a wide stretch of wet sand at low tide, and can be reached on foot or by motor-car, but it has retained the true island flavour for all that.
A little further south are the Fame Islands, now preserved as a wild-life sanctuary; and further still are Coquet Island and St. Mary’s Island. Following the coast southward there are no true islands along the North Sea, though mention must be made of Scolt Head, off Norfolk, which is also an island only at high tide. Parts of the coasts of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent also become islands at high tide, but they are so linked by roads and bridges that it is difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding countryside.
The Isle of Wight is the first real island to be encountered in the English Channel; it is the largest island off the English coast. In fact, it has been described as a miniature England. The island is truly an England in miniature — chalk, sand, clay, and the rest — which are reflected in its many types of landscape, often dramatically contrasting, and the impressive variety of its coastline.
Many visitors are surprised to discover that though the Isle annually attracts thousands of holiday-makers it is also “home” to a great many people who daily cross the water to earn their livelihoods in Southampton, Gosport and Portsmouth. So the modern industrial system is gradually destroying the individual economy of island life. But perhaps Wight has always been too accessible to England to be regarded as an island, but only as a detached portion of the mainland.
The Farne Islands lie about five miles south of Holy Isle, at a varying distance of two to five miles from the shore. There are from fifteen to twenty-eight islands, depending upon whether they are counted at high tide or low, for a number are only exposed at the ebb. Your boatman will tell you some of the quaint old names they bear, and may also tell you that these names are of very ancient origin, some being recorded with but slight variations in a twelfth-century manuscript.
The Fames are a better place for birds and rabbits than for men, and the dangerous rocks and reefs have been the scene of many a wreck, and many a gallant rescue.
Best-known of all the islands is the Longstone, with its lighthouse that was the scene of Grace Darling’s heroic exploit. The story of how this twenty-year-old girl and her father went to the rescue of the survivors of the unlucky Forfarshire wrecked one stormy September morning, 1838 is well known, but not so well known is the fact that William Darling, recording the incident in his log-book, wrote simply: “Nine persons held on by the wreck and were rescued by the Darlings.” It was this same sense of having done nothing more than her duty which caused Grace to reject various rewards and offers for what she had done.
Coquet Island lies at the mouth of the River Coquet, a mile off the Northumbrian shore, and to reach it one has to go to the busy port of Amble, where from a headland one can look over the gleaming waters to Coquet’s sixteen acres of rock and turf. The white-walled lighthouse is the island’s most conspicuous feature, for there is no vegetation to break the view, most of it having been destroyed by the terrific winds which sweep across the island.
To many persons the Isle of Man signifies merely the sophisticated pleasure resort of Douglas, for the town has become better-known than the island, and is visited annually by hundreds of thousands of visitors.
But Douglas is no more the Isle of Man than London is England or Paris is France. Get away from the place and you will find yourself in quite a different world of hills and woods and glens and an enchanting coast. Man is neither English, Irish nor Scottish, but has affinities with all three countries. It has been inhabited in turn by Piets and Scots, Celts and Vikings and English, and in all sorts of out-of- the-way places you will find relics and memorials of these various peoples.
To-day Man remains a little kingdom in its own right, with its own government to make its own laws. That government is known as the Tynwald for it is modelled on the old Norse parliament or Thing and is one of the most ancient in Europe. But the laws it passes are usually those passed previously by the House of Commons, with modifications to suit local conditions. Although the Manx language, a Celtic dialect akin to Scottish and Irish Gaelic, is no longer spoken, it survives in books and place-names, and is still used by the Manx parliament to proclaim new laws.
What of the Channel Islands, which though owing allegiance to the British king, are not, strictly speaking, part of the British Isles?
Yet it seems only right and proper to make mention of them in this survey, for though ties of blood and geography may appear to bind them to France, it is with lEngland that they have their strongest links. For the Channel Islands are the oldest possession of the British Crown, being the only territory remaining to it of the ancient Duchy of Normandy, which was lost to France in 1204. As a result we now have the little self-governing states of Jersey and Guernsey and their even smaller dependencies, whose people still speak a Norman patois of a thousand years ago, and retain many picturesque customs and survivals from the feudal past.
Not only are the islands independent as a group, but Jersey and Guernsey are each independent states, with their own governments and codes of laws (the governors are appointed by the Crown).
Guernsey shares with Jersey the characteristic Channel Island features in landscape and architecture. There is the same mild climate and the same semi-tropical vegetation, the same sequence of little fields devoted to the production of early potatoes, tomatoes and flowers, the same typical stone manor-houses and cottages, which, with old churches, Norman arches and stone-built well-heads, form picturesque features of the countryside.
From The Islands of England, 1952.