England is surrounded by islands, most of them uninhabited. You’ve likely heard that no matter where you are in England, you’re no more than 70 or 80 miles from the sea (Derbyshire and Leicestershire are farthest away).
To The Island of Tides is a walking memoir by Scottish historian Alistair Moffatt who revisits the island of Lindisfarne (today known as Holy Island, where motorists must be careful not to get washed away, if not following tide tables).
Walking from his home in the Borders, he arrives for a secular retreat, to spend a week in silence and finds that ‘across 14 centuries, it seemed as though a long-dead saint was becoming my soul-friend’. Surprisingly, he finds that the silence has the opposite effect to his ‘belief in nothing’. And songs of surrounding marine seals help to process the grief of his stillborn granddaughter.
St Cuthbert lived on the island of Lindisfarne (there’s a coffee named after him!) and he is buried in nearby Durham Cathedral. As well as performing healing miracles and turning water into wine (like Jesus Christ), he witnessed a soul being carried into Heaven, before returning before his death to his hermitage on the Farne Islands.
about the author
Alistair Moffat was born in Scotland and is founder of Borders Book Festival and a former director of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He is also an award-winning writer and historian.
Fringed with Mud and Pearls is a beautifully written book, looking at how the islands of England have formed, and how they are constantly changing (making a mockery of human claims to sovereignty). While Scotland has its rugged Hebrides, Wales has its island of ‘20,000 saints’ and Ireland has its cliff-gir Arans, what have England’s islands got? Sadly, some have become locations for prisons, rubbish dumps and military installations. But you’ll also learn of:
- The Farne Islands (Northumberland) that are home to puffins and seals (this is Sir David Attenborough’s favourite wildlife-watching spot). Just nearby is the island of Lindisfarne, famed for its spiritual connections.
- The Isle of Wight is England’s largest island (and smallest county, depending on whether the tide is in or out – if it’s out, then the title goes to Rutland in the East Midlands!)
- The Scilly Isles are home to beautiful beaches and numerous shipwrecks, and offer a stop-off resting point for migrating birds. Not far away is Lundy Island, where seals galore swim and play!
- Near London are Canvey, Sheppey and Dogs.
- And can you guess where Mersea, Brownsea, Foulness and Rat are?
Ian first conceived of this book a few years back, but the project was put on hold when he fell 30 feet on his head while climbing, and was considered dead by his fellow walker (until he ‘started twitching and swearing’). But the project did indeed resume, and you’re reading it!
The first chapter focuses on Canvey Island, home of the band Dr Feelgood who looked (with their mod suits and Essex accents) like ‘four guys who’d just done a bank job’. Wilko Johnson himself says ‘being born below sea level’ profoundly affected him! Yet years ago this urban area of 40,000 people was all marshy flats, home to wildlife rather than rock bands! Ian looks for the ghost of a viking (scanning for a ship to take him home). But finds none – only a very busy road that takes him several minutes to cross.
Situated in the Thames Estuary (15 miles west of Southend-on-Sea and 30 miles from London), Canvey Island was a popular seaside resort, but tragically became more known for the 1953 North Sea Flood, which caused 13,000 residents to temporarily leave, and killed 58 islanders (most living in bungalows that had no protection against the rising sea). Ian Crofton was born in Edinburgh and studied at University of Sussex, before returning to Scotland. He is the writer of many books, including ones on ‘history without the boring bits!
Scotland’s most remote island
In the Scottish Highlands, Foula (just off the Shetland Islands) is home to just 35 people who share it with Shetland ponies, hardy sheep, thousands of birds and a sub-species of field mouse. It’s so ‘on the edge of the world’ that it even has its own calendar 12 days behind the Gregorian one (Christmas Day is on 6 January!) Described as a ‘hard island for hard people’, there are no shops or wi-fi and there is not even a pub. A local resident of almost 60 years says ‘It’s only really late April or May that the wind finally stops’.