Britain’s more remote fringes are perfect for getting back to nature. Here’s seven our our favourite wild and remote spots drawn from travel bible Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.
Visit Bardsey, island of 20,000 saints
You might get more than you bargain for if you’re out for a breath of fresh air on the island of 20,000 saints – better known as Bardsey Island (pictured above). Not so long ago a group of seventeen trippers found themselves stranded here for two weeks when the weather turned nasty. But in mellower conditions there’s nothing better for shaking off the cobwebs than an excursion to this small isle (Ynys Enlli in Welsh), around two miles off the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales.
The main draw is the resident bird colonies, including razorbills, choughs, oystercatchers and Manx shearwaters, but people also come in spring and autumn to observe such migratory visitors as willow warblers, chiffchaffs and goldcrests. Others come just for a ramble or a spot of fishing or rock climbing (the Bardsey Ripple is a classic climb).
To get immersed in Bardsey life, consider a week’s stay in a farmhouse – all lighting is by gas or candle and you’ll have to venture outside to visit the loo. As night falls the only sounds are the squawk of birds and the pounding of waves on the shore. You’ll have lots of space to yourself – the population is sparse to say the least, dwindling to fewer than ten in the off-season.
For boat access from Pwllheli or Porth Meudwy, contact Enlli Charters (www.enllicharter.co.uk) or Bardsey Boat Trips (www.bardseyboattrips.com). For farmhouse or cottage rentals, contact Bardsey Island Trust (www.bardsey.org).
Explore the eerie wilderness of Orford Ness
Few places in Britain juxtapose so violently the destructive impulses of man and the timeless fecundity of nature as Orford Ness. This wild and remote shingle spit, stretching for some ten miles along the bleak Suffolk coastline, is an ecologically unique nature reserve of brackish lagoons, mud flats, grassland, salt marsh and, above all, shifting swales and ridges of shingle. Home to wildfowl and waders, the spit preserves flora of such scarcity that it’s the most important of its type in Europe. But while Orford Ness fulfils a crucial conservation role, for much of the past century this lonely, wind-battered stretch of shore concealed some of Britain’s darkest and most sinister military secrets.
It’s nearly twenty years since “the island”, as it’s known hereabouts, was purchased from the Ministry of Defence, but the place still sends shivers down the spines of locals old enough to remember when intruders were kept at bay with security fences and police watchtowers. The history of Orford Ness traces the paranoia of the twentieth century. For seventy years it was a hub of intensive military experimentation, testing bomb ballistics, radar and more. As Cold War fears gripped, laboratories were constructed to test the components of nuclear weapons, and by 1968 it was the nerve-centre of Cobra Mist, an Anglo–American radar system that could penetrate deep into Soviet territory.
So it’s with some trepidation that you clamber from the ferry onto the island jetty, and hike across the tussocky marsh grass towards the huddle of abandoned buildings that flank the ness’s old airfield. It’s a scene of apocalyptic dereliction: rusting, leaky hangars caked in mildew and guano; rotting prefabs. It becomes even more desolate as you venture across a narrow creek onto the shingle itself. Jagged metal spikes jut from disembodied concrete walls; a lonely watchtower punctures the gun-metal sky.
Yet amid this dystopia, nature doesn’t just cling on – it thrives. Undisturbed by man, rare sea pea flourishes along the drift line of the beach; graceful avocets and oystercatchers flock to the rippling lagoons; a merlin skims across the verdant marshes. As wilderness reclaims this hostile, grimly compelling place, there can be few more elegiac statements on the transience of man.
Orford Ness (www.nationaltrust.org.uk; £7.20) is accessible only by National Trust ferry from Orford Quay.
Cast away on Brownsea Island
There aren’t many opportunities to play Robinson Crusoe in Britain, but on Brownsea Island you can be cast away totally self-sufficient for a night or two, almost alone – that is, unless the scouts have got there first. Once the last ferry-load of day-trippers has left, this beautiful island off the Dorset coast reverts to peace and seclusion, populated (apart from the odd guest at its Henry VIII-built castle) only by wildlife. You can stay at its National Trust cottage – but you’ll have to bag it quick.
Brownsea retains an air of mystery: most visitors feel a real sense of adventure and discovery as they explore its confusing network of footpaths through dense woodland and out into sunny heath. There are lakes and lagoons here, and some fine beaches, though many lie tantalizingly out of reach, hidden below low cliffs or accessible only by hard-to-find steps.
Brownsea Island is situated in Poole Harbour, Dorset, and run by the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk).
Become a bushman on the Gower peninsula
Whether it’s the urge to escape a high-stress, low-risk urbanized society, the growing acceptance of alternative lifestyles – or simply down to all the survival TV shows – more of us are going bush than ever. But you can admire Ray Mears’s fire skills over a TV dinner on the sofa all you like – there’s no substitute for hands-on guidance from an expert.
Experts like Andrew Price, enthusiastic founder of Dryad Bushcraft on Wales’s Gower peninsula. Having learned traditional skills from indigenous peoples worldwide and worked as an outdoor pursuits teacher, Andrew cast a new eye over his home turf. An authentic bushcraft experience relies on a low population density and scenic diversity, and the Gower – a world in miniature with upland heath, forests, cliffs and coast all easily accessible – excels in both.
Parked up, you head into the woods to learn the bushman essentials – knife, saw and axe technique. With these mastered the fun begins. There’s more incentive to build a perfect wickiup shelter from branches and leaf-litter when it’s your roof for the night, and gorgeous countryside takes on a deeper significance when you need its nettles for fibres and its food for supper. And can there be a finer reward for fire-lighting with a bowdrill than a hot cuppa? Sure, a brew takes an hour or so but that’s half the point – to slow down and reconnect with the environment.
Dryad Bushcraft (www.dryadbushcraft.co.uk) holds courses year-round on the Gower peninsula.
Walk on the wild side at Alladale
The approach to luxurious Alladale Wilderness Reserve is low-key – no signs, no fancy gates and no fanfare – just a long lane that narrows to a dirt path, then runs uphill to a handsome Victorian lodge.
Alladale is the passion of Paul Lister, an MDF millionaire who used his riches to buy 23,500 acres of land and restore it to something resembling its pristine state: richly wooded and alive with animal and birdlife. The surroundings here are undeniably impressive, but after a little time with one of the reserve’s expert rangers you’ll realize that the landscape is unnaturally empty. The deforestation of areas like this was compounded by the Clearances, when crofters were mercilessly pushed out of the surrounding glens in favour of sheep, who guzzled the ground vegetation. And deer, with their natural predators – wolves – long disposed of by man, have grown in impossible numbers. Lister has begun to reverse some of this damage, with a project that aims to restore the area – predators and all.
All this is the background to a deluxe accommodation experience – Lister wants to prove that his reserve can be a money-spinner, and can engage visitors with more than the traditional hunting, shooting and fishing. All these are in fact on offer, alongside nature walks, spa treatments, bike rides and pony trekking. Groups can hole up in the gorgeous lodge or head to one of the two more remote stone “bothies” which give more of a wilderness feel. But spartan they are not: think flat-screen TVs, wind-powered wi-fi, splendid evening meals waiting in the fridge and tasteful tweed-covered furnishings. The juxtaposition of luxury and wilderness may be jarring to some, but a stay at Alladale is an intriguing and inspiring experience.
Alladale Wilderness Lodge and Reserve (www.alladale.com) is an hour’s drive north of Inverness, near Ardgay.
Find wild isolation on Puffin Island
There aren’t many wilder places in Britain than Lundy. Arriving on this windswept island, a 400ft hulk of granite, you’ll feel like you’ve been cast away: it’s hard to believe you’re just eleven miles from the Devon coast. Swarming with wildlife and fringed by the kelp forests of a marine nature reserve, it’s an island where nature provides the entertainment. The experience begins as you slip away from the mainland aboard MS Oldenburg. If you’re lucky dolphins will ride the bow waves, and you might even spot a basking shark. You disembark in a place with only a score of permanent residents, and little regard for modern trappings. Walking is the only means of transport.
Lundy is Norse for “Puffin Island”, and these bright-beaked birds can be spotted during April and May. But at any time of year the wildlife quota far outnumbers human traffic. The shrill of sea-bird colonies echoes along the rugged west coast, while Soay sheep, Sika deer, mountain goats and Lundy ponies roam the wild terrain.
During summer an exhausting list of guided activities bring you face to face with the island’s wildlife: explore rock pools on rocky shore rambles, spot seals on boat trips or don a mask and snorkel for a close-up view of some of the richest marine life outside the tropics. With its crystal-clear waters, 216 shipwrecks and coral reefs, this is also one of the UK’s finest diving sites. Walkers can discover caves and gawp at rock-stacks, crags and buttresses. Climbers test their nerves on the high seaward-plummeting walls of granite; challenging routes include the ominous-sounding Devil’s Slide.
See www.lundyisland.co.uk for more information, including accommodation.
Take a stroll down Shingle Street
Nothing symbolizes the precarious nature of the Suffolk coastline like Shingle Street, a haunting row of cottages on a thin, shifting spit of land where the River Ore meets the swirling black water of the North Sea. This coast has been receding for centuries, picked apart, stone by stone, by fierce currents and storms – whole towns have fallen into the sea. It’s hard to imagine a lonelier, more inhospitable place to build a village, not least when driving to it along the narrow lane from Hollesley, across the sluice and over the marsh.
Little remains of the village, but a few people still live here; a row of neat, whitewashed coastguard cottages, the red-brick single-storey German Ocean Mansion, a couple of clapboard houses further along the spit and a lonely Martello Tower surveying the scene. You can wander along the massive bank of shingle accompanied by nothing more than the crash of murky waves and squawking gulls. Behind you flat marshland bleeds into scrubby heath. In summer the drabness is broken by clusters of wildflowers, but come in midwinter for the full effect, a powerful sense of complete end-of-the-earth isolation.
The hamlet of Shingle Street lies at the end of a lane (also Shingle Street) a few miles south of Hollesley.