Everybody knows the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Skye. But what about the other 6000-odd British Isles? Yes, we did say 6000. From the chunky Shetland Islands in Scotland’s far north to the sunny Isles of Scilly slung out from the coast of Cornwall, the British Isles are made up of islands of all shapes and sizes. Pick the right one and you could even have it all to yourself.
It’s probably fair to say that this Cumbrian island is the archipelago’s quirkiest, with its very own King and Queen. That’s Sheila and Steve, who own the island’s Ship Inn and welcome visitors to their kingdom with real ales and pub meals. This low-lying isle may be just 50 acres, but Piel has its own castle – and for the princely sum of £5 you can pitch your tent just about anywhere you like. The pub also has accommodation, and the royal family can organize seal watching and fishing trips. Take the ferry across from Roa Island, which confusingly is actually part of mainland England, for £5.
You can walk to this island off Bigbury on Sea – assuming the tide is out, that is. At low tide the waters reveal a wide sandy beach, which acts as a 250-metre-long road for the Burgh Island Hotel’s Landrover, as well as anyone who wants to stroll across and have a pint in the ancient Pilchard Inn. At other times the hotel operates what could claim to be Britain’s oddest ferry: a “sea tractor” (£2 to non-residents) – essentially a raised platform 7ft above some very sturdy tractor wheels. Stay overnight in the Art Deco hotel and you’ll be in good company, previous guests have included Noel Coward and Agatha Christie, who set two of her mysteries here.
Here’s your chance to get an island all to yourself simply by booking a holiday cottage. That cottage is The House, perched atop Towan island on the eponymous beach in Newquay. Approach by private suspension bridge and enjoy the Atlantic views from your bar room, complete with bar billiards table, 3D TV and – of course – fully equipped bar. There’s even a flag you can raise to signal that you’re in residence. It sleeps six, so bring some friends for a game of snooker.
Who wouldn’t want to visit Bread and Cheese cove? That’s the name of one of this unknown Scilly Isle’s superlative beaches, all fine, white sand and (usually) gently lapping seas. The population of St Martin’s is around 120 but don’t expect things to be quiet, there’s a pub, an art gallery, a diving school and even a vineyard. You could snorkel with seals, go rockpooling, learn to scuba or simply order a traditional Cornish pasty from the Island Bakery and enjoy a picnic on the beach. There’s plenty of accommodation, including camping, and Tresco Boat Services can ferry you to and from the other Scilly Isles.
Still – just about – joined to its sibling Sark by a very narrow isthmus known as La Coupée, Little Sark will one day be its very own island. Until then, hire a bike (there are no cars on Sark) and cycle across the 3-metre-wide concrete road to reach this rugged land of granite cliffs and ancient tin mines. Book ahead for a room at the delightfully chintzy La Sablonnerie Hotel, whose cooks will source your dinner from its own gardens and the sea that surrounds this tiny island (lobsters are a speciality).
Considered remote even by Shetlanders, Unst is the northernmost inhabited island in the UK and here you can collect “northernmost” experiences from the post office to the gin distillery, home to Shetland Reel gin, made with local botanicals. You have to stay at the northernmost hotel of course, and that’s Saxa Vord Resort, an ex-RAF base now offering hostel and self-catering accommodation – and plenty of that gin. Don’t miss a walk out to the northernmost point, at the far end of Hermaness nature reserve and overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson and said to have inspired his son’s Treasure Island map. The island’s network of inter-island ferries will get you out here from the mainland of Shetland.
Unst island © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock
The world’s shortest scheduled flight takes just two minutes, usually less, and carries people to Papa Westray from Westray in the Orkney Islands, dropping them off at an airport that is little more than a shed. You may even get a chance to play co-pilot, sitting up front next to Colin McAlistair as he operates a flight that covers less distance than the length of the main runway at Heathrow. Once here you can explore almost sixty archaeological sites, including the oldest known northern European house, the Knap of Howar, which predates the Pyramids.
Nobody has lived on St Kilda since 1930 when the population requested evacuation – and you’ll see why immediately. This dramatic scattering of granite rocks in the midst of the Atlantic is the most remote part of the British Isles, lying some 40 miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and life here was hard. Today no crossing from the Hebrides is guaranteed, with landings on the main island of Hirta only possible for a few months in summer. Take a chance though and you could be richly rewarded, with a hike to the top of the UK’s highest sea cliffs and a sail past the world’s largest northern gannet colony and Britain’s greatest population of puffins. Head out here on a cruise with Hebrides Cruises for the chance to moor overnight in Village Bay.
Explore more of the British Isles with the Rough Guide to Britain. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image: Piel Island © Ercesuzan/Shutterstock