Big Adventures On Small Islands

Mag North is captivated by a new book about the islands of the Lake District
January 8, 2023

The notion of escaping to an island must surely appeal to all who have even the tiniest bit of romance in their souls. To run away – or rather, sail away – from the troubles of the world, from the mayhem and madness of the mainland, to find some peace and solitude surrounded by water. Why else has Desert Island Discs been broadcast continually since 1942?

There are dozens of published books about the romance of being stranded on a desert island, including the rather alarmingly-titled Stranded with a Billionaire. Thanks, but no thanks.

One such island romantic is Robert Twigger, travel writer, artist, poet, and lover of uninhabited islands. But not for him the coral of the Cocos Islands, or the mystery of the Maldives, or even the remoteness of the Outer Hebrides. Twigger set out to explore the hidden wonders of the Lake District, the 36 Islands of his eponymous new book which lie in the middle (or nearer the shore) of the English Lakes. Some are little more than rocks, one – on Haweswater – is the summit of a drowned hill when Mardale was flooded to create a new reservoir. Another, on Windermere, is inhabited and has lots of Private/No Landing signs. Robert, you should have let us know. My friend Issy lives there, and she would have put the kettle on.

Twigger comes across as the most delightful kind of eccentric, bordering on completely bonkers at times, for which I’m sure he’ll forgive me. His account is an utter joy, in the manner and spirit of Three Men in a Boat, only here there’s only one man, or occasionally two, when he persuades his friend Mark to join him for some of the adventure.

The rest of the time he plods, alone, from lake to lake, pulling behind him a trolley onto which is loaded his super-lightweight and alarmingly deflatable pack-raft. Though he did board a bus from Patterdale, where not an eyelid was batted, to Bowness where “askance” was the common reaction. There were a lot of natives in Bowness that day, he recalls, at one of the most popular tourist spots in the North of England. “People love driving there and then wonder why they have come. They take steamer rides and hire rowing boats and even speedboats but almost all the natives have that duped look, the bemused look of people who aren’t quite sure what they are doing.”

Natives, along with paddleboarders, are the spoilsports to his adventure, and you will only appreciate “natives” in this context if you have read Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, one of Twigger’s sources of inspiration, along with Wordsworth (“a true Beat Poet”) and Wainwright. He returns time and again to musings on Ransome as a man (deeply flawed) and writer (genius) and his stories (beloved), and so it’s understandable that his (long, philosophical and fascinating) asides should include the Russian Revolution (on which Ransome reported as a journalist) as well as other wars. And the possible collapse of civilisation, and the imminent apocalypse, all of which topics segue very naturally into discourse about tents and camping. There’s a whole page of eulogy to his favourite rucksack.

And another to his favourite Ransome character, who’s also one of my favourites, Timothy or ‘Squashy Hat’ in Pigeon Post: “He had specs and he knew about science”. We learn a great deal here about Oscar Gnosspelius, Ransome’s mining engineer friend on whom Squashy Hat is modelled, who married Barbara Collingwood (“who had turned down Arthur not once but twice”) and later became a designer of flying boats.

One of the many wonderful aspects of Twigger’s account is the way he regards his own target list. Those of us who have ticked off all the Wainwrights, painstakingly, over many years in my case, will recognise the thrill of the chase, the sense of achievement at another summit climbed, the despair when the mist closes in or there’s not enough daylight to get to the final fell-top at the end of a ridge. But though Twigger had his list of 36 islands, and hoped to land on and even camp on each one, there’s just a philosophical shrug of the shoulders when he’s thwarted, by invading swans or paddleboarders or hullaballoos who got there first.

It’s a kind of accepting pragmatism that I came across when helping two friends who were aiming to swim the length of each of the Lakes in a week; I was road support, dropping them off at one end, and picking them up at the other. When they were hounded out of the water by an irate boatman, only 200m from the southern end of Esthwaite, with the warning: “Didn’t you know this is private?”, they just shrugged and said, well, we’ve done the “accessible” Lakes.

But Twigger did get to the most iconic of them all and, I’m proud to repeat, he camped there, illicitly, on Wild Cat Island on Coniston, known to natives as Peel Island. This is where the Swallows and the Amazons made their home for the most memorable summer in children’s literature, and where my boys spent many happy hours when they were young. We would row across in an inflatable dinghy, or they’d swim across when they were older, and we’d have the place to ourselves for a whole day before the invasion of the kayakers and paddleboarders.

Once I was even taken across to Wild Cat in Swallow herself, the boat used in the 1974 film version of Swallows and Amazons, by a couple of the enthusiasts who had clubbed together to buy her from a scrapyard for unloved vessels. We didn’t so much sail as drift over from Brown Howe carpark on the western shore, as the wind had dropped by then, but earlier in the day they had taken me for a proper sail in her on Ullswater, and maybe that’s why I appreciate Twigger’s enthusiasm so much.

He says that really, all we outdoor adventure folks are doing is “reliving our idyllic childhoods and recruiting people who didn’t have such childhoods, but are now imagining what it would have been like. Because childhood is the only place where you can really be free. Free to do what you like and free from the worry of the impending end of the world.”

36 Islands: In Search of the Hidden Wonders of the Lake District and a Few Other Things Too is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Robert Twigger has written many other books about much bigger adventures, including across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark canoe, journeys in the Himalayas, and training with the Tokyo riot police.