Melissa Harrison introduces an eccentric guide to some of Britain's smaller islands
Lovers of The Island Review will not need informing of the singular charm of the island. And yet their lure is not confined only to enthusiasts; all of us have dreamed of our own tiny fiefdom and found ourselves at one time or another fascinated by their constraints and possibilities. Some, like the brilliant Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, manage to live that dream and make a little island their home.
Subtitled ‘60 Remarkable Little Worlds Around Britain’, Tiny Islands is a tour of the British Isles’ smaller waterbound locations, from the famous and infamous (St Michael’s Mount, Eel Pie Island) to the almost completely unvisited (Llangors Crannog, on a lake in Wales). Each is given a history, a hand-drawn map and lots of useful information for visitors, such as how you can get ashore, where the nearest shop is and whether the little kingdom has any particular rules you should know about before you visit.
Travel writer and journalist Dixe Wills is a bit of a specialist when it comes to the UK’s more out-of-the-way places. He also wrote Tiny Campsites, the extremely funny Places To Hide and The Z-Z of Great Britain. He’s the perfect person to put together a slightly eccentric guide book like this, and with colour photos throughout, and great page design, Tiny Islands is a very handsome book.
But the real joy is in the writing. Wills wears his knowledge lightly, making each island’s story truly accessible, and he has a conversational tone that uses humour so lightly and judiciously that what might otherwise be 60 fairly dull topographical write-ups become, instead, brilliant little essays you’ll find yourself reading bits from, out loud, to people on the bus.
And because Wills actually visited each island himself (rather than just doing the browser-based research many travel writers seem to get away with), you get a proper feel for each location – and a sense of its telling details lovingly observed, as when he writes, ‘Fire bricks from the demolished Glaslyn Foundry litter the western foreshow beneath a tall row of rotting wooden pylons that rage against the dying of the light’ (Cei Ballast, Porthmadog).
For running through this fascinating book is the history of Great Britain: of Viking invasions, industrial decline, the Napoleonic wars, Romantic poets, scientific discoveries, monarchs, abbeys, visionaries and hermits. Britain is, after all, an archipelago of sorts, and this guide to its smaller islets tells, in part, our island story.