So having said originally I wasn’t going to include islands on my walk, I’m visiting another island, making it a 100% record so far of visiting islands I’ve past! When I walked this part of the Cornwall coast I hadn’t originally planned to visit the island. Indeed I remember when I lived in Exeter it was in private ownership and I didn’t think it was possible to visit. However seeing it there, I decided to look into it and found it was now possible to visit. I decided I would come back next time I was in the South West but when that time came, no trips were running at the time I was there.
A few months back I decided to look at trips to the island again, but none of them coincided with a weekend I had free. However I worked out a plan, it was always going to be an ambitious one, but one that thankfully worked. This was that whilst one of the weekends trips were running I already had plans for the Saturday and had booked all my annual leave from work already. However looking at the timings, it looked like it might (just) be possible to make a day trip on the Sunday.
The schedule on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust website said that on the Sunday trips would be running from 14:00 and gave you two hours on the island, with a 15 minutes crossing. So that mean the trip would take 2.5 hours. It was too far for me to consider driving there and back in a day. So I looked instead at the trains and helpfully Looe has a railway station and does now have trains on a Sunday (in the summer months at least). I put the times into the on-line planner and I found that from Reading I could get a train at 09:07 and arrive at Looe at 13:19. That’s a little over 4 hours, so a long journey. Coming back, the last train was at 18:15. The times made it possible, just. The bonus though was that booking as I had done far enough in advance, the fare was £42 return which is not at all bad. So I decided to book it.
I left home a little after 8am and had decided to drive to Reading as the service from the station I normally used meant I would have to catch the first train of the day and the last back, with fairly tight connections. It was risky, so I decided it would be sensible to drive to Reading instead, something I try to avoid due to the ridiculous parking charges, which are more expensive at Reading than at London Paddington (on weekends, anyway) – £12 a day on a Sunday. So I parked at an NCP car park 5 minutes walk away which is a not so expensive, at £7 a day. I arrived at the station around with plenty of time to spare and found the platform.
I had rung the boatmen the day before to find out if the trip was going ahead. He confirmed it was with a sailing at 1:30pm and 2:00pm. I was doubtful I would get to the harbour, which is about 10 minutes walk from the station in time for 1:30pm. I asked if it was possible to book but he said you had to book by writing your name down in a book on the board by the harbour. Rather rustic, then. He offered that if I rang on Sunday morning he might be able to write it in for me.
I waited at the station at Reading and watched as the “On time” changed to 2 minutes late, 5 minutes late, then 10 minutes late. Followed by a last minute platform alteration, sigh. The train had only to come 30 minutes down the track, and by the time we finally left Reading, we were already 15 minutes late. It was not looking good, since I only had 10 minutes to change trains at Liskeard and so was likely to miss the connection. It looked like my trip would have to wait another year.
I checked the National Rail app on my phone a few times and noticed our arrival time at the next stop, Taunton was listed as only 8 minutes late. We made this. The next stop, Tiverton Parkway, we were down to 5 minutes late and at the next stop, Exeter St Davids we left on-time. Obviously there is a good deal of slack in the schedule, but that was a good thing today. On the train after Taunton I tried to call the boatmen but the line was bad and the train noisy, but he did say he couldn’t book me in as he was not at the quay, but if I could get there for 1:30pm trip I should be OK.
The journey west of Exeter is wonderful and I would say the most scenic train journey in England and one I loved to do when I lived in Exeter. As we head out of Exeter I can see the cathedral further up the hill and soon the tracks run beside the banks of the Exe, with wonderful views over to Topsham and Exmouth. Then we round the corner to the coast at Dawlish Warren and Dawlish. Famously, the track was washed into the sea in storms earlier in the year and it was closed for a while, but thankfully the tracks were repaired and we can once again enjoy this fabulous journey. The sea wall was still being repaired at Dawlish though. The train stopped at Dawlish and Teignmouth, unusual for a train from London to Penzance. At Teignmouth we turn to follow the banks of the River Teign to Newton Abbot. West from there the line soon crosses the River Dart to Totnes and then skirts the edge of Dartmoor over the hills to reach Plymouth. Then another highlight, as we cross the Tamar on the wonderful Royal Albert Bridge, which is very high over the estuary and then follow the numerous creeks all the way around to Liskeard.
I had made sure I set on the left hand side of the train at Reading to make sure I got to see the best of this view. I love it. It might be a long journey but it’s also an enjoyable one.
We arrived at Liskeard on time and I then found the platform for the train to Looe. It is more than 10 years since I last took the train to Looe and I had forgotten just how odd the branch line was. For one on arriving at Liskeard you have to cross the access road to the car park to reach what is essentially a separate station at 90 degrees to the main station, where the trains from Looe leave. The train was already there and we soon headed slowly down the valley steeply down hill, where there was then another track on the left. Here the train stops, the points are changed and the conductor and drive change ends, as the train now reverses to head down this track along the valley. This is because when the line was originally built it was primarily for freight to ship goods and materials from the works at Moorswater to the coast at Looe, where it was then loaded onto boats. The loop to join it to the main line was added later.
It is a beautiful line following the river it’s length with what starts as a fast flowing narrow trickle beside the track grows into a wide estuary as we near Looe, with the tracks running on a causeway with water on both sides for a while. We stop at all the little request stops, including the wonderfully named St Keyne Wishing Well Halt. Another oddity, particularly in this health and safety age is that many of the minor roads we cross have no level crossing gates, lights or even warning. So the train must stop, sound the horn and check no traffic is coming on the road before crossing. I can’t imagine it does much for the journey time, though!
I head to the doors to be first of at Looe, which I manage and head as fast as possible to the harbour. As I reach the bridge, the road ahead into Looe is closed and thronged with people. I quickly find out this weekend is the Looe Music Festival. I had no idea such a thing existed, but the throngs of people in the main street means I have no chance of getting to where the boat goes for 1:30pm. I try, but I eventually get there at 1:33pm. The boat is not there, as expected and presumably one of the boats heading along the river, but I am pleased to note there are 4 spare places on the 2:00pm trip. I add my name to the list and relieved after all that time and effort it looks like I am actually going to make it!
There is a lovely view over the harbour too. I’ve certainly struck lucky with the weather too, it’s a perfect day for the time of year. Clear, sunny and warm.
I head down to the beach, which I have never seen so busy, but it’s beautiful here with clean sandy beach rocks at either end and the pretty harbour and Banjo pier.
The music festival has taken up some of the beach though and there is a sign saying “Jump of a Cliff”. Not the nicest of welcome, I thought (it’s a Bungee jump I think, in reality).
I then have a wander around the streets of this lovely town and then head back to the harbour just before 2pm.
There are a few people assembled and soon the boatmen, Dave Butters arrives and introduces himself. We get on the boat, which is smaller than I expected. Dave has a lovely Cornish accent and is as relaxed as they come. He make a brief count of the people, I note we now have the full 12, and we set off. He never asks for payments and warns us it might be a bit rough, as the tide is coming in.
Despite the calm weather, as we head out from the safety of the harbour walls the sea does become quite rough, as the water rushes around Looe Island and also the water from the river mixes with the incoming tide. Water splashes over us and the boat but Dave assures us it will get better as we get near the island and will be fine coming back.
It’s quite a bumpy ride and I’m glad as we near the island. I can see two people on the beach to meet us, who push out the little jetty we use to get off. They introduce themselves (as Claire and Jon) and tell us a bit about the island. I head been reading a book about tiny islands on the train down and it included Looe, so I knew a bit about the island. It was acquired by two sisters in the 1960s from the previous owner, who did not let anyone visit. Indeed if he saw people heading towards the island by boat he was known to fire a shotgun over their heads to “discourage” them! He was keen to see the island stay as it was and was concerned about it being developed for mass tourism with a holiday camp or hotel (this was the 1950s, when holiday camps were popular). So keen was he to sell to the sisters, who did not want it developed, he accepted their offer of 2/3 what he was later offered and even gave them a private mortgage himself to pay, since they did not have the funds at the time.
The two sisters moved onto the island and originally never intended to open it to the public, either. Having been warned by the previous owners that the public would come over on hired boats in the summer, this started. And they begin with the comment “Have we met before?” and explained it was private. They had the idea (in hindsight, not the best of ideas, perhaps) of putting up a sign saying there was a landing fee, in the hope this would put people off. It had the reverse effect, as it was now seen as making a visit to the island legitimate, providing you paid the fee. Hence the sisters soon found themselves welcoming visitors and much of their summers taken up catering for them and conducting tours of the island. Sadly the sisters passed away, with the older of the two dying in 2004. Being concerned that they wanted the island to stay as it was, they had explored selling it to the National Trust, but found that they wanted it to become more commercial than the sisters would like (wanting a shop and cafe, I believe). In the end, the eldest of the two sisters decided to leave the island to Cornwall Wildlife Trust in her will, who are now the owners of the island, and who open it to the public in the summer. Although the schedule on this link is the one from 2014 still.
Two wardens live on the island throughout the summer (possibly the winter too) and are at the beach to great us. They introduce us and tell us a bit about the island then take us up the hill from the beach to the hut, which doubles as a shop. There is also a compost toilet here and they have set up tea and coffee for us (for a £1 donation). They have a laminated card giving a guided walk around the island and lots of information. I follow this and it is very interesting.
First we pass the house where the wardens live, then the meadow were one of the sisters who owned the island is now buried with a simple grave. The views out to sea are stunning too. I can see Hannafore and parts of Looe, but the town looks surprisingly small from here, as the majority of the town is along the river and we are a little west of the river mouth, so can’t see it. To the east I can see Rame head whilst to the west the headland west of Looe, but also I think I can see right round to Dodman Point near Mevagissey.
As we continue round we pass the vegetable garden where the wardens grow much of their own food and then another couple of houses. The larger is the one in which the sisters lived and the other was let by them to visitors and helpers during the summer. I think it is now let for holidays. By one there are some steps down to another little jetty. At the vegetable garden are some old rocks with holes in. These were apparently used in times past to tie ropes to, to hide bottles of illegally smuggled booze in the sea when the customs men came to visit so that they could easily be retrieved later when the coast was clear.
Heading back I take the path to the north of the island where you can watch the sea splashing over the rocks and see the cormorants basking on the rocks. Seals can also be seen so I’m told. Out to sea it is also clear enough I can make out the Eddystone Rock lighthouse.
Here I meet the islands herd of black goats on the cliff top who seem oblivious to their wonderful view.
There are a couple of viewpoints here an upper and a lower and also another little tiny island just off the coast of Looe Island, but this part is roped off due to birds. The path climbs higher to where there was once a chapel although all that remains is quite literally a couple of rocks. Heading round the island I now have a lovely view of the north of the island and Looe.
The path soon heads past meadows where crops used to be grown and then into woodland and soon descends back down to where we started. It was a short walk, but a very enjoyable one.
Here I stop to have a chat to the warden, Claire, who is very enthusiastic about the place. She tells me of their plans to become more self sufficient to get rid of the diesel generator used to generate electricity and replace it with more solar panels. She also tells me of the problems of getting fresh water, as all the drinking water they have is gathered from rain water (which must be boiled first). To wash and bathe they bathe in the sea, which must be lovely in the summer but rather cold in the winter! She tells me of storms and watching the Eddystone Lighthouse take a battering through the winter storms. The never ending mood of the sea over the rocks of the island and their problems of trying to grow vegetables and keep the soil moist, which is a challenge on a rocky island in summer. They get to and from the mainland not by boat but by kayak and canoe. It is nice to have time to chat and her enthusiasm for the island and the way of life is infectious. I can say with certantly I am jealous, I would love to live on my own island!
I then head back up to the high point of the island to sit on the seat and enjoy the view for the while. I love islands, and the huge sense of freedom you get from being surrounded by the sea. Of course in places like this your entire life revolves around the sea and it’s moods. In winter you could be cut off for days by the sea – but that is part of the fun!
I head back to the shop and decided to buy the book written by the sisters who owned the island about their experiences (and read most of it on the long train journey home). It’s a good read and I recommend it. It does bring home to you that island living is not without it’s challenges. Things we take for granted on the mainland (access to shops, electricity, gas, a water supply, sewage, rubbish collections, post) etc are all difficult on non-existent on an island. For example when the sisters moved to the island, they had trouble getting the diesel generator to start and had to head down to the shed at night to switch it off, in all weathers. When they tried the water, it was brown and undrinkable, so had to live on wine (the hardships!) for the first few days until they could work on the water pump. Regular deliveries of diesel for the generator had to be arranged. They had to go to the mainland to collect the post and buy any food (but increasingly came to reply on food they could grow on the island). So all is not perhaps the idyll it seems on days like the one when I visited. In fact there are two books written by the sisters:-
The first, which has been recently re-printed tells the story of the sisters and how they came to acquire the island, along with the struggle to actually move onto it. If you buy this on the island, as I did, the warden will stamp a “St George’s Island” stamp in the front, which is a nice touch. The second book is out of print (but I managed to obtain a used copy via the link to Amazon above) and is a number of stories and anecdotes about life on the island, the visitors and the struggles to sustain life there. I really enjoyed both books.
Before leaving, I stopped for a cup of tea enjoying the view. I could soon see Dave approaching with his boat and knew that sadly it was time to leave.
I headed out onto the beach and was asked, along with another visitor to get on the boat first to make it lower in the water to make it easier for others to get on. Soon we were all on board and waving to the wardens as we departed. It was a brilliant trip. The crossing back to Looe was much smoother and soon we were pulled up at the quay. Only then did Dave collect the fares – as I said, he is very relaxed!
I then head nearly two hours to explore Looe before my train home. The last few times I’ve been here it has been overcast and grey, so it was lovely to see the town looking it’s best in the warm sunshine. It felt like the middle of August, with the streets packed. I walked a bit on the coast path east towards Millendreath, to get a view over the town and to the island.
I then headed back, had a look around the town and then crossed the bridge to West Looe. I followed the road around to Hannafore. I soon got round to Hannafore and sat for a while looking over the island I had just visited. Somehow I find it far more satisfying to look out at something and know what it is like than sit and wonder!
Soon I headed back into Looe for Cornish Pasty and chips. A rare treat to have a proper fresh Cornish pasty (rather than have to suffice with a Ginsters one from the supermarket). Whilst eating it, I was amused to notice Dave now with a “Ferry” sign on his boat ferrying people between East and West Looe. An enterprising chap, clearly.
Then for the long train jorurney home. It was a lovely journey along the Looe Valley Line to Liskeard. The train back home was a few minutes late at Liskeard, and got further delayed at Exeter. However by the time we arrived at Reading it had made up most of the time, so we were only around 10 minutes late. But this would have been enough to miss my last train if I hadn’t driven to Reading, so it proved to be the right decision. Heading out of the station and back to the car park, my car was the last left in the car park (and only the second to arrive).
Overall I had a wonderful day out. Yes it was a long day but certainly worth it, although it seemed odd to wake up and go to bed in my own bad having been to Cornwall in between times! I would certainly recommend a trip out to the island it’s a fascinating and beautiful place.
Trips to Looe Island are arranged via Cornwall Wildlife Trust : Cornwall Wildlife Trust – Looe Island. A schedule should be posted here soon, as it says trips are expected from Easter 2015 (the schedule on the site currently is still for 2014). If last years schedule are anything to go by, they are typically run about 20 times a month between May and September, with less frequent trips during March and April.The trip costs £10 at the time of writing (£7 for the boat and £3 landing fee).