Dreams of escape: island adventures in the Lake District

The Lake District is rightly famed for its breathtaking waters, but its numerous small islands are also havens just waiting to be explored

The idea at first was to find a bunk hole, a hideaway, a place to weather out the pandemic – or would it be a nuclear exchange courtesy of a disgruntled Russia? Whatever the catastrophe, it was looming. I grew up watching The War Game, The Day of the Triffids, The Survivors and The Good Life. My preferred reading was Lake District author Anthony Greenbank’s Survival for Young People, along with that other Lake District author, Arthur Ransome, he of Swallows and Amazons fame, so not surprisingly this dream of offgrid escape and evasion always featured islands.

I knew I also wanted to write about childhood and Arthur Ransome and what better place to do it than on an island in the Lake District? This was joined with a real desire to find a wilderness experience in this overcrowded country. The Lake District has been a tourist magnet for 200 years. Wordsworth wrote in his 1835 guidebook: “The lakes had now become celebrated: visitors had flocked hither from all parts of England… the islands of Derwentwater and Winandermere [sic] were the first places seized upon, and were instantly defaced by the intrusion.”

But since then the islands have become somewhat overlooked. Keswick, Bowness and Ambleside may be heaving, Scafell and Helvellyn might need queueing for, but the islands of the Lake District are mostly uninhabited (34 out of the 36 I visited were like this) and almost always empty of people. I found that simply getting in a canoe and taking to the water you somehow entered an odd zone where you no longer felt like a tourist, and you were also, even on the “busy” lakes like Ullswater and Windermere, very definitely not part of a crowd.

Rydal SwanRydal Water, The Lake District, Cumbria, UK. October 30 2014. Image shows a dawn scene, a simple image of a solitary swan gliding over the water. The swan's image is reflected in the water but it's presence is so gentle it barely makes any ripples in the surface of the water as it moves towards the small island with a lone tree. In the distance we see surrounding landscape of trees and bushes. Low lying fog on the horizon that merges with the cloudy sky.
Golden reflections: some islands are no bigger than a pile of rocks, like this one on Rydal Water. Photograph: George W Johnson/Getty Images

All islands can be visited (except the two private ones with large houses); most do not encourage camping or fires. If you are a leave-no-trace camper, it should be fine. Everyone I met who was paddleboarding, fishing or just visiting islands for the hell of it, was very encouraging.

You can boat, swim or wade (I did this to reach one tiny island on Rydal Water). I met a woman whose plan was to swim to every island (there are about 36 in the main lakes and a few more in smaller tarns). Swimming has many advantages, but it’s easier to transport food and kit in a canoe or even better, a microboat called a Packraft. These come originally from Alaska and are super light (mine weighs 1.5kg), but so tough you can use them, when inflated, as a sledge. With the Packraft in your pack you can hike to remote lakes carrying your tent and sleeping bag, to camp where you please.

The Packraft, combined with a devotion to the works of Arthur Ransome, drew me to the idea of camping on Peel Island, the model for Wild Cat Island in Swallows and Amazons. For the Ransomaniac, this is the number one attraction. It has a secret harbour – just like in the book – with a straight channel you could sail up at night if you had leading lights to show the way.

Rocky outcrop: looking south from Peel Island, Coniston Water.
Rocky outcrop: looking south from Peel Island, Coniston Water. Photograph: Peter Smith/Alamy

I watched the sun set from the Swallows’ lookout post and listened at night to the brown owls hooting in the trees. In the morning I awoke to hear someone swimming around the island, something that 12-year-old Captain John does in the book. I was transported…

I went to these islands seeking a bolthole but I found something better – the sheer joy of approaching an uninhabited island. What will I find? What animals and birds and mushrooms does it hide? I’d paddle closer, ever hopeful, and was often surprised but never, ever, disappointed.

Robert Twigger’s top five Lake District islands

Hawes How Island on Thirlmere
Hawes How is one of the larger islands – about 150m in length and only 30m from land depending on how high the reservoir is. Tall pines and fly agaric mushrooms abound, this island bears a striking resemblance to the island in Lord of the Flies. There is a stone castle-type rock, lookout points and a hill. William Golding loved the Lake District, so possibly this was an inspiration.

Watness Coy on Devoke Water
A very small island only 9m long – it is really just a pile of rocks with a few oak bushes – it is about 80m from land and a favourite with cormorants. Getting to an island this remote – Devoke Water is high on the Western Fells – requires some ingenuity. The water can be rather chilly, so swimmers should expect a challenge. I used my Packraft. Watness Coy has only enough room for one rather small person to camp, I would say.

Grasmere Island on Grasmere
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy would have rowed to this island – quite a large one at 150m long – which is about 100m from the nearest land (though it is a shallow lake and you could wade part of the way). There is a sort of bothy at one end of the island and a long wooded ridge with wonderful beech trees. It is all very pleasant and the bothy can shelter you should it rain.

St Herbert’s Island on Derwentwater
St Herbert was an island-dwelling monk and the remains of his hermitage still attract people today. It is the furthest from land of any island – more than 500m to the road skirting the lake, and is large – maybe 250m long. If you set out from Keswick, expect a 3km paddle. With great beech trees, horse mushrooms and a couple of woodpeckers, the island was also the model for Owl Island in the Beatrix Potter book The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A big island with lots to explore.

Crusoe Island on Rydal Water
On this island – a narrow one about 100m in length and about 100m from the shore – there is an impressive Victorian grave celebrating Crusoe, a Newfoundland dog, whose owner had him interred here in 1859. It has a stone jetty for swimmers or boaters to climb out on. Lots of rhododendrons make it pleasantly jungly. A fine and slightly wild island.

Robert Twigger’s book, 36 Islands: In Search of the Hidden Wonders of the Lake District and a Few Other Things Too, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £20. Buy it for £17.40 from guardianbookshop.com

Robert Twigger

The GuardianTramp

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