Treasured Island

PUBLISHED: 15:20 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:11 20 February 2013

Looe Island is managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Looe Island is managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust

In this June issue, we explore Looe Island, a marine nature reserve just one mile off the coast from Looe. With views to the Lizard in one direction and Rame Head in the other, the island is a natural wilderness and is one of the most treasured na...

Phil Aston explores Looe Island, a marine nature reserve just one mile off the coast from Looe

A trip to the seaside town of Looe is not complete without taking a boat ride to Looe Island. Just a mile off the coast, with views to the Lizard in one direction and Rame Head in the other, the island is a natural wilderness and is one of the most treasured nature reserves managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

Two sisters, Babs and Evelyn Atkins, owned the island until 2004. They moved to a cottage in West Looe from Epsom, Surrey, in the early 1960s. The owner of the island at the time was looking to give it up owing to ill health and so granted the sisters a private mortgage of £22,000 to buy it. By doing this he knew the site would be protected from development as a holiday resort and would therefore keep its character as an unspoilt nature reserve. This proved to be a chance in a lifetime, particularly for Evelyn, who had always dreamed about living on an island.

The sisters' original intention was to keep the island simply as a place of their own. However, interest from local people and holidaymakers was such that the site soon became a vastly popular visitor centre. One of the buildings on the island was put aside for the many volunteers who joined Evelyn and Babs to help with the day-to-day running of the reserve. The sisters' work was so popular, in fact, that they attracted helpers from as far away as South Africa and the USA and their work also gained attention from local and national press. Evelyn wrote two books, We Bought An Island and Tales From Our Cornish Island, both of which are fascinating accounts of the realities of island life.

The island is open to visitors each year from Easter to early September and boat trips, which take around ten minutes, leave from the quay in East Looe. The trip costs 7.50 for adults and 4.50 for children and this gives you around two hours on the island. The boat usually lands on the main beach; you then follow a footpath up to the reception building, Jetty Cottage, which is also a small shop. There is a trail around the whole island; however, if you prefer, you can simply relax on one of the beaches or in the small wooded area. There is also a seating area along the trail, perfect for relaxing and enjoying the breathtaking sea views.

Along with Jetty Cottage, there are two other buildings. Smugglers Cottage is lived in all year round, but Island House, originally built by HM Customs in 1876 to stop smuggling activities, is open to visitors and acts as the island's museum. There are plenty of interesting bits and pieces to see, mainly belongings of Babs and Evelyn, many of which were items washed up on the beach during their

40-year reign.

The highest point on the island trail (45m/150ft) was the site of a Benedictine chapel originally built in 1139. Only a number of carved stones mark the site today, but this was a place of great religious significance and many Benedictine pilgrims died in their attempts to reach the chapel from the mainland. The site has never been archaeologically excavated, so its true secrets still remain a

mystery.

The reserve is one of the few small islands off the Cornish coast that is wooded and part of the trail leads directly through the woodland. Running along the northern edge of the wood is the garden area belonging to Island House. This is the only part of the island that was cultivated by the sisters. In fact the lawned area here is the only flat piece of land on the whole site - originally meant to be a croquet lawn.

The subtropical climate means there is virtually no frost, so plant life blooms as early as Christmas. When Babs and Evelyn first bought the island there were

15 different varieties of daffodil cultivated in a five-

acre plot of land. At the time these were farmed for commercial sales in Covent Garden. A huge variety of vegetables have been, and still are, grown in this plot. This is only possible because of the exceptionally mild climate. In fact, the sisters even planted a vineyard here - something they enjoyed working in for relaxation.

The eastern tip of the reserve is actually a separate piece of land known as Trelawny Island. It is accessible via a small bridge and is the main nesting area for the second largest population of great black-backed gulls in Cornwall. It is not always open to the public, as the gulls aren't the friendliest of hosts when they are breeding. This strip of land, originally just called 'Small Island' by the sisters, was eventually renamed after the Trelawney family who owned the whole of the reserve for more than 200 years.

The abundance of nature is certainly not confined to the island itself. The waters and rocky reef around it are part of a Marine Conservation Area being studied by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. This year, a Marine Education Officer has been assigned to the reserve with a view to widening this aspect of the visitor experience.

For those interested in diving, there are various excursions around the island for the experienced

and not-so-experienced, run by Looe Divers (01503) 262727. The waters are teeming with life and at certain times of the year basking sharks can be seen feeding. Dolphins also feed in the waters around the reserve and often accompany the boat trips to and from the island.

On the mainland, in East Looe, there is the Old Guildhall Museum and Gaol. This features all aspects of Looe's history and it has an area dedicated to the Island. One of the more interesting exhibits is a strap from a parachute bomb that was dropped by a German bomber during the Second World War, when the crew mistook the island for a British battleship. Legend has it that windows in the town were blown out in the resulting explosion.

If you want an adventure in a place that really is away from it all, then Looe Island is perfect. Visitors are allowed to explore the reserve at their own pace so they can enjoy the surroundings and the splendid isolation of a place with no cars, roads or pollution.

In fact, Looe Island is one of the few locations left in the British Isles where you can simply be at one with nature. What with woodland walks, a natural

rock swimming pool for safe bathing, superb views and two beaches, Looe Island really is a treasured island.

For further information contact Looe Tourist Information (01503 262072

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