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A television programme dealing with the some of the thousand-odd islands around the British Isles caught my attention. Brief visits were made to many of my favourite islands, including one to my very favourite, the little-known but fascinating Piel.
Piel lies off the Cumbrian coast, at the mouth of the Walney Channel, near Barrow in Furness. It isn’t a large island. It’s only 19 acres in area, and barely 500 yards across at its widest. But it has a king.
He doesn’t gain his title by inheritance, though. It goes with being the licensee of the Ship Inn, the only permanently inhabited building on the island. Apart from that, there’s only a ruined the castle, and a few former pilots’ cottages, now used as holiday residences. These cottages are all that is left to remind us that Piel was once a busy port, with customs officers and harbour pilots in permanent residence.
The Ship’s main trade comes passing yachts and pleasure craft. Some visitors come across from the mainland on a small ferry; it’s also possible to walk across the sands at low tide from nearby Walney Island. But, for this, the company of an experienced ‘sand pilot’, or local guide is strongly recommended.
The visitors come to watch the birds, or to see the 14th Century castle, built by the monks of nearby Furness Abbey, to protect their lucrative trade ... or to sample some island lifestyle, and, of course, to visit the King.
The tradition of the ‘King of Piel’ is said to go back to 1487, when Lambert Simnel came to Piel at the head of a large Irish and Flemish mercenary force. He claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick, rightful heir to the English throne. Now, had he really been who he said he was, he might indeed have had a more valid claim than the ‘Tudor usurper’, Henry VII. But, the real Earl had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for several years.
The garrison of the castle, reasoning that they weren’t paid to oppose claimants to the throne, simply said ‘Yes, Your Majesty!’ and let him go on his way.
Simnel’s army was defeated by Henry’s forces at the Battle of Stoke, and the would-be King set to work as a scullion in the Royal kitchens. But, he and Henry became good friends, and Henry used to joke that Simnel might, at least, call himself King of Piel.
Some years ago, I visited Piel, and was able to interview the then king, Rod Scarr. There were disadvantages to the island lifestyle, he said. The only facility that came from the mainland was mains water. Electricity came from his own generator, which was usually only switched on at night, unless he wanted to use his power tools. But they were far outweighed by the advantages.
The use of the generator meant that the bar of the Ship was refreshingly free from gaming machines, television and Muzak.
Bottled gas was used for cooking and heating. Contact with the mainland was by a tractor and trailer, which he drove to a farm on adjacent Walney Island at low tide. Here, he kept his car; here, the brewery left their beer order ... and here, the post office left the mail.
‘The postman used to row across with our mail’ Rod told me, ‘but he retired a while back, and wasn’t replaced.’
Curiously enough, there was a Piel post office, and a Piel railway station; both now gone, but were actually located on the other side of the channel, on Roa Island. Although Roa isn’t really an island any more; the railway came across a causeway ‘… which linked it to the neighbouring island of Great Britain’
In the not too distant past, licensing laws were stricter than today, and the Ship’s main attraction was that it remained open when pubs on the mainland were forced to close. It’s also a tradition that a Knight of Piel, an accolade within the gift of the King, who is shipwrecked on the island, is entitled to a night’s free lodging at the Ship, and as much as he can eat and drink at any time!
But, for me the best part is ... where else in the world can you receive a warm welcome at the palace, eat pie and peas cooked by the queen, and wash it down with a pint of bitter, pulled by the king?
Rod Scarr retired due to ill health in 2006. There was a slight hiatus, while the Ship stood empty, but when the film was made, it had recently taken over by Steve and Sheila Chattaway … who were ‘investing’ actor Martin Clunes as a Knight of Piel by pouring a pint of beer over his head. Which seems a praiseworthy action … but a terrible waste of good beer.
How to get there
By car to Roa Island, then cross by ferry; call 07516-453784 for timings, etc.
If you don’t have a car, the nearest rail station is at Barrow-in-Furness; from there, or from nearby Ulverston (also served by the railway) Roa Island can be reached on bus service no. 11, operated by Stagecoach in Cumbria.
Crossing the sands at low tide from Walney Island should only be attempted in the company of an experienced guide. Regular walks are organised with a local guide; to find out more about this contact: email@example.com
And, finally …
If you visit Ulverston, you may know it was the birthplace of one Arthur Stanley Jefferson, better known as Stan Laurel. Film fans should visit the small museum there, dedicated to him.