Caught by the River

Leaving Piel Island

5th October 2015

Low tide towards Walney

Words and pictures: Paul Dietrich

We leave Piel Island as we’d arrived, crossing a deep channel from one world to another, taking some things with us, leaving others behind.

We’d been there less than 24 hours but it seems longer, as if we’d temporarily stepped out of the normal run of things, separated by sea from the clocks and the cars.

By any measure, it’s tiny, this Cumbrian oddity – 50 acres and home to nothing more than the substantial ruins of a 14th-century castle, a pub, pond and terrace of five houses.

It sits less than a mile offshore, between the much larger Walney Island and Barrow-In-Furness.

At low tide and with the right knowledge, you can walk across the sands from Walney but this is a treacherous prospect and some have perished attempting it.

We take the ferry, which has room enough for eight or so passengers, costs a fiver return and sits low in the water, powered by a single outboard motor.

Its young skipper stands and steers with one hand on the tiller as he talks of the submarines built by BAE nearby using the channel and of those foolhardy few who have tried to swim across.

‘Most of them get as far as here, where the current gets strong, and hang on to that,’ he says, nodding towards a buoy. ‘We toss out the life ring and tow them back.’

Then, as if only half-joking: ‘We charge double for that.’

The first port of call when you disembark is The Ship Inn, which is as fine a pub as you could hope for.

The Ship Inn from the ferry

Its landlord and lady are the official King and Queen of Piel Island thanks to a long-standing custom, that may be a sarcastic reference to the fact that Lambert Simnel, pretender to the throne of England, landed here in 1487.

Steve and Sheila are the current monarchs and, as such, it is within their gift to confer the title of knight upon those who have proved themselves worthy.

This, we’re told, affords you certain rights, the nature of which are sadly lost in the fog of one, or possibly, two too many pints – The Ship being that kind of pub if you want it to be, blessed by those sorts of people.

It is to King Steve and Queen Sheila you must pay the princely sum of five pounds if you wish to camp overnight.

There’s no campsite. Or rather, the entire island is a campsite, it being permitted to pitch up anywhere except within some of the castle remains.

We decide against ruins and opt to overlook the beach, alone among the grasses and facing sundown.

The castle and our tent to the left

That night, in the last of the dusk, a barn owl on the hunt ghosts the terrain in front of us, white, silent and flying so slowly as to be almost languid.

In the morning, in no more of a rush, we wait for the tide to come in enough to swim, stepping in gingerly before plunging into the cold that turns hot through tingling and washes off the bad while leaving the good.

We leave our hangovers in the sea and take a profound sense of melancholy when we leave, crossing back to the rest of the world, the clocks and the cars.