‘This sceptred isle’: Extract from Fringed with Mud and Pearls

  11 May '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn
Not a Scottish island! The south shore of Tresco in the Scillies. In the distance: the Eastern isles (centre) and St Mary’s (right). (Photo by Ian Crofton)

In the newly published Fringed with Mud and Pearls, Ian Crofton embarks on a personal odyssey to a number of the islands encircling England, exploring how some were places of refuge or holiness, while others have been turned into personal fiefdoms by their owners, or become locations for prisons, rubbish dumps and military installations. He also describes the varied ways in which England’s islands have been formed, and how they are constantly changing, so making a mockery of human claims to sovereignty. This extract, taken from the introduction, muses on England’s changing identity and its relationships with its islands.

Extract from Fringed with Mud and Pearls by Ian Crofton

This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war . . .
Against the envy of less happier lands.
– William Shakespeare, Richard II, II.1

England is troubled by its insularity. Proud of it, prickly with it. It was England Shakespeare was thinking of when he wrote of ‘this sceptred isle’. Yet England, ‘This precious stone set in the silver sea’, is not in itself an island. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the Rivers Tweed and Annan almost cut it off from (most of) Scotland. But not quite. Offa’s Dyke makes an effort to cut off Wales. The English have a tendency to ignore, or at least disparage, the other countries with which they share the island of Britain. England has become a creature of its own imagination. An island is often more a state of mind than a geographical reality.

After the 2016 EU referendum, England – or at least the Little England of its own devising – started to draw in its skirts. Its islands constituted the hem – not a neatly stitched hem, but a frayed edge. And in these edgelands, these borderlands, I found that the islanders, especially those facing towards Europe, were more inclined than many mainlanders to assert their Englishness, to raise their flags of St George against the dragon of difference, ‘against infection and the hand of war . . . against the envy of less happier lands’.

But even the Britain that England so often claims as its own was not always an island. And even today some of the islands round England are not always islands, their land not always land, the water around them not always water . . .

Islands are elemental places, parcels of land circled by the sea. Both these elements, earth and water, are shaped by a third element, air: the wind raises waves, blows sand, erodes stone. Islands formed from igneous rock – the granite of Lundy, the dolerite of the Farnes – also hold a memory of the fourth element, fire, the molten heat from which they were born. Such rocky islands are distinct from the liquid element: firm, hard, immutable as pearls. Others, such as the Isle of Wight, are less distinct, their chalks and clays crumbling constantly into the sea.

Sometimes the boundary between earth and water is even murkier. This is the realm of sand, even more the realm of mud. Sandbanks and mudflats shift, dissolve, re-form. Along soft coasts the sea penetrates the land, washes it away. Elsewhere silt and gravel build up and the sea recedes, sometimes over centuries, sometimes in a sudden storm.

Hard or soft, islands change their size and shape with the twice-daily tide, a rhythm determined by the distant moon. Inflow,
outflow, like a body breathing or a jellyfish moving through the water, or a semblance of coition.

The land we know, edged and defined by the sea, is not the land as it once was. Nor is the sea ever the same. In the age of ice there was no North Sea separating Britain from mainland Europe. Millions of cubic miles of water were locked up in the icecaps, leaving large areas of dry land. The North Sea was further north, and in its place was the place called Doggerland. The English Channel was not then a channel at all, nor English, because there was then no such thing as England. Rather it was a gulf, a dead end, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, an inlet fed by two great confluent river systems, the ancestors of the Thames and the Rhine, which flowed together to form what has been named the ‘Channel River’.

While to the north the ice still lay thick, this low-lying land was tundra. In 1931 a trawler fishing in the North Sea dragged up the point of a reindeer’s antler that had been worked to form a barb, suggesting that this was once a Palaeolithic hunting ground. Other tools and weapons have since been recovered from what is now the seabed, together with the remains of extinct megafauna such as mammoths. In those days, should you have been so inclined, you could have walked dryshod from London to Berlin, if those cities had then existed.

As the climate warmed, the ice began to melt and sea levels rose. Doggerland became a more amphibious place, an area of coastal lagoons, mudflats, saltmarshes, inland lakes, rivers and streams. Game, waterfowl and fish were all abundant, providing Mesolithic hunters with rich pickings. The ice-age megafauna, such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, had by this time died out, perhaps due to overhunting.

As the ice melted and sea levels rose, Doggerland began to disappear, and by 8,500 years ago Britain ceased to be a peninsula of Europe. It had become an island. Doggerland – at least vast tracts of it – may have been finally extinguished some 300 years later by a megatsunami, caused by a massive underwater landslide in the North Atlantic, off the edge of Norway’s continental shelf. This event is known as the Storegga Slide, storegga being Norwegian for ‘great edge’.

All that was left of Doggerland was a small island, which may have survived until around 7,000 years ago. A remnant of this island remains in the form of the Dogger Bank, a submarine sandbank some 150 by 60 miles in size between northeast England and Jutland. The Dogger Bank forms one of the shallowest areas of the North Sea, being in places only eight fathoms (not quite fifty feet) below the surface. It has traditionally been a rich fishing ground, and is named after the old Dutch doggers, a type of fishing boat specialising in catching cod. The Dogger Bank in turn gave its name to the lost land of Doggerland.

The names of many of the islands around Britain end in -ay (e.g. Scalpay, Pabbay, Mingulay), or -ey (Anglesey, Canvey, Walney,
Sheppey), or -ea (Mersea, Wallasea), or -y (Lundy). In some cases (especially in the north and west, areas of stronger Viking
influence), this suffix is from Old Norse ey, ‘island’, cognate with the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word eg or ig, also meaning
‘island’; it is the latter that has provided the suffix for many islands in the south and east, whose names are often tautologous
– the Isle of Sheppey, for example, is ‘isle of the island where sheep are kept’.

Most places round England that have ‘island’ in their name are actual islands (or once were, in the case, for example, of Barrow Island; mention should also be made of Thorney Island, a former island in the Thames where the Palace of Westminster now sits), but the same cannot be said for all the places that have ‘isle’ as part of their name. Many such areas – including the Isles of Ely, Athelney, Axholme, Oxney, Purbeck, Grain, Thanet and Dogs – are part of the mainland. In some of these cases, such as Ely, Athelney and Oxney, the Old English -y / -ey element denotes ‘dry ground in marshland’. The ‘Isle of’ element in the non-insular areas mentioned above similarly denotes a place surrounded by wetland, terrain intermediate between open water and dry land. Or ‘Isle’ may (in the cases of Purbeck, Grain, Thanet and Dogs) indicate a peninsula, surrounded on two or three sides by tidal water or open sea.

The inland Isle of Ely (‘place where eels are found’) is the raised area of Kimmeridge clay on which the cathedral city of Ely was built. It is the highest area in the Fens of East Anglia. It was for long surrounded by marshes and meres, and could only be accessed by boat or causeway. After the Norman invasion, the Isle of Ely became the base of an anti-Norman rebellion led by Hereward the Wake. Legend has it that a Norman knight bribed the monks to show him and his men a safe passage across the marshes, enabling them to root out and crush the rebels. Nevertheless, the Isle of Ely remained in isolation for many more centuries, until the drainage of the Fens began in the early seventeenth century with the construction of a system of canals by Dutch engineers. This met with covert resistance by many Fenlanders, whose traditional way of life, based on fishing and wildfowling, came under threat. Attempts to sabotage dykes, ditches and sluices were not uncommon, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Isle of Ely was surrounded not by marshes and meres but by well-drained farmland.

The word island itself is from the Old English eg or ig, with the addition of Old English land, which meant then what it means today – that part of the surface of the earth that is solid, rather than water. The ‘s’ was introduced into the word from isle, which entered the English language in the thirteenth century from the Old French isle, itself derived from the Latin insula, ‘island’. Insula gave rise to the Latin insulatus, ‘made into an island’, which in turn is the origin of the modern English words insulated and isolated. The similar word insular is from Late Latin insularis, also derived from insula.

When we think of an island, we think of isolation, a place cut off from the mainland, and the mainstream of life. It is this intrinsic quality that has led islands to become places of refuge, of sanctuary, even of holiness. For the same reason, islands have also been chosen as places to build prisons, dump rubbish, bury the dead or locate secretive military installations, out of sight and out of mind of the majority of the population. In contrast, people on the mainland often fantasize about islands as miniature paradises, unspoilt Edens, where they imagine themselves leading untroubled, innocent lives. Such fantasies may also lead to dreams of power, of ruling over a small personal kingdom, free from outside interference, rather in the manner of Robinson Crusoe, that prototypical colonialist, on his desert island.

In the natural world, islands play a special role. It was on the Galapagos Islands that Charles Darwin noticed that there was a range of different finches each occupying a different ecological niche. He concluded that a handful of ancestral finches must have been blown there across the sea from the South American mainland, and, finding no competing creatures, had evolved into a number of different species with diverse adaptations to take advantage of the range of available food sources. The absence of predators on many islands around the world allowed some of the resident birds – from the New Zealand kiwi to the Mauritian dodo – to dispense with the ability to fly. But this in turn made them vulnerable to new arrivals: European mammals such as stoats in the case of the kiwi; hungry sailors in the case of the dodo. A number of English islands provided refuges to burrow-nesting birds, such as puffins and Manx shearwaters. Those on Lundy were almost wiped out when brown rats found their way onto the island from passing ships: a burrow can provide protection from a large airborne predator such as a black-backed gull, but it won’t stop a rat. After a campaign lasting many years, rats have now been eliminated from Lundy; there has been a similar success on St Agnes in the Scilly Isles.

Islands can also provide the necessary isolation for indigenous species or subspecies to evolve, cut off from the larger gene pool of the mainland. Sometimes these are either larger or smaller than their mainland cousins: examples include the extinct New Zealand moa, a flightless bird that grew up to twelve feet high; and Homo floresiensis, a small species of human, under four feet tall, that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores up to around 50,000 years ago. Far to the west of the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda has its own subspecies of wood mouse, the St Kilda field mouse, which is twice as heavy as its mainland counterpart; closer to England, Walney Island has its own variety of cranesbill or wild geranium, while the Isle of Portland has its own subspecies of rock sea lavender, Limonium recurvum portlandicum. Lundy boasts the Lundy cabbage, on which in turn depend two endemic insect species, all of which are threatened by feral goats imported onto the island in the last century. Introduced plant species can also play havoc, a notable example being the invasive mauve-flowered Rhododendron ponticum, now eliminated from Lundy after many years’ effort, but still found rampaging in many other places, including Tresco in the Scilly Isles.

As well as providing refuges for wildlife, islands can be sanctuaries for gods and their followers. In Greek myth, Zeus, the king of the gods, was born on the island of Crete, in a cave in the mountains, and throughout his infancy he was tended here by a goat, to keep him safe from his vengeful father Cronus. Two other gods, Apollo and Artemis, were said to have been born on the island of Delos. It was on another Greek island, Patmos, that John, the author of the Book of Revelation, experienced his vision of the Apocalypse, which forms the last book of the New Testament. John may have been exiled to Patmos by the Roman authorities for his Christian beliefs, but it is not clear whether being stranded on an island played a part in his visionary experience.

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