The Royal Navy helped traveller, author and adventurer John Chatterton complete a five-year odyssey when he visited Portsmouth.
The 74-year-old from Moseley in Birmingham completed his goal of visiting every inhabited island in the UK when he set foot on the 84-acre naval base on Whale Island.
And he’s just three short of his ultimate goal: setting foot on the 223 islands in the entire British Isles.
John, who travels the world advising on coastal management and the environment, became one of the first people to walk around the 5,003 miles of the British coast (completed in 328 days, spread over a six-year period) 15 years ago, completing the trek on his 60th birthday.
A decade later and despite not being quite as agile, he set upon his second geographical challenge.
It embraces everything from Britain itself (mainland) and famous isles – Wight, Man, Skye, Scillies, Shetlands – to the obscure, like Peel Island, off Barrow in Cumbria, to ‘Craggy Island’ of Father Ted fame (Inisheer).
He’s travelled by foot, car, ferry, causeway, pontoon bridge, rowing boat, cable car (to Dursey Island in County Cork), pleasure cruiser and aircraft – it’s cost thousands of pounds and demanded travelling the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland, receiving permission from some landowners and sneakily setting foot on the occasional isle when authority wasn’t necessarily forthcoming.
“There are some wonderful, beautiful islands around the UK, each one has a story to tell, and there are some wonderful, quirky characters,” he said.
“I’ve been welcomed by billionaires and Bear Grylls, experienced some fascinating local customs and learned how people live on the fringes of our islands.”
Among the quirkier of the islands John has called on are:
“Peel Island, just off Barrow-in-Furness, home to the ‘King of Peel’, who’s actually the local publican,” he explained.
“We were transported to Dry Island in Loch Gairloch on a pontoon bridge and welcomed by the owner who offered to stamp our passports as he’s proclaimed his own country, Islonia.
“And the owner of the Isle of Ewe picked us up in his boat and took us across – it’s a popular haunt for honeymooners apparently because it’s pronounced: I love you.”
To visit Foulness Island near Southend he paid a guide to lead him on ‘the most dangerous walk in the British Isles’ due to a combination of quicksands, tides and military range.
The owners of another Essex Island weren’t keen to allow the pensioner on… but he slipped across the causeway to visit one evening, before returning to the mainland.
Nothing compares with one inhabited island in Clew Bay, County Mayo, which the skipper of the boat he hired was reluctant and where he was met a pack of baying dogs at the jetty. The security guard refused him setting foot ashore, so the best he could manage was tapping the pier with his walking stick.
Such encounters have been the exception rather than the rule.
“Most people have been really receptive – whether billionaires, Bear Grylls or farmers – they’ve allowed me to visit or stay on their islands.”
Most are easy to access, even if they might be remote, others have required John hiring boats or planes to visit.
He’s taken the shortest scheduled flight in the world – 90 seconds – between Papa Westray and Westray in the Orkneys, the Skerries in Shetland, the closest point in Britain to Norway (a mere 186 miles), and Foula (pop.30) one of the remotest inhabited isles in the UK.
Once his odyssey is complete, he can finish the book describing the entire experience, provisionally titled Treasured Isles.
So what about entry no.220 in his list?
Whale Island is a semi-man-made island in Portsmouth Harbour – originally ‘whale shaped’ (hence the name) but considerably enlarged in the 19th Century by landfill while creating the docks and basins of nearby Portsmouth Naval Base.
The site is off limits to non-military personnel ordinarily – it’s home to the Royal Navy’s headquarters, damage control school, the carriage used for state funerals, and around 500 sailors and Royal Marines on a regular basis.
Lieutenant Commander Ian Pratt, the island’s executive officer, outlined some of its history and present-day role, saying he was “delighted to help John complete a wonderful adventure”.
For the island-hopper, who visited the Irish Navy’s counterpart to Whale Island near Cobh a few weeks ago, the few hours on Whale Island were a welcome reminder of the importance of the sea, navies and our seafaring history.
“I’ve seen the navy on my travels – very active off the Scottish coast around Gareloch and off Plymouth.
“Whale Island has been a superb end to a lovely project and the Navy’s hospitality has been fantastic.”