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24 September 2014

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You are in: Cumbria > Places > Features > Island Hopping > The islands of Furness

The islands of Furness

Walney is by far Cumbria's biggest island and its most populated. But what about the lesser known and even hidden islands in the sea around it?

Walney Island is just off Barrow, reached by the Jubilee Bridge across a narrow channel.

The 11,000 people who live there see it as a very separate community even though they're so close to the mainland. Like any community it has houses, shops, schools and other public buildings. As the biggest island, it's also Cumbria's most well known.

Bridge and shipyard

Jubilee Bridge between Barrow and Walney

Piel Island is much smaller and more romantic! With its cottages, pub  and ruined castle it's becoming increasingly well known because of the tradition of the pub landlord also being  the "King of Piel". When the last landlord/king left, the story got coverage in places as far away as Russia and Japan!

So leaving the two "obvious" ones aside, I decided to find out more about the lesser known Furness Islands.

My guide was John Murphy, a local councillor who lives on Walney and has run guided walks of the area for many years.

Man standing on a beach

Local guide John Murphy

At low tide we walked out across the sand from Snab Point on Walney towards Sheep Island, a walk of about 10 minutes. (DON'T ATTEMPT TO WALK ACROSS THE SANDS BEFORE CHECKING THE WEATHER AND TIDE FORECASTS OR BY TAKING EXPERT ADVICE.)

On the way John points out the hundreds of little bright green shoots of samphire poking out of the sand. He often picks it and pickles it and says it tastes like asparagus.

Sheep Island is a small and not overly exciting island to look at, a shingle beach leading up to a grassy plateau. But John says there used to be an isolation hospital on there (long since gone and little more than a tin shed) where sailors were dropped  off on the way into Barrow if they were carrying diseases that they didn't want to pass on to the locals!

The other great thing about Sheep Island (and no, not a sheep in sight!) is the view it gives across the Walney Channel towards Barrow and the views of the other islands. Piel Island looks particularly attractive with the castle silhouetted against the bright sun.

Roa Island is actually joined to the mainland by a causeway and has quite a few houses on it.  It also has a lifeboat station. The causeway was built in the 1860s by a man called John Able Smith. It was the start of a dock system which he hoped would rival the world but he actually bankrupted himself in the attempt.

Foulney Island is for the birds, literally. Foulney actually means bird island! It's uninhabited and is a reserve run by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust and home to thousands of birds.

Houses on the coast

Roa Island near Barrow

As you move closer to Barrow, the rest of islands become  more difficult to spot but they are there! And some of them I'd never heard of, despite working in Barrow  for five years! They're all situated between Barrow and Walney.

Crab Island is so-called , John thinks, because people probably caught crab near the island in the past. Its old name was Dova Haw and it's still on most maps under this name.

Another little known island is Headin Haw which was used as a dynamite store when they were blasting out iron ore at Lindal and Askham.

Ramsey Island and Barrow Island are also between Barrow and Walney but have been swallowed up by the town, the shipyard  and dock system. An old lady that John knows remembers going to Ramsey Island for picnics but you'd be hard pressed to find it now!

Barrow Island is joined to the mainland at one end but to get between the main town and the island at the other end  you cross the Michaelson Road Bridge, so it still has a  slightly cut-off feel!  Some of the buildings look a little like the Glasgow tenement blocks and many Scots did come to work and live in the town as the shipyard grew. The island of three thousand people still has a very strong community identity.

Barrow might be  a 21st Century town but delve a little under the surface and its ancient maritime past is never very far away!

last updated: 22/05/2008 at 15:08
created: 07/08/2006

You are in: Cumbria > Places > Features > Island Hopping > The islands of Furness

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