Nicola here. Since the time I first picked up a book I’ve been fascinated by islands, both in real life and as the setting for stories. Whether it's Five on a Treasure Island or The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, or Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies (well not so much that one, perhaps) there is something magical about an island.
Islands offer the idea of escape and retreat and also the opportunity to start afresh. They are places set apart where you can take time and space to think. They appear solitary and pure in some ways, an earthly paradise. But they can also be too isolated, even savage, which is perhaps they make such great settings for crime novels. An island, if you can’t get off it easily, is the perfect “locked room” mystery as Agatha Christie proved and countless other crime and thriller authors have used the setting.
An island can also be a character in itself, floating serenely above the water or disappearing into the mists. The people who live on islands are also often portrayed as having special characteristics; tolerance, pragmatism and resourcefulness as well as a sense of community. In Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore there is a mischievous, defiant spirit in the way that the islanders defy authority from outside. Islands feel like little kingdoms in their own right surrounded by an actual moat in the form of the sea.
It’s certainly true that when you live on an island, you’re going to need to be resourceful and organised in all sorts of ways. There are times when the weather is bad and the ferries can’t sail, something breaks and can’t be immediately replaced, or you run out of supplies. I guess the message is: If you can’t cope with that sort of life, don’t go there! It’s a great “fish out of water setting” for a story.
My love of islands prompted me to return to one of my favourites a few weeks ago. Lundy Island, off the coast of Devon, is somewhere I’ve visited quite a few times although not for several years. When it comes to being a little kingdom, Lundy is right up there. After the Heaven family bought it in 1836 it became known as the “Kingdom of Heaven.” A later owner, Martin Harman, even issued his own stamps and coinage although this was ruled illegal in the UK courts. Even now you can send postcards with special Lundy stamps though!
Going back a thousand years and Lundy was already a place of myth and legend. It was the Vikings who gave it the name “Lund-ey” meaning Puffin Island and excavations of the ancient graveyards have uncovered both Norse and Christian burials. The old churchyard is for me the most atmospheric place on the island, still containing engraved stones dating back to the 6th century, one of which is said to be one of the sons of Vortigern, a ruler from Arthurian legend. Another is the tomb of a saint, the grandfather of St Patrick of Ireland. Rich material for some time travel book ideas!
But back to the idea of the private kingdom. In the middle-ages it was the De Marisco family who set themselves up as the rulers of Lundy. Evidently this gave them such delusions of grandeur that one of them tried to assassinate the King of England, Henry III, and was executed for treason. It must have been galling for Henry that the castle he built to prevent the island being used as a base by traitors again has forever after been known as Marisco Castle. These days there are four apartments there where you can stay, presumably in greater comfort than in the 13th century!
The island held out loyally for King Charles I during the English Civil War and also has a rich history as a base for piracy and various other criminal activities. The forces of law and order were always trying to get the place under control. As its use for illegal purposes waned in the early 19th century it became the sort of place you read about in Regency romances, won and lost at the card table on a night of hard gambling! One of my early Regency novels, Lady Allerton’s Wager, was inspired by Lundy Island and it’s still one of my favourite stories. In reality, in the Regency era Lundy belonged to Sir Harry Vere Hunt who, in typical fashion, was walking through London on his way home from the debtor’s prison when he overheard an auction taking place. On going inside he heard the auctioneer boasting that Lundy, which was for sale, “never paid tax nor tithe, nor acknowledged King or Parliament…It’s proprietor is Pope and Emperor of his domain.” Like so many other people, Sir Harry fancied having his own private kingdom and bought it for £5000 pounds!
Lundy Castle was in ruins by the 18th century so the later proprietors of the island built a new house to live in (part of which was the cottage we stayed in.) By the Victorian period, when pleasure steamers were visiting Lundy, this became a hotel which was in use into the mid-20th century. Various wonderful black and white photographs on the island show ladies in long skirts playing tennis on the lawns and taking tea on the terrace. Meanwhile, the Heaven family had built a beautiful classical style villa down the valley with tropical walled gardens. A slice of heaven indeed!
During our visit we experienced every weather condition that Lundy can provide, from blazing sunshine to high winds, fog and pouring rain. We explored all the monuments to a thousand years of history, from the lighthouses to the Dark Age burials and met a fascinating mixture of people who had all come to the island for different reasons, whether a love of nature and solitude or to climb the cliffs or to run a half-marathon around the island. It was a fantastic experience. Lundy is owned by the Landmark Trust and National Trust, so if you fancy a stay there or just want to find out more about it, here's the link.
I can’t wait to feature Lundy Island in another of my books but in the meantime, I’ve been on a bit of an island book binge including Wench Mary Jo’s Shattered Rainbows, set on a wild Cornish isle, and Sarah Morgan’s Puffin Island trilogy.
Islands are just perfect for romances – not only can you sit gazing at the stars and watch the sun set over the sea, it's a little world where the hero and heroine can be alone together. Do you have any favourite books, romantic or other, that are set on islands?