Thursday, 2 June 2011

Why do small islands seem so large?

So one of the reasons I've been silent has been that I've just spent a few days relaxing on St Agnes (above), one of the smallest, most isolated and quietest of the Isles of Scilly, just over thirty miles south-west of Land's End.

As I tramped around the island, home to just 72 people and just a couple of kilometres wide, the apparent enormity of what is really a tiny place struck me. From the Turk's Head pub on the north-easterly quay, to Troytown Farm on the other side of the island, down to Wingletang Down in the south of the island, and then round to the sandbar that connects St Agnes to the even smaller island of Gugh, came to seem like many miles. Every pool, rock and cove took on much greater significance than the shoreline of the much larger island of St Mary's ever seems to gather around itself.

Not for the first time, an observation from Adam Nicolson's beautiful book Sea Room comes to mind:

Something of the sense of holiness on islands comes... from [their] strange, elastic geography. Islands are made larger, paradoxically, by the scale of the sea that surrounds them. The element which might reduce them, which might be thought to besiege them, has the opposite effect. The sea elevates these few acres into something they would never be if hidden in the mass of the mainland. The sea makes islands significant. They are defined by it, both wedded to it and implacably set against it, both a creation and a rejection of the element which makes them what they are. They are the no-sea within the sea, standing against the sea's chaos and erosive power, but framed by it, enshrined by it. In that way, every island is an assertion in an ocean of denials, the one positive gesture against an almost overwhelming bleakness.

There's a fallacy here somewhere. We can't really say that geography explains everyhing about a state of mind. The English came to think that they were an 'island race', during a period when they demonstrably were not - sharing a land border with the Scots, for instance. How we imagine space is important, as Jonathan Scott's recent book on Britain and the maritime imagination has recently argued. But there is still an interaction between the conceptualised, 'constructed' outside world and the real hard rocks we stand on.

St Agnes helped me understand that more clearly. Perhaps travel really does broaden the mind.

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