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The way to the island boat – if you have planned and booked your crossing, if you are driving respectably down to your family summer holiday – winds through Looe’s narrow streets. These were never designed for cars and have been triumphantly reclaimed by the slow feet of tourists, scarlet from the sun. You squeeze between shops selling Cornish fudge and ice cream, little changed over fifty years or more, into shrinking widths of tarmac, sweating your slow way at walking pace with a car full of children, tins of oxtail soup, bags of powdered milk. At last, fraught with the pressures of kamikaze tourists, car- sick passengers and the retreating tide, you find yourself driving straight towards the river. When you stop with the car peering over the edge, you see a throng of boats and think, panicking: ‘Which one?’

The experience advertised in the Farm Holiday Guide of 1979 sounded idyllic, irresistible: ‘Privately owned island with natural rock swimming pool’. There were only three houses there, my mother learned from the guidebook, and two beaches; no roads, no shops, the most primitive sanitation, but palm trees and sea thrift, oystercatchers, sandpipers and seals. It would be worth the effort of bullying my father into going away for what she must have suspected might be our last holiday together as a family; worth the car- sickness and long, hot hours of his nervous driving, to come to this isolation, this peace. My grandparents had warned her about marrying my father, a brilliant, penniless academic with a restless Irish yearning for something he never found, something that might satisfy some insatiable hunger: religion, perhaps; scholarship; romantic love. This holiday, she wanted something for herself.

As we spilled on to the quay with our baggage, my mother began the search for the appointed boatman while my father set off back through the crowded streets to find a car park. ‘Does anyone know where I can find Tony Pengelly?’ she called to men on boats, one stern eye on her three children: John, bookish and aloof at twelve; Paul, ten and naughty; and me, a timid seven- year- old wondering why we couldn’t just have gone to Norfolk as usual, half the drive and a known end to the journey.

Everyone, we discovered, knew Tony Pengelly. A striking figure with his black beard, and a stuffed felt seagull sewn on to his red baseball cap, he was cheerful and impatient, with his boat Nicola Jayne already half full of people waiting for an afternoon trip to the island. When my mother confessed that we were incomplete, that my father was still parking the car, Tony headed out to sea without us, the boat disappearing as it turned at the mouth of the river.

We perched on the railings at the top of the steps, my mother silent, scanning the streets, not sure how long the crossing would take, how soon the boat might be back for us. Watching the sea to the left of us for boats, and the town behind for my father, none of us was ready for the plaintive shout straight ahead.

Looe is split into two towns, divided by historic rivalry and a broad river. Small boats run across the river at certain tides, but the ferry steps where passengers are collected and decanted are upriver from the flight we had settled at, and the tide was too far out for them to be working. Further up again, there is a bridge, but although my father must have driven over it, none of us had quite grasped that key element of the geography. As instructed, he had succeeded in finding a car park and parking the car, but then become quite disorientated, helpless on the west side of the river while we waited on the east.

Tony had returned from his trip, packed the other four of us and our luggage on to the boat, and run out of jokes by the time my father found his way round on foot. My mother still said nothing.

We set out to the harbour mouth, to the sea, and the air freshened. Over the low wooden side of the boat, I could trail my hand in the water, heavy as the boat cut into it. We left the shops behind, the lifeboat station, the beach; a white- painted rock marking the dangers on our right, and the pier, ending in its navigation lamp post, on our left. As you swing to the west, with a whole new shore at Hannafore opening up to one side, you don’t easily notice the first sign of the island, an innocuous line of land sputtering out to rocks, and the bulk of it is sudden, a sleight of hand, your attention misdirected elsewhere.

It is a long, slow moment of dark green, from the first realisation to the full view. It is a turtle, a whale; a dark hump with a low spit of land – a finger, a toe, a tail – pointing eastwards. You can see white houses, a pale beach; and then trees, a ‘No Landing’ sign, and tiny people, perhaps, waiting on the beach to meet you.

Only Tony, the professional raconteur, and my brother Paul, who is incorrigible, broke the silence on the crossing, as my mother waited for her blood pressure to subside. My father’s brain was brilliant, and his heart was full, but he was not a steady helpmeet. He was always, without exception, late. He stopped watches – he seemed to generate some odd kind of electricity which meant he could never wear one. He was always in love, and not always only with my mother. I adored him, then and always, but this was our last holiday with both our parents: the following year, my mother, my brothers and I came alone.

Thirty- five years later, as the boat cuts its way out over the harbour bar to open water, the island still takes us by surprise. For the first few minutes, it is invisible, hidden, no more than a possibility. We strain as always to catch the first glimpse of rock and salted grass stretching out into the sea, the white buildings, the dark hump of hill. The water is dark around us, but vivid with shadow and movement; ahead, where it meets a sandbank, it is a lucid pale green. Ernie, one- time trawlerman and Tony’s winter boss, navigates us towards a sunset which transforms sky and sea into an ecstasy of light. ‘Magical,’ he says.

He is taking us home.