The Rats of Looe Island by Wilkie Collins (1851)

An Extract from 'We Bought an Island' by Evelyn E. Atkins (1975)

Composing Island Symphony by Andrew Hugill (1994)

Island Memories by Andrew Hugill (2000)



The Rats of Looe Island Wilkie Collins (From 'Rambles Beyond the Railway' - 1851)

About a mile out at sea, to the southward of the town, rises a green triangular shaped eminence, called Looe Island. Here, many years ago, a ship was wrecked. Not only were the sailors saved, but several free passengers of the rat species, who had got on board, nobody knew how, where, or when, were also preserved by their own strenuous exertions, and wisely took up permanent quarters for the future on the terra firma of Looe Island. In the process of time, and in obedience to the laws of nature, these rats increased and multiplied exceedingly; and. Being confined all round within certain limits by the sea, soon became a palpable and dangerous nuisance. Destruction was threatened to the agricultural produce of all the small places of cultivated land on the island - it seemed doubtful that any man who ventured there by himself, might not share the fate of Bishop Hatto, and be devoured by rats. Under these pressing circumstances, the people of Looe determined to make one united and vehement effort to extirpate the whole colony of invaders. Ordinary means of destruction had been tried already, and without effect. It was said that rats left for dead on the ground had mysteriously revived faster that they could be picked up and skinned, or flung into the sea. Rats desperately wounded had got away into their holes, and become convalescent, and increased and multiplied again more productively than ever. The great problem was, not how to kill the rats, but how to annihilate them so effectually as to place the re-appearance even of one of them altogether out of the question. This was the problem, and it was solved in the following manner:- All the available inhabitants of the town called to join in the great hunt. The rats were caught by every conceivable artifice; and, once taken, were instantly and ferociously smothered in onions; the corpses were then decently laid out on clean dishes, and straightway eaten with vindictive relish by the people of Looe. Never was any invention for destroying rats so complete and so successful as this! Every man, woman, and child, who could eat, could swear to the extirpation of all the rats they had eaten. The local returns of dead rats were not made the bills of mortality, but by the bills of fare: it was getting rid of a nuisance by the unheard-of process of stomaching a nuisance! Day after day passed on, and rats disappeared by hundreds, never to return. What could all their cunning and resolution avail the now? They had resisted before, and could have resisted still, the ordinary force of dogs, ferrets, traps, sticks, stones, and guns, arrayed against them; but when to these engines of assault were added, as auxiliaries, smothering onions, scalding stew-pans, hungry mouths, sharp teeth, good digestions, and the gastric juice, what could they do but give in? Swift and sure was the destruction that now overwhelmed them - everybody who wanted a dinner had a strong personal interest in hunting them down to the very last. In a short space of time the island was cleared of the usurpers. Cheeses remained entire: ricks rose uninjured. And this is the true story of how the people of Looe got rid of the rats!


An Extract from We Bought an Island (1975) Evelyn E. Atkins

In this extract Evelyn E. Atkins recalls one of the many moments of high drama as they attempt to remove their furniture to the island in the middle of the winter of 1964. All was going relatively well, until the storm arrived…

'The rain lashed at us as we clambered on board. Darkness fell. Wren clad in oilskins and sou-wester had us all lined up, as with grim face he told us exactly what we were to do. "It is not just a question of saving the boat," he announced, "it is a matter of life and death!" He explained that we could not take off until there was sufficient water to float the Orlando. Tremendous seas were running in, crashing over us from the west and threatening to capsize us. The next moment they sucked back leaving the Orlando high and dry and, without the support of the sea, she was again in danger of keeling over. "Do what I tell you, instantly!" he ordered. At that moment a huge sea crashed down on us. "Everyone to the port!" yelled Wren. We hurled ourselves over to the other side of the boat. "To starboard!" roared Wren. And we all scrambled back again. We could not anticipate which way we had to throw ourselves for in that boiling sea the breakers came in all directions and Wren hung over the side judging to a nicety exactly where and when the next roller would break over us. We were not allowed to move except as ordered, for it would have upset the balance of the boat. We could see huge breakers creaming over the rocks even in the darkness - it was that wild. Rain poured down our necks in spite of sou-westers and oilskins, but we had much implicit faith in Wren that in the short intervals we sat as though we were in a bus and Zena and I had a long discussion about piles, of all things, inspired by the fact that we were sitting in pools of an icy mixture of rain and sea water. And so we went on hurling ourselves to port or starboard as directed. There was no confusion as to which was which for we knew it was the opposite side to where we happened to be we just pitched ourselves bodily across from one side of the boat to the other and hoped for the best…'

Evelyn E. Atkins, from 'We Bought an Island', p143-4, published by Coronet Books, ISBN 0-340-22688-9.


Composing Island Symphony by Andrew Hugill

To live on an island is one of those dreams which tends to survive childhood.

The British, in particular, seem drawn to the idea. It is curious that an island race should wish to remove itself to a still smaller island, and yet the desire is deeply embedded in literature, myth and the national consciousness. The urge to escape and simultaneously to create one's own world is powerful indeed. It's psychology has been the source of numerous tales, including Robinson Crusoe,Treasure Island and, perhaps the most searching exploration of the fantasy, D. H. Lawrence's strange and relatively little-known short story The Man Who Loved Islands, which ends in a bleak and mysterious apotheosis. For most people, though, an island life remains of necessity only a dream, for the very good reason that there are few habitable islands available.

However, St. George's Island, off the Cornish coast at Looe, is a case where the dream and a reality have merged. As I write, I am seated at the window of an eighteenth century stone cottage, one of only a few houses on this tiny island which is one mile in circumference. I am here as the guest of the island's owners: two extraordinary and indomitable sisters named Babs and Evelyn Atkins. I am not the only guest, for a steady stream of day-visitors and voluntary "helpers", who spend working holidays on the island, are welcomed by the sisters throughout the summer months. But I am perhaps somewhat unusual, since I am a composer and the object of my visit is to write an Island Symphony.

The twin towns of East and West Looe rise up steeply either side of the Looe River estuary where it enters the sea on the south coast of Cornwall, roughly 25 kilometres west of Plymouth. Looe is unusual amongst smaller Cornish holiday resorts in that it still supports a sizeable fishing industry. It is also a world centre for shark fishing and the annual festival attracts large numbers of anglers and, this year at least, animal rights campaigners. The town has good amenities, and a beautiful single track railway - one of the few rural branch lines to survive Beeching's cuts in the 1960's - runs up the side of the East Looe river to Liskeard, to connect with the main line to London. Looe is steeped in history and the rugged cliffs, dark caves and many small stone cottages evoke an age of smuggling and seafaring. But it is also a modern town: last year it held the best New Year's Eve street parties outside London, according to a national poll, and it contains some excellent pubs and restaurants, in particular Ye Olde Salutation Inn, known locally as "the Sal"; the Water Rail restaurant; a fine Tandoori restaurant: The Moonlight; and The Jolly Sailor.

This last is a pub which dates from the days of smugglers, and legend has it that a tunnel runs from a secret trapdoor inside, under the sea and out to the island. For St. George's is a treasure island. As the visitors step off the boat onto the beach and climb the steep path to the house, they pass a sign which reads: 'NO METAL DETECTORS'.
"The treasure was supposedly buried by smugglers whose descendants still live in Looe. If anybody is going to find it", declares Babs Atkins, "it's going to be me. And I've been looking for thirty years..."

The known history of the island stretches back even further than this. At its highest point, overlooking the English Channel to the South and the Cornish coast to the North, a few carved stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel. At that time, the island was called St. Michael's, and it must have been a lonely retreat for the monks who lived there. Directly beneath the chapel site the rock is riddled with caves, some of which are accessible only from the sea. In high winds the caves moan and echo, like distant and forgotten chanting.
It is a feature of the island that it supports a wide range of landscapes and wildife all crammed into a tiny area. Just a few feet from the chapel is lush woodland, complete with woodland birds, butterflies and flowers. Seen from the mainland the island appears leafy and green; seen from the sea it is craggy and densely populated with sea-birds. Its geology has some unique features and the climate is different from the rest of England: it rarely snows, and the daffodils and blackberries come out a month early. Such a profusion of life is rare amongst islands: most are windswept and lack trees. Despite this, life can be tough here. In winter storms, scuds of foam fly over the house, which is situated a matter of yards from the cliff edge, and walking anywhere on the island involves a climb since there is no flat ground apart from the croquet lawn.

The Atkins sisters purchased the island in 1964. The previous owner turned down substantially larger rival bids, reduced the price and even assisted the sisters with the mortgage, because he knew that they would keep the island in its natural state and would live there themselves. Thus, the island represents a thirty year experiment in living, and the sisters have kept it as a nature reserve, refusing numerous offers in excess of a million pounds sterling with the risk of it being turned into a holiday camp or luxury playground. For the first dozen years or so, Babs worked on the mainland as a schoolteacher. Owing to a leg injury, Evelyn had been obliged to take early retirement from her job at I.C.I., so she settled permanently on the island. In winter, the channel between Looe and its island becomes impassable for long periods, because of storms and strong currents. Evelyn spent many months alone, cut off from the outside world. She had anticipated loneliness, but in the event experienced no feelings of isolation since, as she puts it, "the island kept me company". Nowadays both sisters live there all the time.

Electricity is supplied by a generator and the sisters own a mobile 'phone, but there is no main drainage or gas supply. Barrels of oil and calor gas have to be brought by boat from the mainland, as do basic provisions and the mail. All of these are subject to delays according to the weather. Fortunately, there is a fresh-water spring on the island and a substantial plot of land is given over to vegetables. There is also a great deal of free food to be harvested from the sea or cliff tops, including prawns and sea spinach. Nevertheless, the sisters do have a deep-freeze and do not make an issue of self-sufficiency. Asked what would happen in the event of a medical emergency, they reply that, happily, their doctor is a keen wind-surfer who would brave the channel in all weathers. They also have a supply of medicines, all numbered and coded.

When they first moved to the island, intending to retreat from the world, the previous owner, Mr Whitehouse, warned them that people would try to land. The island is too close to the mainland for the distance to deter them. Mr Whitehouse used to discharge a shotgun over the heads of trespassers and recommended that the sisters do the same. However, Evelyn is a champion shot and knew that she would not miss: "the beach would have been littered with dead bodies". After various unsuccessful attempts to drive away unwanted visitors, the sisters decided to announce a landing fee, in the hope that people would be deterred. This had precisely the opposite effect. Local people, delighted that the island was open to the public at last, visited in their hundreds. At the height of this period, Evelyn was welcoming five boatloads every half-hour, each of which wanted tea and refreshments. Exhausted by this, the sisters wrote to the local council to inform them that, reluctantly, they had to close the island. The council begged them to reconsider, and so a single boatman was franchised to make the trip. Visitors are ferried across from the East Looe quayside to spend some hours on the island. Each boatload is greeted personally by the sisters and has the run of the island, as well as being able to visit the craft centre: a hall near the house, which sells various objects made by island helpers (some of whom are supplied by the Conseravtion Corps) and the sisters themselves, as well as tea, coffee, soups and biscuits.

The story of the sisters' lives on the island is described in two bestselling books written by Evelyn: We Bought An Island and Tales From Our Cornish Island. A third book is currently in progress, bringing the story up to date. Autographed copies of the books can also be purchased at the craft centre and all royalties are donated to the island. Many of the visitors have read the books before coming, and the comments in the visitors-book and a pin-bedecked map of the world make it plain that there are thousands of friends who share the dream. For them, the time spent on the island is magical and special, although this is not true for everyone. Evelyn describes in the books how the island "rejects" some visitors. I would not have thought this was possible had I not witnessed it myself. On my first visit, a couple travelling in the boat with me stepped out onto the beach upon landing, looked around them and, muttering, got straight back into the boat to return to Looe!

I had come to Looe for a short holiday. At the time I was working on a composition entitled The Way Things Are, which was almost finished. Unaware of the existence of the island I went for a walk on the Wool Down on East Looe and, just like Evelyn 31 years earlier, came over the brow of the hill to gasp at the sight of it below. Having discovered that visits were allowed, I joined a boatload of day visitors. In my pocket was the unifinished manuscript of my piece. Now, I am a professional composer and academic, not particularly given to flights of romantic fancy, so it was with some surprise and disbelief that I found myself completing my piece in record time, sitting on a tree stump overlooking the water. Whether it was the absence of someone "looking over my shoulder", the beauty of the setting, or just the liberation of a holiday excursion, I was aware that something was making the flow of composition (normally a struggle of decision-making) easy.

Upon leaving, I mentioned this to the sisters and, to my delight, they were very excited and urged me to come back. Since then, I have done so many times and the inspirational effect has not worn off. When, during one visit, Evelyn suggested I should write an Island Symphony, I was happy to agree. It was quite quickly apparent that this Symphony could not be written for orchestra, since it would be impossible to perform it on the island owing to lack of space. I therefore decided to make an electro-acoustic piece, using natural, sampled and synthesized sounds, which could readily be transferred to Compact Disc. Thus my computer and other equipment became my compositional "island" and I am working alone on the piece, from conception to performance.

Island Symphony has four movements, and attempts to map out the island in four different ways and through four different compositional approaches. The word Symphony is used in its etymological sense of "sounding together", but the four movement scheme is a quite conscious echo of the classical Symphonic structure and my piece does have a sense of organic growth and the opposition of modalities. Movement 1 examines the island as a physical object, taking the silhouette as a graph of density over time, and a walk round the island as a sound-narrative. The movement is constructed from a series of in- and out-"breaths" of varying lengths, mimicking the motion of waves and one's own breathing patterns during the tour. Movement 2 takes the medieval history of the chapel as its starting point. In his book Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco (whose surname makes a satisfyingly appropriate pun for the location) describes ten versions of the middle ages which appear in modern film, literature and thought. These "Ten Little Middle Ages" include: ironical revisitation (e.g. Monty Python);Romanticism (e.g. contemporary space-operas); and the expectation of the Millennium. My movement, therefore, is a set of ten variations on a medieval theme. The third movement is pastoral, and movement 4, called "People and Buildings", takes the sound of the generator and a riff made from the sisters' initials and processes them to produce new and unexpected sounds and patterns. Funding for the Island Symphony has come from South West Arts and Cornwall County Council, and De Montfort University has given me study-leave and some equipment to help with the composition. The piece will be premiered in Looe in May 1995 and will then make a short tour of England before coming out on CD.

St. George's Island is a potent symbol of creativity and a way of life that is not hostile to society, but is perforce somewhat removed. It is not possible for all of us to live on an island, yet many of us inhabit a small island inside ourselves. For me, that island is St. George's.

© Andrew Hugill, 1994


Island Memories… by Andrrew Hugill

1. …seeing the island from the Wool Down for the first time. Then seeing it again just after I had finished Movement 1 of the symphony. I walked out onto the wool down and, lo and behold, the island had vanished! A mist had completely enveloped it, so that it became impossible to distinguish the land from the sea.
2. …moving tons of seaweed up from the beach to fertilise the garden. Exhausting work, barrow after barrow
3. …burying the cat (Sam?), with a small and moving ceremony
4. …Mary Casidine discussing her plays, World War I and British poetry, late into the night over some wine in the craft centre
5. … the dignity and courage of Tony Pengelly around the time of the funeral
6. … Dick Butters, affectionately calling me ‘you bastard’ in front of the BBCTV cameras in the Salutation Inn
7. … my first visit to the island, and experiencing what Attie described in the book, when a couple in the party got off the boat, then got straight back on again because they didn’t like the island (or it didn’t like them)
8. …sitting in the craft centre with various helpers, drinking wine and chatting after a hard day’s work
9. …and composing the ‘Song of the Helpers’, which we all learned to sing and then performed to Babs and Attie
10. …Nelson knocking people over, then Mary saying that he is her favourite dog
11. …two nice lady helpers pouring out their innermost thoughts to me one evening sitting looking at Plaidy beach. I can’t remember what they said, but the island has such a liberating effect
12. …and my magical experience of writing ‘The Way things Are’ in next to no time in the woods
13. … the damp in Smuggler’s Cottage, and not minding because the little window and the table were perfect for writing music
14. … making ice-cream with Attie’s ice-cream maker. I’ve never tasted such good ice-cream, before or since.
15. … the feeling of being rushed when I can only make a short visit, and the emotional wrench of leaving
16. …hearing the moaning of the wind in the caves under the chapel and thinking I could imagine the monks singing
17. …a woman walking into the Looe Discovery Centre as ‘Island Symphony’ was playing and saying ‘that’s the sea on the rocks at the Ranneys!’ Unbelievable that she could have heard that in the music – and I never did find out who she was
18. … some friends – Roger and Yvonne Free, Stuart Strong, Jennie Boniface, Gus and Sheila, and dear Maureen and Granville Bold
19. … Attie, her passion and intensity, be it high or low, and her ability to hold the attention and speak eloquently and movingly
20. … Babs, her strength and capability, especially just after the funeral eating a good meal on the mainland and looking well despite the circumstances
21. … tolerating all the public attention – documentary makers, TV News items, BBC Radio broadcasters, South West Arts officials, etc. etc. – because what attracted them to the island was the same as what attracted me : not just the island itself, but an experiment in living by two extraordinary women.

Andrew Hugill, 29.10.00