The king of Piel Island brings a modern approach to the monarchy
PUBLISHED: 00:17 14 November 2011 | UPDATED: 00:44 06 May 2013
It's probably the most isolated community in Lancashire but its residents love living on an island. Sue Riley reports Main photography by Darren Andrews
King Steve takes a very modern approach to the monarchy. According to the oath, I am entitled to the virtue of any female on the island, he laughs. But I think my wife would have something to say about that!
His Majesty, better known as Steve Chattaway to customers in the bar of the Ship Inn, is one of those quirky characters who confirm the suspicions of foreigners that this is a land full of eccentrics.
His domain is Piel Island, one of the remotest corners of Lancashire yet a couple of miles away from the bustle of Barrow-in-Furness. This windswept 50 acres on the edge of Morecambe Bay has turned into one of the more unlikely tourist attractions with more than 10,000 people visiting this summer.
Most take the ferry from nearby Roa Island and sample its simple pleasures - a wander around the 14th century motte and bailey castle built as a store for Furness Abbey, taking a paddle and a picnic or a pint in the court of King Steve.
The tradition of the King of Piel dates back to 1487 when the ten-year-old Lambert Simnel landed here with a gang of Irish and German mercenaries. His supporters claimed he was the rightful King of England but he was quickly exposed as a fraud and his army was defeated.
This bizarre episode of English history ended when Henry VII spared the lad from the axeman and installed him as a spit-turner in one of the royal kitchens.
For centuries the title of King of Piel island has been bestowed on the landlord of the Ship Inn and the present day incumbent is Steve. His main role is to appoint the Knights of Piel - an ancient tradition or tourist gimmick depending on your point of view. The ceremony involves the would-be knight sitting in an old oak chair in the pub, putting a helmet on his head before beer is poured over him. Knights include an Abyssinian Prince, an ex-hangman and several Japanese tourists. Part of their ordination involves buying a drink for everyone in the pub. Of course.
Steve and his family live on the island all year round. For he and his wife Sheila it was a dream come true when they took on the derelict inn three years ago. It took another two years for the Ship to fully reopen following a huge refurbishment and now there are more changes ahead with Barrow Council planning to create a visitor centre on Piel.
Steve loves the tranquility of the place. Everyone has the same passion, you cant explain it. You tend to think of the island as a living, breathing thing. When we have been really busy it sort of goes flat afterwards and it takes a while to recover. I often wonder if people before me felt that too.
He has a boat but says he gets little time for fishing. Youve got to be a plumber, decorator, ferry operator...theres no one else to do it when you live on an island like this he says. Yet he loves it. I used to get SAD, seasonal affective disorder, now I look forward to the winter.
Its been a busy summer for them, mainly day visitors but others choose to camp on the island (you need permission from the King) or stay in one of the en-suite bedrooms at the pub. Walkers who know what they are doing access the island on foot at low tide from Walney, but those cautious of the deep gulleys and sinking sands take a guided walk.
Only those with a licence are allowed to drive a vehicle across the sands. The Chattaways and their neighbours the Coulthards - the islands only permanent residents - both have one. They also have something else in common - they look forward to the winter months when the ferry doesnt run regularly and the island is often encased in fog, hidden from the eyes of the Lancashire mainland.
Karen and Keith Coulthard moved into one of the terraced houses - built using stones from the beach in 1875 for the pilots who guided boats down the channels last spring.
Keith spent his early childhood on the island when his grandfather Dan Rooney ran the pub in the 1950s and 60s. When he retired from Hampshire Constabulary he and wife Karen decided to move full-time to the island. They have just finished renovating their cottage and only see their neighbours at weekends.
Apart from that they share the island with the seals, kestrels, barn owls, seabirds and the Chattaways who live 100 metres away. The couple spend their time boating, bird and seal watching, fishing, taking photographs, walking and studying astronomy.
Karen said: Compared to Farnborough its heaven. Keith added: You can see the lights at Roa but for stargazing its fantastic. The space station is very clear on a good night.
It all sounds idyllic but Keith admits there are drawbacks. The island has no gas or electric and running water is a relatively recent addition. All food, diesel and coal has to be driven across the sands and rubbish disposed of on the mainland. We used to have a coalman come over but last time he got stuck, Keith says.
And this summer the tidal channels changed and suddenly their one-and-a-half mile drive to Walney had to be extended by half a mile to avoid the deep gulleys. Yet he wouldnt have it any other way.
Keith said: Two or three times a week we might leave the island, just to nip off. Every time we are off we just want to come back. Its such a relief coming back, you never lose that thrill. The island has a strong hold on its residents and one they are happy to share with visitors but preferably during the summer months.
For more information about Piel and its winter events and activities go to www.pielisland.co.uk
There is evidence of human occupation on Piel Island as far back as 3,000 years ago. The first recorded name for the island was Foudray or Fotheray, from the old Norse for fire island.
In 1127 the island was given to the Savignac monks by King Stephen. Over the centuries it has had several owners but in 1920 the Duke of Buccleuch gave it to the town of Barrow-in Furness as a permanent memorial of those who lost their lives in the Great War.
The castle is now under the guardianship of English Heritage.
The print version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Lancashire Life
We can deliver a copy direct to your door order online here