A Glance at Daily Life Among the Caretakers of Britain’s Small Islands

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with worldwide travel restrictions, we started a new series – The world through a lens – in which photojournalists virtually transport you to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. This week Alex Ingram is sharing a collection of pictures from the Little British Isles.

The waters around Great Britain are dotted with thousands of small islands, only a small part of which is inhabited, some by only one or two people.

Among those who call Britain’s tiny islands home is a collection of guards – caretakers who live their lives in quiet solitude away from the crowded corners of our urban world. Often used by nonprofit conservation groups, their job is to maintain and manage the conservation of their small tract of land – its natural beauty, wildlife – for future generations, often while doing research on fragile ecosystems.

1 square mile • Population: 2

Guardians have limited access to the mainland during the winter months, have no guaranteed fresh running water, and often live under the threat of violent storms and dangerous currents that can dwarf them for weeks. The food is delivered by boat once a month. It’s not a role that many are fit for. And yet more and more people dream of this simple way of life and try to trade the madness of our busy cities for a self-sufficient life in nature.

For the past three years I have visited some of these remote islands, spent at least a week on each island, and experienced firsthand what life is like there. Growing up in the tiny Welsh town of St. Davids in Pembrokeshire, I heard countless stories about an island: Skomer, a little gem in the Irish Sea, full of history and wildlife, including many thousands of puffins.

Later, when I moved to London, I heard stories about Ed Stubbings and Bee Büche, the two Guardians who lived on the island year-round, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how different their lives must be from mine.

1.1 square miles • Population: 2

In 2017 I chartered a small fishing boat off the tiny bay of Martins Haven in South Pembrokeshire and traveled across the choppy waters to Skomer Island for the first voyage of a later photographic chronicle called The Gatekeepers.

Within 30 minutes of arriving on Skomer, I was buckled into a harness and followed Ed and Bee across the island. We roped down a 60-foot cliff into the rocky bay to keep an eye on pups.

I fell in love with the way of life on the island – with the people, the landscapes, the pace. A few months later I arranged a 12-mile helicopter flight to Lundy, an island in the Bristol Channel. Soon I was hopping across the UK – to Bardsey, Skokholm, Flat Holm, Ramsey.

1.7 square miles • Population: 28

During my trip, I explored some of the most beautiful scenery and wildlife I have ever seen: dramatic chips of granite standing tall and strong against crashing waves; lush green woodland full of sika deer; rolling hills and cascading peninsulas; tiny shearwater chicks, which are hidden in the thrift at the edge of the cliffs and protect against brutal winds.

The British Isles vary in size and population. For example, Flat Holm, a piece of land that encompasses the southernmost town in Wales, only has two full-time residents and is half a mile wide – but has its own pub. Lundy, on the other hand, has an astonishingly large population – at least for small island conditions – of 28. (There is also its own pub.)

0.1 square miles • Population: 2

When I started visiting these places, I had a misconception that life on an island would be deserted and lonely and that people would turn out to be introverted nomads who had run into the mountains to flee human contact. But the more time I spent on these islands, the more I realized how wrong my assumptions were.

What I found instead were small communities of people who developed a deep sense of connection, worked hard, and felt passionate about conservation, and who were always warm and welcoming to visitors.

0.7 square miles • Population: 8

In many ways, life as a British island guard has become less isolating in recent years. Overseer stations have electricity and internet access, and all the overseers I met had cell phones. In the warmer months, many of the islands are regularly visited by tourists – hikers, bird watchers, ecologists – from the mainland. But in October the boats stop and the island guards are left alone.

The job requires a lot of ingenuity – and diplomacy. (If you can’t avoid your neighbors, small disputes can quickly become untenable.)

0.4 square miles • Population: 2

Every island I have visited has its own personality and charm. But there is also something about island life that connects them all. This shows in the camaraderie I feel between the guards and their islanders, and in the consistent and communal sense.

Ed and Bee have since left Skomer and moved further north to the Scottish island of Islay, where they are currently doing conservation work. Sian Stacey, the director of Bardsey Island, moved back to the mainland to raise a family – though she dreams of getting back to island life one day.

It is a dream that I got to know myself. The pulling of these spots can be hard to resist.

Alex Ingram is a photojournalist and lives in London. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.