Following on from her previous journey along the Devonshire coast, Kirsteen McNish’s final walk takes her from Bigbury Beach to the 700-year-old Pilchard Inn.

Walking down the grass-flanked steps to the disappearing causeway of sands from Bigbury Beach, excitement mounts as I approach the atmospheric Burgh Island. The island’s art deco hotel shines resplendent and proud, curving like an ocean liner in the sunshine, looming before me as I turn the bend. Once at the breach of the beach, the 250 metres of sandy causeway stretches out before me.

Whether sunset or storm, day or night, this place feels seductive and unique. The fact that it gets cut off from the sea at high tide makes it more mysterious. From a distance, the island appears to float above the sea like an anime drawing, rather than rising root-like from the depths of the seabed. I arrive at dusk so I can make the journey on the sea tractor across at high tide. My chest rises in joy as I spy a murmuration of starlings swooping in dramatic formations over the island.

The tractor chugs towards me like a toy train pulled on a string from the beach edge, its pace slow and reassuring to this slightly nervous passenger. I embark, exposed to a sudden temperature drop as the cold night air starts to wrap itself around me, wraith-like and biting. The full moon looms over us and the sky appears a lilac hue. The last of the day’s seabirds cavort and glide at acrobatic angles. On the platform of the tractor, I meet a woman who works at the hotel, and she tells me she has made this journey for a year now and it still thrills her. We smile at each other as the tractor slowly makes its way over the sea.

Once on land, the hotel looks like it has forged its way through the hill. Glamorous and twinkling with tiny lights, it was once host to guests Josephine Baker, Agatha Christie, and Noel Coward. The 700-year-old Pilchard Inn sits firmly to its right, its black lettering on white stone catching the sun-splaying beam of the tractor. As I pass both buildings, I can hear the roosting starlings now back in the Scots pine trees. I take the meandering, steep route through the grasses which stroke my legs hard as I stride upwards, the light fading fast into purples, reds and inky blues.

Once I reach the top, guided by the light on my phone, I enter the old monks' chapel and see a small bust of the Virgin Mary tucked into what I presume to be a former fireplace. This chapel, I learn, was once used afterwards as a “huer house” (‘to huer’ means to shout), where fishermen would be alerted to huge shoals of silvery pilchards spotted from this lofty vantage point for the day’s catch. Subsequently, in World War II, it was used as a watchtower of sorts. Today, it’s just me and a crow, which is pecking at something I can’t make out.

After taking all this in, I walk over the remains of huge concrete foundations down the carved sandy path to view the outcrop of dramatic, craggy cliffs falling suddenly to the right into a cove. I hear a curlew call, although I cannot find any records of sightings on the island when I search online later that night. Under a full moon, it’s both precarious and exhilarating to see this scene at night, and all too easy to imagine the appeal to smugglers in small boats stashing their fare in the cove around the back of the island – one of whom is said to haunt the Pilchard Inn having been caught and executed outside. Smuggling and this coastline are inextricably intertwined, it seems.

It’s also easy to see why arthouse filmmaker Scott Barley loves this place; the back of the island has a brooding atmosphere. I pad carefully back down the hill, my toes pressing against the edge of my boots, and sit nursing a glass of red wine as I watch for the return of the sea tractor through the inn’s porthole window. I will soon be taken safely over the green seas to the shore again, stars glinting above with the blinking constellations of house lights welcoming me back to the mainland, whilst secretly craving to spend a night here watching the moon shining on the ocean, dancing with the ghosts of Burgh Island’s past.

50.2812° N, 3.8962° W

Words by Kirsteen McNish.

Photography by Kate Mount.

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2 comments

Beautiful description of one of our family’s favourite holiday destinations. I haven’t done the walk over to the island at night but I will this June when I’m back. Thank you.

Alison 2 months ago

seems sacred and magical. Would love to visit someday,

Carole 2 months ago