Alison Steadman is a city girl who likes nothing better than to escape to an island.
In Channel 4’s Little British Isles, she explores some of Britain’s 267 inhabited islands, beginning with the Inner Hebrides tonight, where she keeps out the chill at a local distillery and discovers a spectacular deer forest.
We asked which was her favourite…
In the series, you say you’ve loved islands since you were a little girl. What do you remember about your summer holidays on the Isle of Man?
We used to go from Liverpool by ferry and as a child I always loved the sea – I can still remember the smell of it when we used to go to the Pier Head in Liverpool.
I was and still am mad on animals so I adored the horse-drawn trams on the promenade, and crossing the island on steam trains in a carriage with velvet seats. My dad loved fishing so we’d get rods and go fishing in the sea, and I’d go swimming in a little knitted costume and a bathing hat. It was just lovely.
You visit the Inner Hebrides, the Channel Islands and the Scillies. Which was your favourite?
It’s very hard to say because they’ve all got something about them that’s different and unique. That was the fun of doing the programme. I do think the Isles of Scilly are quite special – the climate is different, they have these exotic plants growing everywhere that you just don’t see on the mainland.
You can fly to the Scillies, so why did you choose to get the boat?
The boat is more interesting, more fun. It can be hell because these boats are small, so if the weather is rough they tip all over the place. But I am not a fan of small planes. I don’t mind flying in a big plane: you can have a glass of champagne and forget! But I don’t like bobbing around in a six-seater plane. If there’s an alternative, I’ll do it.
Alison with fisherman Mark Pender on Bryher, one of the smaller islands
The Scillies look almost Mediterranean…
The weather was really hot, and of course they do have an exotic feel. You do feel you are in a foreign place rather than in the UK. That’s what is great about it.
Apart from admiring the exotic plant life, is there much to do?
You can sail – not that I’m a great sailor, it doesn’t appeal to me! You can island-hop on little ferries because they’re all very nearby. You can walk, bird watch, and the beaches are just glorious – miles of lovely sandy beaches.
I know you’re a keen twitcher – did you get a chance to do any birdwatching?
We saw a lot of wonderful birds. From St Mary’s [the largest of the Scilly isles], we went out on a RIB and found a puffin colony and a colony of seals. That was great because we were really close to the rocks, which you just can’t get to in an ordinary boat. It was at the end of July, just days before they finish breeding and fly off.
Being so close to the seals was amazing. The young ones look at you as if to say: “What’s that funny thing?” And then dive under the boat and bob up to look at you again: “Who are you?” And the old ones are literally lying there snoring. They open one eye, clearly think “boring” and just go back to sleep.
What is it about Britain’s 267 inhabited islands that fascinates you?
The “just get on with it” attitude. There’s no industry and they’ve got to make a living somehow. They can’t rely on tourism year-round, although that’s obviously part of it. Even on Jersey, we met this guy who was making apple brandy and his wife was busy making quilts.
Little British Isles with Alison Steadman is on Wednesdays 8pm C4