Island life: Meet the people who left it all behind
Bardsey Island, Wales
Jo and Steve Porter, 46 and 49, live on a Welsh island. Winter population: four
In 2007, Jo, an ecologist, and Steve, an outdoor pursuits instructor, moved from a house with a vegetable patch in rural Conwy, North Wales, to Bardsey Island—a National Nature Reserve in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The tiny island is two miles off the mainland with no cars, electricity grid or indoor toilets. After dark, the only lights are the stars and the glow from Dublin.
“The children had loved holidays here and had no qualms. But Steve and I wondered whether we’d cope, being the only permanent inhabitants in such an isolated place,” recalls Jo. “But the role and place fitted us.”
The couple’s strong faith gives them a deep connection with the island, which has been a place of pilgrimage since the fifth century. “Modern life boxes religion and everyday life into different compartments. But here we can entwine both,” she explains.
Their life is demanding, with just two of them managing the island’s farm, 300 cows, and fragile ecosystems. Jo also works for the RSPB and tries to grow enough veg to keep them self-sufficient. They buy staples in bulk and their goat supplies milk.
“If the weather is settled, Tesco can deliver to a farm on the mainland and then Colin the boatman brings it over on the boat,” she adds.
The Porter family on Bardsey Island: (from left) Daughter Rachel, Jo, Steve and son Ben
Their phone system relies on a solar-powered battery, and our first interview was called off because of overcast weather. “Sometimes I have to sit on the mountain with my mobile!” says Jo. They use the generator only for the vacuum cleaner now they have installed solar panels and a wind turbine. “I’ve learned to check the weather before I put the washing on,” she laughs.
“Getting the children home for Christmas was stressful,” remembers Jo. “We hadn’t seen them for three months and there was only one two-hour gap in the storms that coincided with the right tides. There was no other chance for the following three weeks.”
"Modern life boxes religion and everyday life into
different compartments. But here we can entwine both"
Jo and Steve’s lives are a cycle of alternating solitude and interaction. “In spring and summer, the island becomes very busy with visitors and I’m growing vegetables to sell and working in our cafe. By autumn, I’m looking forward to winter. I’m probably a hermit at heart—I love having time to be creative,” says Jo. When the weather is bleak and windy, Steve misses paragliding and star-gazing from his observatory.
Bardsey’s population doubled last Christmas when a second couple moved onto the island—to look after the bird observatory and rental properties. “We have each other round for meals and help each other out,” says Jo. “It’s been lovely.”
“I read somewhere that islands can either free you or become your prison,” she concludes. “We feel so privileged to live on Bardsey and be free to be who we are.”
Read more: 9 Great British islands
Restoration Island, Australia
David escaped to Restoration Island after losing a fortune and his home
David Glasheen, 73, lives alone on Restoration Island off Australia’s far north Queensland coast
“I can go a month without seeing another human being when it’s winter and all the yachts have gone,” says Dave, speaking by solar-powered satellite phone from his tropical island home. “But I love the quiet time. I’m discovering a new life here, a more natural way of living. There’s no noise or stress, only nature. The bats are flying around now.”
His nearest neighbours are the KuukuYa’u Aborigines on the mainland, 40 minutes away by boat. And his sole companion (after his previous dog was killed by a snake bite) is a dingo. “Without Polly, it would be lonely.”
He was “a corporate bloke” in his previous life, a millionaire yacht-owning workaholic living in Sydney. But after the 1987 stock market crash he lost $10 million and his home. He and his wife separated.
“I was depressed and decided not to get back into the stress of the mainstream,” he says. “There had to be more to life than money.” As a boy, he’d loved camping, fishing and been transported by Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. Together with his new partner, they started looking for an escape.
In 1997, Dave started leasing the habitable part of Restoration Island—of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. Nearer Papua New Guinea than Cairns, it’s the dream desert island, with white beaches, coconut palms, and coral reefs. “It’s restored me in every way,” he says.
"I was depressed and decided not to get back
into the stress of the mainstream.
There had to be more to life than money"
Home is a tin-roofed Second World War boatshed with shelves of bottles, food packets and water containers on the crushed coral floor. Mod cons are limited to a gas-powered freezer, rainwater-flushing plastic toilet, mobile wireless phone system and solar-powered wi-fi computer.
Dave leads a stripped-down life—catching fish, growing vegetables and living in tune with the natural cycles of light and dark, tides, weather and seasons. While he clearly relishes the daily challenge, his partner found that island life wasn’t for her. She returned to the mainland with their son when he was six months old.
Alone, Dave grew a white beard and stopped wearing shirts. “I don’t like looking in the mirror,” he laughs. “But I can carry more rocks than most people of 40. My diet is healthy and I don’t get sick.”
“Oh yeah, it’s hard work fighting the elements, growing food in a place with no rainfall May to December. I’m up at six, working flat out!” he says cheerfully. “I try to finish soon after midday. Reading in the afternoon, with a glass of wine and a breeze, is a great pleasure!“
Once a year, Dave travels 500 miles to Cairns to see his son, now 17, and to stock up on essentials. Although he takes shoes to the mainland, he stays barefoot. “I’m sure people think I’m homeless,” he says.
Tragically, his youngest daughter took her own life several years ago and he hasn’t seen his other daughter since the funeral. “Family issues are not easy, but I never shut people out of my life,” he says. Indeed, his latest plan is to develop a non-profit healing centre so others can come here to “detox from the modern world”.
Read more: 6 Secret European islands