If you look past the shoreline in Barrow-in-Furness, England, you’ll spot a small patch of idyllic land sitting alone in the water. This is Piel Island, and it boasts a quite remarkable — and unique — history. In fact, just about anybody could be its king or queen — but one with very peculiar responsibilities...
A popular spot
Despite its location, you see, Piel Island’s become something of a tourist hotspot over the years.
The area measures around 50 acres in size and houses an ancient castle that’s been standing since the 1300s. It’s also got a pub and a quartet of privately owned cottages.
Plus, Piel Island’s the perfect spot to drop by if you love seals. The animals frequently pop up around the area — pretty neat, right?
But it’s the history of the place that’s arguably the biggest draw. You’d be hard-pressed to name an ancient site in England with a more unique past!
According to Piel Island’s official website, people began to settle on the land roughly three millennia ago.
It’s suggested that both the Romans and Celts would’ve made their presence known at some point, while Nordic colonists gave the place its earliest name. They called it Foudray.
Now, that wasn’t just a random name plucked out of the sky. In the ancient Nordic language, Foudray roughly translates as “fire island.”
Yes, early settlers essentially saw Piel Island as a giant lighthouse, helping old sea vessels navigate the nearby waters to safety. Foudray could have been home to the settlers’ grazing animals, too.
But some of the most significant moments in Piel Island’s history took place a bit later. For instance, in the back half of the 1120s, the area came under the control of Savignac monks.
The plan was to use “fire island” as a boatyard for nearby Furness Abbey, which could be found roughly five miles inland.
“Port of Furness”
Piel Island then earned a new moniker: the “Port of Furness.” It was now harboring valuable shipments from boats traveling between England and Ireland in a building that acted as a storage facility.
And to say things were hectic there in the 1200s would be a gross understatement!
A pivotal moment
Yet as traders continued to use the island going into the 1300s, those at Furness Abbey made a bold decision.
In an attempt to better protect the shipments stored on the island, the authorities gave permission to “crenelate” the building there. In other words, that meant its defenses could be strengthened.
So just like that, the storage facility was transformed into a castle. That’s one way to scare off any thieves or pirates! But the new fortifications also made some other people wary — namely, customs workers.
Yes, folks, the process that we’re all too familiar with on our travels today was already up and running back then.
Breaking the law
Due to the inability of the customs workers to get close, the people of Furness Abbey saw an opportunity.
The Piel Island website notes that the officials took full advantage of the situation — and started smuggling goods such as wool via the castle. Bet you didn’t see that coming, right? And the area became notorious as a result.
Meeting Lambert Simnel
Piel Island’s infamous reputation only grew as time progressed, with Furness Abbey upgrading the castle in 1429. Another turning point occurred nearly 60 years later when a young boy named Lambert Simnel came ashore.
His dad was a merchant from Oxford, England, but he had much higher aspirations than that. Simnel wanted the country’s crown.
The rightful king?
Simnel maintained that he held the title of Earl of Warwick — and that in his eyes made him England’s “true” leader. So, after recruiting a band of soldiers from Germany, he and his allies set up a base on Piel Island.
The plan was as audacious as you can get — they looked to overthrow King Henry VII by attacking London.
Stopped in their tracks
Simnel and his mercs left Piel Island for the mainland, beginning their march south. The group didn’t get very far, though. Henry VII’s army intercepted them in Stoke, ahead of a swift battle.
It lasted for just one day in June 1487, with the country’s existing ruler emerging victorious.
A royal pardon
Simnel was taken prisoner on the battlefield and eventually transported to London.
From there, Henry VII went on to give the young boy a pardon, before offering him a kitchen servant position. What a crazy story! And Piel Island’s part in it hasn’t been forgotten.
Following this attempted coup, Piel Island continued to take in shipments as the years rolled on. Changes were coming, though.
And the days of smuggling were well and truly over in 1669 when a customs worker was finally stationed there. Going into the 18th century, then, a new business was opened on the island.
The Ship Inn
While details are somewhat sketchy as to its precise history, the Ship Inn pub made its bow after a lease was granted for its construction in 1746.
And it’s still running today, sitting opposite the old castle on the island. In fact, a significant announcement was made in January 2022 by the local authorities.
Looking for a landlord
The Ship Inn needed a new manager. The person who previously looked after the pub had decided to cash in on their retirement, opening up the vacancy.
But here’s the thing: this position is unlike any other in the United Kingdom — and perhaps the world. That’s because it brings with it responsibilities that extend beyond the bar.
“King of Piel”
To give you a better idea of the position’s importance, the Barrow Borough Council website shared the following passage. It reads, “One of the most enduring aspects of the Ship Inn is the tradition of the king and knights of Piel.
The tradition holds that each new landlord is crowned ‘King of Piel’ in a ceremony of uncertain origin.”
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. The landlord becomes island royalty! And this isn’t just reserved for men — women can take on the position and become the Queen of Piel.
Given the area’s crazy history, it doesn’t really feel out of place, right? In fact, it’s weirdly fitting.
As for the ceremony, the council website goes into more detail: “[The landlord will] sit in an ancient chair, wearing a helmet and holding a sword while alcohol is poured over their head.
By the 19th century, it [had become] an important aspect of the island’s history to such an extent that responsibility for looking after the helmet and chair fell within the tenancy agreement.”
Why did it start?
If you’re anything like us, you’ve just got to ask: why did this tradition start on the island? What prompted it? Well, the answer isn’t all that clear in truth.
Yet one guy believes the disastrous campaign waged by Lambert Simnel could be tied to it.
“A bit weird”
Speaking to The New York Times, English Heritage’s Mark Douglas suggested that Simnel’s failure might’ve served as inspiration for the idea during the 1800s.
“Sort of a looking back to the good old days, and reinventing some kind of arcane ceremony,” he mused. “It’s a bit weird.”
The tenancy agreement
Regardless of the answer, the responsibilities of the Ship Inn’s landlord have remained the same for a long time, and it’s all laid out in that tenancy agreement.
What’s expected of you once you’re crowned king or queen of the island? Quite a bit, actually.
A huge commitment
For one thing, you’d have to be prepared to stick with the role for the long haul. The landlord’s contract spans ten years. No joke! But there’s plenty to keep you occupied during that time.
Yup, caring for the pub’s just one of the jobs that the king or queen will need to fulfill.
In addition to overseeing the Ship Inn, the landlord is responsible for looking after large parts of Piel Island. The “campground” tourist areas and the stretch of public bathrooms all come under the landlord’s remit, for example.
Without question, it’s a lot of work. Yet the idyllic surroundings are a very nice bonus.
Yes, there are seals in the water, but Piel Island is home to lots of other gorgeous fauna, too. And the scenery! It’s like a postcard picture come to life.
There are certainly worse places to spend your time. The Ship Inn landlord isn’t responsible for every inch of the 50 acres, either.
King of the castle? Nope...
Take the castle, for example. Even though the landlord is “royalty,” they aren’t required to care for the structure. Instead, that responsibility falls on English Heritage.
But as cool as it might sound to run your own island, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are potential drawbacks.
“Periods of quiet”
To shed some light on that, Ann Thomson spoke to The New York Times in January 2022. She’s in charge of the local council.
Thomson revealed, “While there are periods when the pub and the island is bustling with people, there will be periods of quiet, too. [That’s] something the successful applicant will need to embrace.”
Yes, between April and September, the island’s a hive of activity. In the months after that, though, it’s a very different story.
The area essentially shuts down over fall and winter, leaving the landlord by themselves for large stretches. Only two other people live there “full-time.” That’s six months of isolation!
“Be a Robinson Crusoe”
A guy named John Murphy offered his thoughts to The New York Times, too. He’s been running tours of the island for around 40 years. Murphy noted, “It’s a very tranquil place.
If you don’t have any customers, you have to be a Robinson Crusoe and enjoy the facilities that you’ve got in your mind.”
Murphy also mentioned one of the other big drawbacks of the job: dealing with the weather. “[Winters are] very harsh indeed,” he told the newspaper. “We’re not talking about St. Lucia or the Hawaiian islands [here]."
"We’re talking about a small and very isolated island in the north of England.”
Getting back to the mainland
And good luck making return trips to the mainland outside tourist season. It isn’t a particularly easy journey, and that’s putting it mildly.
You see, while only a couple of miles separate Piel Island from the coast, quick back-and-forths between the two aren’t very feasible. And you’ve got to be very cautious.
Relying on the tide
A sandy pathway does open up once the tide goes back, but you need to be aware of the correct route. A few missteps could spell disaster.
And if you don’t return to the island before the water comes in, a tiny vessel’s your only option. “[It’s] a rowing boat with a little engine on the back,” Murphy admitted.
So how does the landlord go about getting their food shopping, then? We wouldn’t want to take the chance on foot!
Murphy informed The New York Times that one of the other people living on Piel Island contacts the local grocery store. They put an order in, and go on to pick it up themselves using an automobile.
Yes, it’s possible for vehicles to traverse the pathway when the tide recedes. Yet to do that, the Duke of Buccleuch needs to give you a “special license” first.
Murphy revealed that the duke possesses the territory surrounding Piel Island “through ancient rights.” The fact that this isn’t the strangest thing we’ve heard in this story is pretty telling!
Anyway, those are arguably the toughest aspects of taking on the job. Think you could do it? Regarding the application process, Tony Callister spoke to The New York Times.
The council representative stated, “It’s an opportunity for somebody who’s really open-minded, loves that style of business, loves the outside, loves history.”
Lots of applicants
“At the end of the day, when we all get a little bit older, you think, ‘I wish I’d have done that,’” Callister added. “Don’t pass that opportunity over.”
The search for applicants came to an end early in February 2022. Overall, close to 200 people put their names forward to the local council.
And not all of those applicants were based in England or the United Kingdom. For instance, one request came in from Africa, highlighting the global appeal of the unique role.
So, with the window closed now, officials had some time to pour over their options. Who stands out from the crowd?
The clock’s ticking...
Well, the local authorities are apparently looking to have someone in place ahead of April 2022. That way, the new landlord will be ready for the next raft of tourists visiting the famous island.
We can’t wait to see who nabs the role! Murphy confirmed that it wouldn’t be him, though, despite his huge affection for the area.
Plenty of love
Speaking to The Guardian, Murphy said, “I absolutely adore Piel Island, I adore its isolation. I also love the fact that Barrow still is an industrial town, and yet we have this gorgeous, isolated island within spitting distance.”
Without the proper landlord — or “monarch” — the island could suffer the same fate as Changuu in Africa.
Named after the fish
The name Changuu comes from the Kiswahili language, which is the common tongue of Zanzibar’s inhabitants.
And the name is derived from a species of fish that’s plentiful in the seas that surround it. But it’s the species on the island that’s arguably more interesting.
Changuu is situated about 15 miles from the African mainland and is just a half an hour motorboat ride from Zanzibar City, which is the semi-independent African island’s capital.
The islet is often referred to as Kibandiko, or by two other nicknames that reference its chilling past.
Yes, the tiny, oblong-shaped island has a fascinating yet somewhat disturbing history. But for many years it was just a desolate atoll out in the Indian Ocean.
Not until deep into the 19th century was the site populated by humans. They certainly weren’t going there to vacation, mind you.
Setting up shop
That’s according to what’s been recorded in the history books, anyway. It seems that the first time humans populated Changuu Island was back in the 1860s. It was then that Zanzibar’s ruler Sultan Seyyid Majid personally handed it over to a pair of Arabs.
While their names appear to be lost to history, what we do know is that they’d selected it for a sinister purpose.
The horrid truth
Yes, Changuu would become an incarceration center for slaves who were deemed to be particularly unruly.
And this would inform the island’s later uses as well, which came about when a fearsome world power began to flex its muscles in the area. Any guesses who it was?
Eyes on the prize
That formidable force would, of course, be Great Britain. The European nation had held sway with those who ruled the principal island of Zanzibar for a long time.
The reigning sultans there had originally come from Oman and had seized control of the territory from the Portuguese explorers who’d settled at the end of the 15th century.
Nearly 360 years later, the then-ruling Sultan, Majid bin Said, broke with Oman and made Zanzibar a state in its own right. Great Britain was pleased with that decision, but several years later it began to exert even more influence over the country.
And in 1873 the British gave a warning that they’d lay siege to the island if the trafficking of slaves continued on Zanzibar.
Then, in 1890 — after negotiations between Germany and Great Britain — Zanzibar was classified as a protectorate under British control. A military officer named Sir Lloyd William Mathews was duly selected as the first minister.
And the Madeira-born Briton would serve the authorities there until his death in 1901. And he certainly made his mark on that area of the world.
Making his mark
After serving in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War, he moved to East Africa to assist the abolition of slavery.
And from 1877 he helped Zanzibar’s rulers to create a modern armed force, training thousands of men to quell local uprisings and fight against slavers in the area. He was paving the way for Britain to acquire Changuu, too.
Great Britain gets Changuu
Yep, three years after the main island had been turned into a British protectorate, Changuu itself was taken over by Great Britain. The powerful empire purchased it on behalf of the Zanzibar government.
Mathews stumped up the necessary cash in 1893 to buy it off its Arab proprietors. The island’s purpose would soon become very dark.
One use in mind
When it came down to deciding how the island was to be used, both Matthews and the ruling authorities of Zanzibar had a clear objective in mind.
They wanted to construct a brand new penitentiary there, you see. And the intention was to incarcerate the region’s most feared criminals in the purpose-built jail.
It didn’t take long to build — they weren’t aiming for five-star luxury, after all — and was ready to house prisoners just a year after the island was purchased.
Changuu was widely referred to as “Prison Island” during this period and may well have had a fearsome reputation. This was even before the big creatures started taking over!
But as it turned out, local criminals needn’t have worried about the development at all.
That’s because, in reality, the purpose-built penitentiary on Changuu would never be used to house prisoners. And the region’s hardened crooks could all breathe a sigh of relief.
A big oversight
It’s no doubt that a lot of work would have gone into constructing the jail. So why, then, did it end up being unoccupied?
Well, the answer seems to be down to a lack of foresight and planning. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough fresh water on Changuu to be able to run the complex effectively.
Back to the drawing board
“Prison Island,” therefore, turned out to be something of a misleading name, and its planners were certainly guilty of making a huge and embarrassing oversight. One day, Changuu Island would be overrun – but by giant tortoises... that was yet to come, though.
All was not lost, however, as the Zanzibar authorities still found a use for the tiny islet in the meantime.
That new purpose was informed by Zanzibar’s ever-increasing status and its strategic positioning on the world map.
Yes, those two factors led to the island becoming the most significant port on Africa’s East coast by the start of the 20th century.
As a result of its increased status as a major port, the authorities of Great Britain, Zanzibar and the nearby African countries Kenya and Uganda began to grow anxious.
Becoming East Africa’s main port obviously meant more ships and people were arriving. And, naturally, this influx greatly increased the likelihood that illnesses would spread.
Authorities didn’t want epidemics to be transmitted to Zanzibar.
So at the close of the 19th century, the British-led authorities in the country – supported by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanganyika – decided to do something about the threat. And they’d need Changuu Island for their plan.
Malaria, flu, and yellow fever
That’s right: a quarantine station was set up on the tiny islet in the Indian Ocean. Infected passengers would be brought here to recover from illnesses that likely included malaria and flu.
But the most significant of the conditions treated on the island was yellow fever.
Yellow fever was a particularly problematic illness for the British to contend with and is widespread in areas of Africa with a tropical climate. Like malaria, it’s transmitted to humans via mosquitoes, and in this case, infected adult females.
The virus causes head pains, muscle aches, sickness and jaundice among other symptoms. And if untreated, it can be fatal.
Using the prison after all
The quarantine station on Changuu would serve all of the territories controlled by the British Empire at that time in East Africa. And the unused penitentiary that the Brits had built was transformed into a medical center.
Those who’d fallen ill were brought down from the vessels and supervised for a week or two, at which point they were allowed to go on their way. Sounds eerily familiar now, right?
Due to its new use as an isolation station, then, the islet became known as “Quarantine Island.”
And that’s regardless of the fact that it only really served this purpose from April until November, which is when most of the ships were arriving.
And the rest of the year?
It made sense, then, that the owners of the island wanted to put it to yet another use during these quieter seasons. And that’s how the idyllic islet in the Indian Ocean turned into a bustling vacation spot.
It’s got a lot to offer, after all, what with its attractive beaches, plentiful flora, and the stunning waters that surround it.
The picturesque island soon attracted a cluster of holidaymakers from both Zanzibar and further afield.
This prompted the authorities to construct a new building — which they called the European Bungalow — near the end of the 19th century. Pits created by earlier coral-mining projects were transformed into swimming pools, too.
Same problem as before
The number of sun-seekers who could stay on Quarantine Island was strictly capped, though. The issue was essentially the same as with the aborted prison — the rainwater captured and stored in underground tanks was the only fresh water that was available.
But in 1919 a small group of unusual visitors arrived to permanently put down roots on the island paradise.
The giant creatures
Those new settlers were four Aldabra giant tortoises, an ancient and endangered species of aquatic reptile.
The enormous creatures were donated by the British governor of the nearby Seychelles to Zanzibar’s government. And the awesome foursome would happily make Changuu their home.
You see, the four Aldabra giant tortoises would in time essentially take over the whole island.
The reptiles — which often weigh more than 500 pounds — began to thrive in their new environment, cut off from the world with no potential predators. There was also ample foliage on Changuu for them to eat and plenty of shelter among the trees.
Before long, the Aldabra giant tortoises began to reproduce. And without the threat of any species that might fancy taking a nibble out of them, their numbers progressively swelled.
In 1955 — less than 40 years since they first settled on Changuu — the population of the huge reptiles had grown to approximately 200.
The herbivorous giants evidently spend much of their waking hours searching for food. And as we suggested, they thankfully didn’t have to look too far on Changuu.
They were able to munch their way through over 20 different types of grass and herb there — sometimes referred to as “tortoise turf” — with the odd fruit or insect thrown in for a treat.
Anything for food
The adorable reptiles have even been observed standing on their back legs in order to reach desirable food placed on branches higher up.
So, Changuu had evidently been an ideal home for them since their introduction in 1919. But in subsequent years, the giant tortoises would suffer a succession of cruel blows.
Sharing their home
One such setback for the endangered reptiles was the other animals being brought to live on the island by humans. These additions included both domesticated creatures such as dogs and livestock including goats.
And it meant that the numerous Aldabra giant tortoises roaming across Changuu now had an unwanted contest for food.
The tortoise and the goat
But in reality, it wasn’t much of a competition, as the goats that were introduced to Changuu were able to graze much more quickly than the slow-moving tortoises.
They could chomp through much of the islet’s flora before the reptiles even had the chance to reach it. As you can imagine, then, it wasn’t an ideal situation for a species that was already endangered.
On top of that, the giant tortoises had to endure the increasingly destructive impact of humans.
As is the case for a lot of animals, unscrupulous visitors began to poach the creatures to eat or to peddle as exotic pets.
Shocking decline in numbers
These issues saw the giant tortoise population suffer an alarming drop in numbers. Three decades after their clan reached the high-point of 200 individuals, the reptiles’ presence had been cut in half.
Just a couple of years later, it had been halved again to 50. And even more shockingly, in 1996 their numbers had plummeted to only seven.
Clearly, something had to be done before these magnificent creatures were lost from the island altogether. And attempts were then made to address the worrying drop in numbers.
Later in 1996 concerned conservationists brought 80 young tortoises to Changuu to increase the population. But half of these newcomers disappeared, perhaps falling victim to more illegal poaching.
On the rise
The now-independent government of Zanzibar needed to take serious action. Helped by a global conservation agency, it set to work on constructing a huge compound to safeguard the endangered tortoises.
And, thankfully, by the year 2000, the population had started to rise — with 90 hatchlings, 50 juveniles and 17 adults recorded.
Taking back their home
Since then, these efforts have borne even more fruit. The population slide has been successfully addressed, and further tortoises are periodically relocated to Changuu from elsewhere in the world for the species’ safeguarding.
It certainly helps as well that an organization is currently based on Changuu that’s devoted to the Aldabra giant tortoises’ survival.
Up close and personal
In recent years the island has become something of a tourist trap, in fact. People from far and wide travel to Changuu via Zanzibar, primarily to get up close and personal with the giant tortoises.
The curious creatures often unwittingly pose for photographs with an adoring public who’ve voyaged across the ocean to pet and feed them.
With regard to the island’s former uses, work has continued since 2002 on restoring Changuu’s many historical buildings and expanding its amenities. The old quarantining area, for example, has been turned into luxury accommodation with incredible views.
The prison has been converted into living quarters, and numerous new facilities such as shops, a tennis court, and even a library have been added. But despite all the fancy new structures and facilities, there’s little doubt the giant tortoises remain the island’s star attraction.