My deserted island in Dorset
Edward Iliffe drives his flat-bottomed boat out of the marina at Poole and sets off towards his magical private isle. He passes Brownsea Island, where Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scout movement, then turns towards a jetty crowded with gulls and encrusted with enough guano to fertilise Dorset.
You can easily imagine the excitement Iliffe felt when the place came up for sale: his very own fantasy island. But Iliffe, 42, is a reserved man, no more likely to indulge in effusive outbursts than, say, the father in Swallows and Amazons. He lets his actions speak for themselves — and you can’t get a lot more thrilling than buying your own desert island.
The previous owners of Green Island ran a charity giving outdoor experiences to people with spinal injuries. Iliffe’s mother knew them, and when they decided to sell five years ago, she encouraged him to buy it. He leapt at the idea, paying £2.5m for what promised to make a sensational holiday home. But he wanted to put up a new property on it, much larger than the dilapidated two-room, A-frame building already there. His plans were refused on the grounds that they would detract from the island’s natural beauty.
Green Island is the third-largest in Poole Harbour: about 20 acres, and twice that at low tide. Between the wars, it was farmed. Today, it’s hugely overgrown — reclaimed by nature, though not quite as the conservationists would like it.
Or the planners. Before Iliffe can act out his castaway fantasy, he first has to remove all the rhododendrons from the island within the next 10 years. It is substantially covered with the pesky flowers — walking into a dark enclosure beneath these twisted aliens is like entering a scene from The Lord of the Rings. Pushing on, we come to a stand of tall ferns (reaching higher than our heads) and now it feels like Jurassic Park. Then suddenly we’re on the island’s perimeter, trapped by the lapping waters, like Robinson Crusoe.
Getting rid of the rhododendrons is one of many stringent requirements attached to his hard-won planning permission. “The only way is to use a bulldozer,” he says, so he’ll have to ship machinery over shallow water, and get people to fix it if it breaks down.
In the meantime, Iliffe has been staying here for a week with his two older children (of three), who’ve been learning to sail. “And I’ve been doing — well, gardening isn’t quite the word,” he says. “More chopping and clearing.”
Iliffe’s great-grandfather, the first Baron Iliffe, newspaper magnate and Conservative MP, once owned the neighbouring Furzey Island. Today, it’s owned by an oil company; young Edward visited before the family sold it, but he was too young at the time to remember it.
The family, ranked 272nd in The Sunday Times Rich List, made its fortune in publishing — starting with a cycling magazine in 1872, then building stakes in national and local papers.
Today, the family also owns Channel TV, the independent TV station for the Channel Islands; Britain’s leading marina operator, based in Poole; and substantial property in Berkshire and Scotland. Iliffe studied geography at Edinburgh and went on to be a surveyor.
As a property man, he wasn’t surprised how hard the planning process was. “But it was frustrating for various reasons. The first planning officer retired, the next had health problems and there were two more after that.”
Permission was finally granted earlier this year after Iliffe promised that his new home would be sympathetic to the island’s natural beauty, and environmentally friendly, with solar panels to generate electricity, a log burner for warmth, and water from a well.
“At the moment, getting friends to stay is difficult. People might like to camp for a day or two, but a week is different. If you are entertaining, you want to make it as hassle-free as possible.”
There’s no WiFi on the island, and phone reception is poor. More important, there is no mains power. The previous owner used a diesel generator. “I’d like to use [solar] PV cells,” says Iliffe. “The technology is really coming along, with LED lights that use only 7W instead of 100W. We’ve been lucky. If I tried to do this a few years ago, it would have been very difficult.”
The biggest problem, however, remains getting to and from the island, with all the vagaries of weather and tides. “The key is to get the building here, and everything else, so that we don’t have to go ashore all the time.”
The octagonal house is being built now, in Canada. “It’s made of cedar, which is bug-resistant and doesn’t need painting, and will last for 300 to 400 years. Which should be enough.”
Not long ago, he paid the marines to bring over a shepherd’s hut on wheels, along with a Land Rover, on an SBS boat stationed in Poole. Getting the flat-pack house ashore, in a 40ft container, will be harder.
And that’s not all. He must also demolish various sheds, summerhouses and other dilapidated buildings, including the workshop of a celebrated local potter, the late Guy Sydenham. From shards stamped with Sydenham’s Green Island logo, Iliffe shows bits and pieces he intends to reuse, along with bricks from the kiln.
The overall cost of the maintenance work imposed by the planners will amount to about £500,000 over a decade. Conservationists hope he’ll restore several different ecosystems: heathland for bees and reptiles, deciduous trees, pines for the rare red squirrels (a year ago, he actually clapped eyes on one). Deer swim over from the mainland, where the National Trust is trying to reduce their numbers. Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust hope to establish a marine conservation zone in the island’s surrounding waters, disturbed only by Iliffe’s boat, or deer escaping the cull. Iliffe is delighted to help, but stresses that if he has become an environmentalist, it is only inadvertently. He proves the point by marching up to a pair of beech trees, declaring them to be sweet chestnut.
By the time Iliffe has finished sharing his plans, we’ve walked all the way round his island and can again see the jetty, where his children are fishing for the large mullet in the clear waters nearby. Once again, I’m put in mind of classic children’s adventure stories, but Iliffe seems more practical. “I like the challenge. I want to get the building. And this time next year, we will be able to really enjoy it.”
1088 words. First published 29 August 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.