Unplugged: silence and slow living on an off-grid island
I've been watching the daddy longlegs awkwardly negotiate the long grass above which my feet are dangling for a good 15 minutes before I realise what I'm doing: watching a daddy longlegs walk across the grass.
I'm sitting on a wall outside the unmodernised Victorian house we're renting for the week on a tiny island, little more than a mile and a half by half a mile in size, somewhere in the Irish Sea. We arrived not an hour before and, already unpacked, I've slipped into that way of being that only comes when all the usual daily stimuli are unavailable to you. There are no other places that I know, although you may have your own, where you are truly free from the intrusions of the modern age: the 24/7 rolling news, the interminable emails, many of them selling you things you neither need nor want, the dopamine hit of a social media like, the ping of a WhatsApp or text notification, and the rest. With no mobile signal, no 4G (or 3G), no broadband, no landline, no road signs, no shops, no advertising, no electricity and no plumbing, coming here is consciously choosing to spend time, maybe a week or two, living a simpler life. And for me, the most important part of that is the enforced digital detox, the cessation of all incoming noise, distractions, the communications clutter that fills our every waking moment.
I switch off my phone as soon as I arrive, its usefulness relegated to that of timepiece, and even that function matters less here. Within a day, we find ourselves falling into a rhythm that instinctively feels right: eating when hungry, going to bed when it gets dark, getting up when we choose (or you've held out to nature's call for as long as possible, the compost loo being at the bottom of the garden). With no artificial light or sound, no blue glow from devices, I sleep more deeply here than at home, at least nine or ten hours a night.
Without the pressure of needing to be somewhere or do something by a certain time, and without the noise of the outside world crowding your thoughts, you are free simply to be, to listen, watch and observe. It is a balm for the mind. The constant chattering of my thoughts finally quietens. In 'normal' life, my brain scrolls through an endless string of to do lists, usually several running concurrently and headed with titles such as 'work', 'home', 'friends', 'family'. The one called 'self' is usually the most neglected. Even on holiday, I manage to construct a to do list ('consult guidebook/internet', 'draw up itinerary', 'text mum', 'shop for provisions', 'decide where to eat this evening'... and so it goes on). Except when I'm here. Save for the last remaining tower of a ruined monastery, a simple exhibition at the bird observatory and an even simpler display of vintage photographs in the old school house, there are no particular places to visit, and I've visited the few that there are on previous holidays, so they're done, ticked off the list and only need revisiting if I choose.
"So what on earth do you do there?" friends and colleagues ask once they've run out of questions about the toilet and washing arrangements. Everything and nothing is the answer. I read (voraciously), draw (badly), write (self-consciously, in longhand - a long-forgotten discipline). And I roam the island, which, for a place of only 180 hectares, has so many different facets. There's the atmospheric north of the island, where the swirling currents, a cauldron even on a calm day, make you wonder at the bravery and strength of faith of the island's early pilgrims; the mountain, technically a Marilyn at 167m, which, despite its foreboding appearance from the mainland, is actually topped with a welcoming carpet of heather, soft grass and the springiest moss. I know exactly where to sit to duck out of the wind and bask in the warmth of the sun, either reading or looking back over the vast expanse of sea to mountains on the mainland, where it might well be raining as your nose is getting sunburnt here on the island. The mountain is a picnic spot par excellence: choose a comfy clump of moss, unpack your cheese and wine, or a pan of something still warm walked up from the house, and eat and dose away the afternoon while the choughs perform barrel rolls for your entertainment.
Then there's the gently curving sand of the beach where you might find a cowrie, the shell that is said to be a sign that you will return one day, and the rocky cove mirrored on the opposite side of the narrow isthmus, where the island's seal colony hang out, snoring on the seaweedy rocks, curious banana-shaped beasts, scratching and yawning and calling to each other in high-toned voices as if at a WI meeting - "Audrey, Sue-oo, Maur-een". Time your visit for the autumn and you can spend hours quietly observing the newborn seal pups in one of the narrow, high-sided inlets on the island's west coast, where they lie for weeks on end, high on the beach, until they have put on enough weight to take their first swim. On my most recent visit, I lost hours watching the pups although it didn't feel like time lost at all. In a place this small, you notice the texture of the grass, the different types of moss, the colours of the lichen, all of it a wonder and more marvellous the closer your inspection.
Here the business of everyday living is slower, more considered. Instead of a two-minute blast under a hot shower, water for washing is drawn from the rainwater butt and heated on the stove, the pan then lifted into the fuschia-screened garden and poured from a jug while you stand in the altogether as the wind whips round your nethers. I challenge you to find a more invigorating way of washing. Ablutions are more about the essential than aesthetics and a week without hair straighteners, shaved legs or makeup is nothing short of liberating, not least in terms of the time gained, ironically in a place where you have more of it to spare.
Cooking the day's meals may or may not become a drawn-out affair, depending on your mood. All food tastes good here, whether it's marmalade on toast prepared with one eye on the book that you can't put down, or an elaborate dinner that you've taken all afternoon to cook, because you have time to enjoy the process. I've had some memorable meals here, particularly when visiting with family or friends, there being an unspoken element of competition in the sharing of food, all meticulously planned and shopped for prior to arrival.
Leaving the island is tinged with the inevitable sadness of letting go once again of its sanctuary. I am always reluctant to let the real world back in once returned to the mainland and, in spite of the natural curiosity about what we may have missed during our unplugged week (never all that much if truth be told), we always wait a few hours before switching the car radio on, just to give ourselves time to decompress a little.
For a while, the island's influence will stay with me and I make well-intended resolutions, such as leaving my phone outside the bedroom and limiting my daily news intake. Some last longer than others but it's largely a Canute-like endeavour. The world we have created is unavoidably noisy, intrusive, fast-paced and complicated. And it's why I know I will always need to return to this place.
This post is dedicated to my brothers-in-law, with grateful thanks for introducing me to the island. They have every right to remind me just how much persuasion it took to get me past my fear of compost loos and unstraightened hair.