hidden europe 63

Isles of thorns: in search of lost islands

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: A beach at Thorney Island in Chichester Harbour, West Sussex (photo © Ac Manley / dreamstime.com).

Summary

Let's take time out to visit Thorney Island. But which one? In southern England there are three different islands called Thorney. And we won't need a boat to reach any of them.

Do you have some free time on this chilly day? Look, there’s a hint of early spring sunshine, so why not come with us on an excursion. We would like to take you to Thorney Island. In fact, we’ll visit not just one Thorney, but three islands of that name. We won’t need a boat to visit any of them, and we are fairly confident of keeping our feet dry and getting home in time for tea.

Mind you, what we have read of one Thorney Island does not sound very inviting. A dusty volume on our bookshelves, written by an Anglican vicar called James Ridgway, describes how the isle was for long “a hopeless marsh, covered with thick briers and brushwood, somewhat like a jungle.”

That doesn’t sound too promising, does it? So let’s leave that Thorney till last. Though it does give a clue as to how all three islands acquired the name Thorney. The suffix ‘ey’ occurs in many Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon place names to refer to an island. And thorn? Well, that’s obvious. So we can probably expect thorny bramble and briers aplenty. Just as the Reverend Ridgway suggests.

The first isle

Our first Thorney island sounds very encouraging. The great 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury described it as “a little paradise, delightsome as heaven itself may be deemed, fen-circled, yet rich in loftiest trees, where water meadows delight the eye with rich green, where streamlets glide unchecked through each field.”

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