Island tour

A small English island is looking for a new monarch to run its pub | Smart News

The small island of Piel has an inn and a pub and an old castle.
Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

A small English island is looking for a new owner-king or queen, depending on the New York TimesAlan Yuhas. Barrow Borough Council says Piel Island, a 50-acre landing stage 800m off England’s northwest coast, needs a ‘monarch’ to run the island’s pub, the Ship Inn. Duties also include maintaining the grounds and running a small campsite and toilet block, reports Stephen Jones for Initiated.

According to Rachel Treisman for NPR, the former owners quit during the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic. The move prompted supporters to start a petition to save the historic pub, and island officials launched a search for new managers to run the site. The council hopes to find a qualified candidate to sign a 10-year lease to begin in April, when the tourist season begins. So far, nearly 200 candidates have applied since the vacancy was announced in December, reports Lucy Thackray for the Independent.

Piel Island has been home to diverse inhabitants for nearly 3,000 years, NPR reports. In 1127, the monks of Savignac built a new abbey on the land. Churchmen used the fortress to store goods and smuggle valuables, such as wool, in the 14th century, according to Piel’s website. At the end of the 17th and 18th centuries, the island became an important stage for the maritime industry, both for customs collections and as a shipyard. In 1920 the island was donated to the town of Barrow-in-Furness in memory of those killed in the First World War.

According to English Heritage, the most famous visitor to Piel was Lambert Simnel, a 10-year-old boy of low birth from Oxford who claimed the throne of England by posing as Edward, Earl of Warwick. Simnel’s followers supported him with an army of 8,000 mercenaries and established a base at Piel in 1487, largely due to its proximity to other allies. When Simnel marched on London on June 4 of that year, he was swiftly defeated 12 days later by Henry VII and spent the rest of his days as a royal kitchen servant.

Piel Castle

The remains of the castle of Piel

Public domain via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Some suggest that Simnel’s stay inspired the some 300-year-old tradition of the “King of Piel”. (The Ship Inn was established three centuries ago.) Likely derived from a 19th-century pub game, the formal ceremony has the new “monarch” seated in an old chair donning a rusting helmet and sword as a gallon of beer is poured over their head. The leader takes an oath to be a good smoker, a good drinker and “to offer anyone found dead on the sand free refuge in the pub”, according to the New York Times. At the end of the ceremony, the new owner obtains the official title of king (or queen).

According to Initiated, most of the owner’s duties take place during the tourist season from April to September. Visitors can take a ferry for a pint at the inn while watching the seals on the island, or visit the Chateau de Piel built by a monk from Savignac, which is run by English Heritage and falls outside the jurisdiction of the owner. The island is quite isolated the rest of the year and only hosts two full-time residents, reports the New York Times.

Ann Thomson, the leader of Barrow Borough Council, told The New York Times that the monarch’s hopes should be realistic about the loneliness involved in the work.

“While there will be times when the pub and the island are bustling with people, there will also be quiet times,” says Thomson. “Something the successful candidate will have to adopt.”

Local tour guide John Murphy describes Piel Island’s rainy and windy winter as “really very harsh”, New York Times, “It’s a very quiet place. If you don’t have customers, you have to be a Robinson Crusoe and enjoy the facilities you have in mind.

There are only two ways to leave the island, Murphy says. At low tide it is possible to walk to the shore through the sand (one of the residents runs his Tesco supermarket by driving on the sand with a special permit from the Duke of Buccleuch, who owns the sands “by rights elders”), but otherwise the only way to get to shore is on a small 12-person ferry during tourist season, which Murphy describes as “a rowboat with a small engine in the back”.

Murphy spoke to Mark Brown about the Guardian back in december that while he would love the opportunity to be the new pub monarch, the task would be better suited to someone younger. Still, at 73, Murphy says he plans to continue sharing stories of his experiences on Piel.

“I’ve had to sleep on every blade of grass on this island, drunk or sober, and I love it,” he said.