Thursday 21 May 2020

A history and guide to the Island of Stoner

What follows is the contents of a small guide book issued by the Lord Stoner and his company for the benefit of visitors to the island. It may help you to understand what you see on your visit to The Island. It may not.                    

The Isle of Stoner 
 A brief history of The Island, its people and its railway

The Island

The Isle of Stoner is a rocky island about 100 miles south of the coast of Cornwall. It is slightly over eight miles long and just under two miles across at its widest. It is roughly the shape of a carrot and it has numerous small islets off its coast. It now has a population, not including visitors, of 4044 souls. There are three main settlements: St Ruth, the capital on the South Eastern coast: Smallchurch, which is roughly central and Port Lucy, which is at the thinnest part of the island near the western tip; this is known as Roach End. Port Lucy has the biggest harbour on the island and virtually all imports and exports go via here. Being in the middle of busy shipping lanes the island has three lighthouses and benefits from frequent calls from cross channel traffic.

The island has a central spine of hills which rise to around 600ft high. Numerous small rivers run down to the sea. The two largest of these are The Song and The Loose, which gives its name to Port Lucy where it runs into the sea. The first section of the River Loose from the sea to Arnold Lane Wharf was canalised with a lock at each end. Being largely pointless as a means of transport neither lock sees much use anymore. At the head of the River Song is The Singing Lake, this is the only inland body of water any bigger than a village pond on the whole island. It is located on a plateau not far from Smallchurch.

The coast is a mixture of high, rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. The Eastern end of the island, known as Flame End consists of a dozen or so small islets called The Hot Rocks. Thus named because of the turbulent currents which flow this way and that between them. The largest of these small islands is linked to the main island by a rope bridge and has a small military encampment with its own 15inch gauge tramway. Originally built during the Napoleonic era it was last used during WW2 and is overlooked by a lighthouse which warns shipping of the hazards presented by the island. To the North of Underhill is Wrecker’s Bay, this has four more small islands. It gets its name from the legendary practice of setting false lights to lure unsuspecting ships to wreck on the rocks. The locals would then plunder whatever cargo they could. There is no record of this ever actually having taken place: everyone likes a good story.

Port Lucy has a small harbour just large enough to berth the smaller of the cross-channel ferries and there is also a small fleet of fishing boats resident there. Additionally, this is where any ‘new’ locomotives or rolling stock must be brought ashore. The railway station is alongside the harbour and the locomotive and carriage works are just along the mainline from here.

The Western end of the island is relatively flat and the lush green grass is ideal for the dairy herds that provide milk for the cheese industry based at Three Bridges and Creamery.

The Eastern end of the island is far rockier and the two largest quarries, Stone Farm and New Stone are both here. Town Quarry is the smallest of the three, near Underhill but has workings which date back to prehistoric times. It has a network of underground workings where bone made hand tools have been found.

A brief history of island life

The island has been inhabited at least since the Stone Age and there are various sites of archaeological interest. Near Blackhill there are a series of earth works that are believed to be the Iron and Bronze Age burial sites of the earliest ancestors of the current Lord Stoner. There are also round, flat areas which were very probably the site of round houses.

The Romans appear to have taken very little notice of Stoner, the island didn’t have anything that they couldn’t steal from somewhere else. Then they were too busy with mainland Celts to bother with the few hardy souls they would have found if they had taken the time to invade.

In 597AD, St Augustine landed at Lower Bay mistakenly believing that he had arrived in Southern England. He met Lord Stoner and convinced him that Christianity was the way forward and so pre-dating the conversion of Æthelbert in Canterbury by a couple of months. Christianity took a slender hold on the minds of the islanders and to this day the belief in a more animistic, spiritual approach is still widespread within the population.

In the late 680ADs the first record of ‘The House’ appear. ‘The House’ is the home of Lord Stoner and his family. It has been much extended and modernised over the years, the last major changes were made during the Victorian era by the same Lord who had the foresight to build the railway and much else of the infrastructure we see today.

Once the Vikings had established themselves in Britain they eventually got round to visiting The Isle of Stoner, arriving in the late 880sAD. Rather than their more famous raping and pillaging approach a few farming families settled in the far west of the island and the roots of the capital town, St Ruth were planted.

Time rolled along in an uneventful way on the island (it still does) and it wasn’t until 970AD that the Lord of Stoner swore allegiance to the English King, King Edgar. This contract was to see the island protected by and much influenced by the British way of life; it has been seen as a very shrewd move. It gave little away and gained a very powerful ally.

On September 26th, 1066, William of Normandy passed by on his way to a certain field in Southern England and it wasn’t until the 1080s that any Normans made their way back to Stoner. The main thing that they brought with them was a love for and an ability to make cheese. This would go on to become more important as history strolled on. The Doomsday book makes no mention of the island so we can imagine that it was considered to be of no importance whatsoever.

In 1190AD Richard I visited with his knights to see if he could interest anyone in joining his crusade against the Holy Land. He found that the locals were not at all interested and they tried to explain religious tolerance to him. It did not go well. A farmer and two fishermen were executed as traitors and any gold they had was ‘taxed’.

All the comings and goings in Wales and Scotland made very little difference to Stoner and its population, which by 1321 had reached around two hundred. However, the great famine which ravaged Europe, had a terrible impact and by the time the crisis was over in 1322 there were only around 70 souls left.

The Hundred Years war, which raged on and off between Britain and France had surprisingly little effect considering the island’s position between these two great nations. When there was a pause in the fighting there was a collective sigh of relief until word reached ‘The House’ of the Black Death. Immediately, no one and nothing was allowed to come to the island. This policy worked very well in keeping the plague away; in fact, it worked so well that no one came near the place for nearly two decades. It was only when a drunken fisherman, out from St Austell wrecked his boat at Flame End that the islanders discovered the truth.

History and various Kings and Queens came and went on the mainland; the island gradually regained its population who continued farming and fishing. It was around this time that the various excellent cheeses of the island started to be sold, off island. Henry VIII formed the Church of England and some of his administrators arrived in 1535AD to make sure that everyone was saying the right prayers. They left after a couple of weeks, more confused than when they arrived. There weren’t any monasteries to destroy and no one seemed to know if they were Catholics or something else anyway.

In 1577, Sir Francis Drake dropped by to say that he was off round the world and that he would be back in a while to tell everyone how it was going. The islanders sniggered and shrugged and forgot all about him. Then in mid-September 1580, Sir Francis pulled into the harbour at Port Lucy and spent a couple of days explaining how marvellous the rest of the world was. He left a sack of potatoes and set off for Plymouth and fame and glory.

Potatoes were a big hit with the islanders and various pleasant cheese and potato recipes became famous from end to end of Stoner.

In 1604 when King James said he was now King of Great Britain, fortunately he forgot to mention that this included The Isle of Stoner and so Stoner maintained its independence. This blissful state continued throughout the Civil War. The only thing of any great consequence to happen during this time of unrest was the arrival of tea in 1652AD. Interestingly, this was not the only herb of note to arrive on the island around this time.

With the Great Plague laying waste to London in 1664 and then most of it being destroyed in the Great Fire; the only thing of interest to scholars of island history in all of that, is a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys. He wrote that among the other cheeses which he buried to protect them from the fire, was half a truckle of Stoner White. The first written mention of this now famous delicacy.

In the 1750s the age of the canal began. Lord Stoner was visiting relatives in the Midlands of Britain and was taken for an instructive trip on a boat on the Trent and Mersey Canal; he was transfixed by this smooth and speedy means of travel. He knew that The Isle of Stoner must have a network of them, and thus to join the modern world. He was introduced to canal engineer, James Brindley and the two men agreed that they would build a first ‘cut’ as soon as possible. The Isle of Stoner is very hilly and not at all suited to canal building, it had even less need for them. However, Mr Brindley was offered a large sum of money to convert the first half mile of the River Loose into a canal, complete with a lock and a wharf at Arnold Lane. And so, the modern world came to the Isle of Stoner.

In the 1870s the island had only rudimentary roads and a population of around two hundred and fifty, but in the 1880s when the railway was built (See separate chapter for more details.) it enabled the island’s economy and population to grow considerably. The Lord of Stoner and his family own the island and everything on it; he and his descendants have run the island as a benign autocracy since time immemorial. As we have seen ‘The Family’ live in the ancient ancestral seat known as ‘The House’ and have made their fortune from the island. They have also spent it there and they are very well respected and loved by the population; in a recent poll it was found that only thirty three of the citizens thought that their lives would be better if the island was run by an overseas government. The Lord of Stoner still swears allegiance to the British crown, but the island’s laws are made by ‘The Family’ and a small elected chamber of representatives who sit twice weekly in the town hall of St Ruth. These good burgers also act as the judge and jury should any crime be committed. This is a rare event and is usually dealt with equitably. There are two constables and a police dog (Bacon) on the whole island.

The currency of Stoner is pounds, shillings and pence; there is no exchange rate as money cannot be imported or exported from Stoner. Any offshore spending is taken care of by ‘The Family’ or by straight swapping with Island produce.

The three stone quarries that give their name to the island are all served by the railway and Stoner granite is much sought after as building stone on the mainland. The island also boasts a slate quarry which really only supplies new roofing slates for local use and a small amount to make into souvenirs. There is subsistence fishing and farming, and also a dairy herd and creamery that makes the island’s famous herbily infused blue cheese known as ‘Stoner White’. This, along with tourism and granite exports are the main businesses of the island.

The Isle of Stoner Railway

The Isle of Stoner Railway was built in 1883 to connect Port Lucy to St Ruth. There is also a ‘Northern Line’, which runs from Port Lucy to Underhill that was added in 1897. The railway also boasts three short branches. Two are in the south, one connects Port Lucy with the lighthouse at Roach End and the other runs to Arnold Lane wharf on the canalised River Loose. The third is a short but steep line ascending from St Ruth to the local beauty spot known as ‘Lovers Leap’ and to the lighthouse at Flame End. This branch has overhead electrical traction which was installed as an experiment.

The Lords Stoner always were, and remain to this day, transport enthusiasts as we have seen with the pointless canal building episode. Having been invited to the 1870 locomotive trials on the Festiniog Railway, Lord Stoner was singularly impressed and saw that the future of his island domain would be bright if only a narrow gauge railway could be constructed there. An over optimistic venture from the start, the railway was underfunded and badly built. Being in the middle of the sea made bringing rolling stock to the line prohibitively expensive. Initially the railway had built a small fleet of carriages and a pair of tiny locomotives; one a vertical boiler by DeWinton and the other a more conventional looking unit. These locomotives were very soon overwhelmed and replaced with three Fletcher Jennings saddle tanks. As time wore on and locos wore out an odd collection of second hand locomotives and an assortment of hand me down carriages, being selected more by weight than suitability, arrived to keep the railway working.

By the 1920s the railway was in a poor state of repair but a hero, in the unlikely person of one Holman F Stephens, came to the rescue and the railway was saved... after a fashion. The first thing Colonel Stephens did was to close the Northern line. He mothballed everything and concentrated on reviving the main line. He imported locos and coaches from the auction of no longer needed Lynton & Barnstaple Railway items. The Manning Wardle locomotive Yeo was purchased and renamed Song after a local river. It did not prove to be of use on the heavily graded and poorly built railway and so is now in the museum at Port Lucy. He also had built a two carriage steam powered multiple unit to take care of the out of season passenger traffic. This proved to be a success and a single car unit and a larger diesel electric two car unit were also brought into service. All three units were converted from earlier carriage stock in the railway’s own workshops at Port Lucy. Along with a pair of ancient and peculiar, island built, steam powered trams; these DMUs became the backbone of the passenger services until the outbreak of World War 2. The steam locomotives which remained serviceable were mainly used for freight trains although some internal combustion engines also joined the fleet.

The rest of the 1930s passed tolerably pleasantly and the railway limped along in a relatively stable way until the outbreak of the Second World War. The Isle of Stoner was overrun by the Germans in the early weeks of 1940 and only liberated again towards the end of the war. It was a dark time for the island and the resistance, known locally as ‘The Cheesemen’ put up a good fight of continual small-scale destruction which got right up the noses of the Germans. The railway which was commandeered by the axis forces was as truculent as the population which resulted in the importing of a substantial quantity of elderly German rolling stock and locomotives; a small amount of which can still be seen at work on the railway today having been left behind by the retreating Nazis. Most was gas axed and put to the torch as a symbol of the contempt the freedom loving, peaceful islanders had for Hitler’s disgusting ideas.

After the war, the railway and the island as a whole was in a parlous state but with help from the British government and with the burgeoning tourist industry the Isle of Stoner Railway was given a new lease of life. In 1960 the Northern line was dusted down and restored to action by the Preserved Railway Association and Trust of Stoner. Several, extremely rich, railway enthusiasts are resident on Stoner and have seen their way clear to make some large donations to the P.R.A.T.S. and as a result the line has more locomotives and rolling stock than it knows what to do with. The Lord of Stoner and his council will only allow ‘incomers’ to join the population if they are prepared to invest in the island in some way which enriches life on Stoner. As a result, there are numerous artists and musicians living a very happy life along with the old families and as some of these ‘incomers’ are wealthy railway enthusiasts, the railway has benefited enormously.

The government of Stoner still runs the IoSR but with a shrewd eye towards tourism and an economy on the up, the future of the railway now looks certain.

The Island in recent years

It was noticed in the early 1960s that the essential character of the island was starting to be eroded by modern life, more and more cars were being imported and new-fangled inventions like television were starting to destroy the very way of life that made living on Stoner the enviable thing that it was. The Council set down ‘An Act of Stone’, as a Stoner law is known, to the effect that no new cars were to be imported to the island without the express permission of the governing body and that TV aerials were to be concealed; also new building was to be in a style ‘suitable and harmonious’ with island traditions. It has been easy to enforce these regulations as anyone who did not enjoy the Island and its peculiar ways would move away. The younger generation sometimes rail against the ancient and traditional but this is as it should be. The education system teaches the values of island life and so a peaceful and tranquil life can be maintained most of the time.

You are welcome to visit the island and as the locals often say, ‘Eat the cheese and relax.’

By John Wooden – Agent for Lord Stoner

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