Piel Island

Piel Island - Focus on history of Piel Island, and plans for its future.


 Piel Island has a long and interesting history  and is of considerable   importance in the local area both because of its  links to Furness Abbey and as a major deep water harbour. 


It has a castle managed by English Heritage and a pub, The Ship Inn. 

The   island hosts a large programme of events throughout the summer.  For   up to date information on these and more information about Piel Island    visit www.pielisland.co.uk

One of the most   enduring aspects of the Ship Inn is the tradition of the king and knights of Piel. The tradition holds that each new landlord is crowned "King of Piel" in a ceremony of uncertain origin, in which they sit in an ancient chair, wearing a helmet and holding a sword while alcohol is poured over their head.   By the 19th Century it had become an important aspect of the islands history to such an extent that    responsibility for looking after the helmet and chair fell within the tenancy agreement. 

The island is a historic site and a site of special scientific interest.  Visitors can ramble amongst the castle ruins and stroll along the beach but are asked to respect the built and natural environment of this special place.  Camping outside the designated camping areas and Open fires are not permitted on the island.

Piel is an offshore island.  There are ferries to Piel Island in the summer, or it is possible to walk across the sands, with a local guide at low tide.  Details of how to get to Piel Island

History of Piel Island

Piel Island and Castle

 Piel Island has a long and interesting history and is of considerable importance in the local area both because of its links to Furness Abbey and as a major deep water harbour.  There is evidence of human occupation spanning at least the last 3000 years.  Piel Island was probably visited by the Celts and later by the Romans during their conquest of Britain.  The first recorded name of the island came from the Scandinavian settlers to the area.  The name Foudray or Fotheray comes from the Old Norse for fire island - meaning a fire beacon to guide boats.  Foudray may have been used as a foddering place for the settlers' grazing animals.

 In 1127 the island was given to the Savignac monks as part of their original land for an abbey from King Stephen to the Abbot of Savigny in Normandy.  By order of the Abbot Furness Abbey became Cistercian in 1148.  Furness Abbey started to grow and Foudray fulfilled their need for a safe harbour.  In 1212 King John granted the Abbey a licence to land one cargo of "wheat, flour and other provisions" in order to stave off a famine caused by the failure of the local harvest.  It is likely that some form of structure existed to house cargos entering the port especially as the trade from Piel to Abbey lands in Ireland increased during the 13th Century.  The "Port of Furness" was by this time well established and the trade in corn considerable.  In 1327 Furness Abbey was granted the right to crenellate "fortify" its existing dwelling house.   

 The current motte and bailey "castle" with its defence ditches was built in the early part of the 14th century.  It was probably intended to be used as a fortified warehouse to keep cargoes safe from pirates and other raiders.  The Abbey soon discovered that it did not just keep the pirates out, the "Pile of Fotheray" (as it became known from medieval times) it also kept the King's customs men at a distance.  It is widely known at the time that the Abbey was active in the smuggling business when in 1423 a petition from the merchants in Calais was issued complaining that Furness Abbey had been smuggling wool from Piel without paying the necessary dues.  Six years later, due to the threat of invasion, the castle was partially rebuilt and new arrangements were made for its defence with each tenant of the Abbey required to supply men and arms. 

 Piel's notoriety during the 15th Century continued when Colonel Martin Swartz and his German mercenaries landed on the island on June 4th 1487 as part of an attempt by Lambert Simnel to seize the English Crown.  Simnel claimed that he was the Earl of Warwick and therefore was the rightful King of England.  Simnel set off across Furness for London.  He was defeated by the King's forces as the Battle of Stoke on June 16th and when he did finally arrive in London it was as a prisoner of Henry VII.


Following the restoration of Charles II, the Lordship of Furness was given to the newly ennobled Duke of Albemarle in 1662 and this included the castle and part of the remaining land on the island.  After this date activity on Piel seems to have revolved around shipping and industry.  A salt works is recorded as existing on the island from as early as 1662 and in 1667 a proposal was made to use Piel as a ship yard with the intention of constructing three third rate frigates by 1st August 1671.  There is also a suggestion that a ship's chandlery existed on the island in the 17th Century.


During the late 17th and 18th century Piel became important due to its collection of customs.  A customs officer worked from Piel from 1669 and during the early 18th century several seizures of illegally imported alcohol were made.  Officers working at Piel still had no permanent base and were required to travel from Lancaster.


In the early 19th century Piel remained important for shipping entering the harbour and was occupied by a number of pilots appointed by the Port Commissioners of Lancaster.  They  were granted an old barn to be converted into cottages and land by the Duke of Buccleuch.  There were several disputes over access to land and water with the landlord of the Ship Inn.  In 1875 a row of cottages was constructed for pilots to the north west of the inn.

Until 1874 the ownership of the island was divided between the Duke of Buccleuch who owned the castle and the Ship Inn and a Mr C W Archibald who owned the rest.  The Duke purchased the remainder of the land in 1874 and spent a considerable sum on maintenance to the crumbling castle.  In 1919 the Duke decided to sell the entire island and a prospectus was drawn up.  The intervention of the mayor of Barrow, Alfred Barrow in August 1919 with a request that the island be given to the town halted the sale.  The entire island was given over to the town of Barrow-in-Furness in 1920 as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the First World War. 


The guardianship of the castle was transferred to the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1973 from whom it passed to English Heritage.


How to get to Piel Island

By Ferry from Roa Island.  Two ferries operate in the summertime.  

  • Contact Steve Chattaway on 07516453784 or e mail  shipinn@pielisland.co.uk
  • A second ferry is operated by John Cleasby telephone 07798794550.


Ferries operate from Easter until end of September.  Any access will be subject to weather.

Ferries cannot operate in high winds.  Please check before you travel.

There is limited parking at Roa island with the small Foulney Nature Reserve car park and the seasonal car park next to Roa Island Boat Club. 

Visitors are asked to park responsibly ensuring access for the RNLI crew and local residents. 

Blueworks operate a tourist route between Coniston and Barrow via the A5087 serving Rampside, Roa Island and the Piel Island Ferry (except Sundays and Bank Holidays)  Contact the Traveline for timetable enquiries.


The land between Snab Point and Piel Island is in private ownership and no vehicles are allowed.  Using a mechanically propelled vehicle on a SSSI without permission is a criminal offence under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

Walkers can cross to the island at low tide from Snab Point on Walney Island




A local guiding company, Murphy's Miles is happy to take groups across the sands at low tide to the island. Contact John Murphy on 01229 473746 or e mail murphysmiles@hotmail.co.uk.


History of Ship Inn and folklore surrounding the King of Piel Island

The Ship Inn

 The origins of the Ship Inn are obscure although it is said to be over 300 years old.  Although uncorroborated it is believed to have developed out of a former ships' chandlery established in the 17th century. In 1746 a lease for agricultural land situated within the castle ditch was granted to an Edward Postlethwaite who is described as an innkeeper from the "Pile of Fowdrey"  A description from 1813 paints a vivid picture of the life of the innkeeper at that time:

"There is a public-house on the island, the only habitation, tenanted by an old Scotchman, who has been lord of this domain for many years, and goes through the duties of guide and expositor among the ruins of the castle with admirable fluency.  The custom of seamen from the roadstead, and the donations of occasional visitors in the summer time support him in a state of which he has no right, he thinks, to complain: but he acknowledged that when there were no vessels in the roadstead he found his situation rather too lonesome, and apt to drive him to his beer-barrel for company."


The late 19th Century was a period of increased social activity in Piel Channel, with boating for pleasure becoming an important pursuit for many people.  Many used the Ship Inn but drunken revellers did occasionally become casualties of boating accidents and in one case the coroner stated that "the landlord of the Ship Inn should not supply drink as to make incapable men who may have to take charge of a boat".  Piel was popular with yachtsmen and a regatta regularly held.  In such an event in 1889 the inauguration of a new landlord, a Mr. Walmsley took place.


The Ship Inn, the island’s pub offers beverages, snacks and meals.  The Ship Inn is a listed building and is being extensively restored with the assistance of Seachange funding.  The South Wing was refurbished in 2012.  Artgene and Associates have designed the internal fittings and installed the Cabinet of Curiosities in 2013. 


Bed and Breakfast accommodation in 3 beautiful en suite rooms is available and also Bunkhouse accommodation.  Camping is also permitted on the island but visitors must obtain a permit from the Ship Inn for the managed area (£5 per night per tent).  Please contact Steve Chattaway on 07516 453 784 or e mail shipinn@pielisland.co.ukfor information.


The island hosts a large programme of events throughout the summer.  For up to date information on these and more information about Piel Island visit http://www.pielisland.co.uk/


ITV filmed the island for its programme Islands of Britain, presented by Martin Clunes and included the coronation of the present Landlord of the Ship Inn as the new "King of Piel" - see below.



The Ship Inn is open for Walkers and visiting yachts at weekends during October and the week of October half term.


It will be closed from the second week in November until Easter with the exception of New Year's Day.




The King and Knights of Piel


One of the most enduring aspects of the Ship Inn is the tradition of the king and knights of Piel.  The tradition holds that each new landlord is crowned "King of Piel" in a ceremony of uncertain origin, in which they sit in an ancient chair, wearing a helmet and holding a sword while alcohol is poured over their head.  In early versions of the ceremony they also wore oilskins.  The early written references to Knights of Piel are in the first visitors' book which started in 1856.  The early evidence for the ceremony is the graffiti carved into the chair.  The ceremony is said to be due to the landing of Lambert Simnel in 1487 and is most likely to have begun as a slightly mocking homage to this event.   By the 19th Century it had become an important aspect of the islands history to such an extent that responsibility for looking after the helmet and chair fell within the tenancy agreement.

Clearly at this stage the ceremony for knights and the king was the same, and over time there have been several variations.  References in the visitors' books describe knights at one point as free members of "the Noble Ancient Castle of Piel".  In 1914 there was an entire cabinet including Prime Minister and Lord Mayor of Piel and a whole royal family is listed.  One thread remains in common however - the king and knights of Piel were always expected to be "a free drinker and smoker and lover of the female sex".

Recorded Landlords of the Ship Inn are Edward Postlethwaite c1746-c1766, James Hool c1839-c1856, John Pennington c1856-c1868, William Pennington c1868-c1879, John Housby c1879-1889, William Walmsley 1889-c1894, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashburner c1894-c1922, G H Nelson? 1920?, Harry Andrews 1922-1927? William Drummond1922-1927?, J F Bewley 1927-1931, Robert McDowell 1931-1947, Mr and Mrs W Hackett 1947-1950, William Dearn 1950-1952, James Howarth 1952-1955, Mr and Mrs Dan Rooney 1955-1964, Jack Nicholson 1964-1970, M J McKeown 1970-1971, H D Green 1971-1974, Mr and Mrs J T Smith 1974-1978, Ron Warburton 1978-1986, Rod and Karen Scarr 1986-2006, Steve and Sheila Chattaway 2007-.

Piel island reconstruction-web-sm.jpg