The Teatime Islands: Journeys to Britain’s Faraway Outposts

The Teatime Islands: Journeys to Britain’s Faraway Outposts by Ben Fogle chronicles the author’s visits to six overseas territories: Tristan da Cunha, British Indian Ocean Territory, St. Helena, the Falkland Islands, Pitcairn Island and Ascension. When this book was published in 2003 Fogle had already finished shooting the reality series Castaway 2000, where he was one of three dozen people intentionally marooned on the Scottish island of Taransay. Thus as an island lover himself his mission was:

“There is a very definite island mentality, and I wanted to compare my own experience of it to some of the most remote island communities in the world, to find out why the Teatime Islanders choose to live in such abject isolation, many miles from the services of a modern society. I wanted to find out whether an islander must always live on an island. And to discover whether or not a Londoner like me could ever consider myself a real islander or whether I’m just a wannabe.”

While on his travels he was recognized from the show, which surprised him that people in such remote locations had been able to see it. I liked how he incorporated each island’s history and current situation into the stories and thus fleshed them out with more than just his personal experiences. But I must say there were a couple instances where he seemed a tad full of himself, letting his handsome “star” status go to his head.

His adventures on Tristan da Cunha occupied the first chapter. I was struck by Fogle’s inaccuracies about the island. These are simple facts that could be verified without even setting foot on the island. For example, Tristan da Cunha has a demonym: it is Tristanian. I found it annoying that Fogle used three such demonyms for citizens of the island, using the standard term only about half the time. On all other occasions he used the irritating Tristanites or, once, the awkward Tristan da Cunhans. On one instance, on page 36, he used Tristanite (which sounds as if it could be a hypothetical mineral indigenous to the island) at the top of the page and then Tristanian at the bottom. He also never got the formal name of the island’s settlement correct, calling it Edinburgh on the Seven Seas instead of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. He alternated the spellings of Anne Dakin with Ann and misspelled the name of the South African research vessel as Agullas instead of Agulhas. (On my first visit to Tristan I sailed upon the Agulhas II.) All these mistakes were found in the chapter about the only island within his book that I myself had been to. I wonder what else was incorrect in the following five chapters about the other islands.

I had a riot of a laugh as I read about the air taxi, the term used to carry passengers to and from ships during trips to St. Helena:

“The air taxi, I hasten to add, is not the smart sea plane I had at first imagined. In fact, it is a specially designed crate for passengers with walking difficulties. Passengers sit in the DIY crate which is then lowered over the side of the ship and on to the wharf, thereby avoiding the hazardous obstacle course of ladders and slippery steps endured by most. It was a truly comical sight, half a dozen purple-rinsed perms blowing in the breeze, walking-sticks propped against the side, as the box of geriatrics was hoisted over the side of the RMS. It reminded me of a box of Quality Street.”

I have ridden in the same sort of “vehicle”, which Tristanians call the box:

Luckily for me when I rode in it the crane operator had a steady hand.

During his times ashore Fogle explored the islands and hung out with the locals. While on the Falklands he quickly learned never to refer to the 1982 war as the islanders are so thoroughly sick of dealing with the subject. Yet he does ask himself the question: if it wasn’t for the war, the few tourists that do venture out there might very well have never heard of the place and there wouldn’t be a tourist industry at all.

While preparing to leave for the Falklands, he remarked:

“The RAF rather euphemistically call their passengers ‘walking cargo’. The load on my flight could be broadly divided into two camps, the happy and the utterly miserable. The former tended to be dominated by returning islanders and visitors like me, while the latter seemed to be made up entirely of soldiers weeping into their cans of Coke at the prospect of a Falklands winter.”

Fogle was not permitted to visit Pitcairn, although he did set foot on the island. The local authorities, dealing with the sex abuse scandal at the time which had yet to become an international horror story, were wary of Fogle’s credentials as a TV presenter and banished him back to the yacht he had sailed upon. They may have feared he would break the story as journalists were personae non gratae on the island. Fogle didn’t know about this scandal at the time and wondered why, after obtaining permission to visit, he suddenly was turned away. He had managed to find passage to Pitcairn via Mangareva in French Polynesia yet I don’t know where he got his figures from, since the distance from Mangareva to Pitcairn Island is a lot further than the 150 miles he claims.

His final destination was Ascension, where I was surprised to find out used to have much of its mail mistakenly delivered to Paraguay–via Asunción–before the island was assigned its own postal code. I had a laugh at the island’s version of a morning rooster crowing:

“The next morning I was hauled from my sleep by what sounded like someone being murdered outside my front door. My body had been thrown into confusion by the extreme change in climate and I had been kept awake most of the night by a persistent mosquito that I thought I’d squashed about a dozen times.”

The sound of “someone being murdered” was in fact that of the island’s wild donkeys. I have read numerous travelogues about Ascension, and Fogle made the island sound attractive and appealing, instead of the desolate burnt wasteland visitors often paint it as. He portrayed the local population, none of whom are native to the island, as fond of the place.

I enjoyed Fogle’s travelogues, even though he got some facts wrong about my beloved Tristan da Cunha. His colour photo inserts were a treat and I recognized a number of the Tristanians. It is a shame his only photos of Pitcairn were from the yacht. I used his bibliography to research more titles, and ended up buying two books about Ascension.

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