A lonely toilet is the southern-most building in the British Isles. You might expect the southern-most building to be a crumbling castle, built to repel would-be conquerors, or a lighthouse, flashing a warning beacon to passing seafarers. You’d be wrong. It’s is a public toilet.
“This lonely toilet has the distinction of being the most southern building in the British Isles,” reads the neatly printed sign outside. “Please use with care, because the nearest alternative is on the Island of Jersey, 11 miles away, or on Chausey 10 miles away”.
The southern-most building in the British Isles is not the lonely toilet’s only claim to fame, however. At high tide, it almost disappears under water, along with the majority of its surrounding landmass.
The loo sits on the edge of a cluster of stone cottages on the miniscule Maîtresse Île, the only island in the tiny Minquiers Archipelago to bear any imprint of civilisation. This is the British Isles’ southern frontier: a group of islands and reefs 10 miles south of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, which are at the mercy of one of the largest tidal ranges in the world.
At low tide, the islands have a land area approximately 10 miles long and 7 miles wide, which is larger than Jersey itself, or larger than the city of Manchester for that matter. At high tide, just six hours later, they disappear. Barely a few rocks protrude from the water, adding up to only 0.004 square miles of landmass above water.
Floating between Britain and France, the Minquiers have long been subject to not just the whims of the tides, but the squabbles of dukedoms and governments. They have been fought over by Normans, Britons and French for more than 1,000 years. Today, they are under the jurisdiction of Jersey, and count themselves as a self-governing part of the British Isles, but not part of the United Kingdom, which is weird in of itself.
“It’s been fought over since 955 CE,” said Josh Dearing, skipper of the Jersey Seafaris boat that offers ferry service to Maîtresse over a pancake-flat English Channel from Jersey. Dearing is also a tour guide. “The ghostly village buildings were built by fishermen from the harbour of La Rocque [in southern Jersey], and also by miners and quarrymen, who were after the island’s granite,” said Dearing. Foragers for vraic – seaweed used as fertiliser – would also make landing here.
The buildings sit on the only part of the island that doesn’t vanish with the tides. For the same reason, this is the only scrap of land on the Minquiers that supports greenery, in the form of scented pelargoniums – planted by fishermen who used their soft leaves as toilet paper.
There are no permanent residents and no hotels, or anywhere else, for tourists to stay. Sales of the cottages are rare, and the owners are protective of their property. As well they might be, for invaders from near and far have long coveted the Minquiers for their strategic and economic importance.
“Whoever controls the Minquiers controls the fishing grounds,” explained maritime historian Doug Ford, “and for the last 200 years this has also meant controlling the territorial waters. The offshore reefs create a massive barrier, funnelling approaching vessels into easily monitored spaces.”
The Minquiers were ceded to Edward III of England in 1360, passed into the ownership of French monasteries, and were seized back by Henry V in 1413. They became a favoured hideout for pirates and smugglers who took advantage of the islands’ remoteness and inaccessibility – these reefs are treacherous, and many vessels have been shipwrecked. When the occupying Nazis were booted out of Jersey on 9 May 1945 – the closest they got to the United Kingdom – a group of German soldiers remained marooned on the Minquiers for several weeks, unaware that the war was over.
The Minquiers remained the source of long-standing dispute between England and France until 1953, when their legal position was finally settled – with the International Court of Justice declaring British sovereignty over the isles. That hasn’t stopped their disputed status occasionally descending into farce. On four occasions in the last 40 years, the islands have been “invaded” by groups claiming to represent the Kingdom of Patagonia, an unrecognised state declared in 19th-Century Chile and Argentina by a crazed French lawyer, Orélie-Antoine de Tounens. His cause was revived a century later by his countryman Jean Raspail.
Raspail was partial to elaborate publicity stunts such as his 1984 invasion of the Minquiers. Followed by a coterie of what the press at the time referred to as “sozzled French students”, Raspail raised the blue, white and green tricolour of Patagonia over Maîtresse Île, claiming retaliation for Britain’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. He returned in 1998, repainting the island’s toilet hut in Patagonian colours, and repeated the feat in 2019 as a reaction to Brexit, this time replacing the toilet door sign with one declaring it the northern-most building in the Kingdom of Patagonia.
The Islands may not have any human residents but the “winged” residents make up for it. There is a sign that says “Gull nesting. Keep away!” You might think that sign is designed to protect the gulls but tour guide Dearing tells visitors that the islands’ black-backed gulls are “Three times the size of normal seagulls, and 10 times as angry”. He adds, “If you see me running – run after me.”
Although the islands are fascinating, perhaps I won’t add a visit there to my bucket list!