Trying to solve the Greek mystery
Are these the Greek islands that the Beatles wanted to buy?
by guest blogger Jonathan Knott
Many readers of this website will be aware of the time the Beatles planned to buy an island in Greece.
Accounts of it, which are included in several books about the group, tell more or less the same story. In summer 1967, the Beatles were at the height of their psychedelic phase and exploring a range of ideas that were sometimes more visionary than practical. This included the possibility of living communally somewhere. Their Greek friend Alexis Mardas told them he could find them a suitable island in Greece for this through his connections there. The Beatles travelled to the country with their partners and a few members of their close inner circle in July, and as part of this trip, visited an island that had been selected for them.
They liked what they saw and gave their assent for the purchase. This wasn’t a straightforward matter: because of foreign exchange restrictions at the time, the group required permission from the British government to buy special ‘property dollars’ for the deal. This was gained, and the process began to move forward. But following the death of their manager Brian Epstein in August, the Beatles lost interest and the plans fizzled out. As Ringo Starr comments in the 1995 TV documentary The Beatles Anthology, “we didn’t buy an island, we came home”.
One significant detail, though, is missing from all the accounts – a clear explanation of where the island was. It’s named as “Leslo” by some writers, although as far as I’m aware, there is no Greek island with this name.
When visiting the Greek island of Skiathos in 2010, I encountered a local rumour that in the sixties the Beatles had wanted to buy Tsougria, a smaller and now uninhabited island off Skiathos’ coast. It’s also often said that the island the group wanted was Agia Triada (Holy Trinity), which is close to the Greek mainland and supposedly shaped like a guitar. But confusingly, neither Tsougria nor Agia Triada even slightly matches the descriptions of the island provided in various memoirs and Beatles biographies.
One such description is given by the Beatles ‘Mr Fixit’ Alistair Taylor, who writes in his 1988 memoir, “Yesterday”, about how he visited Greece with Mardas to look at possible islands for the group. (The book is written in the form of letters to an imaginary Beatles fan.) Taylor says that after traipsing around various unpromising sites, the two eventually came across the “perfect setting”.
“There’s one big island of about eighty acres with four superb beaches and at least four other smaller islands surrounding it, all habitable. The main island has sixteen acres of olive groves, reckoned to produce the finest olives in the district. The village consists of half a dozen tall old Greek houses set on a gently curving bay which is filled with brightly coloured high-prowed wooden fishing boats. It turns out that one family owns the island and all the business on it and they want to sell it, houses, olive groves, the lot; £90,000 for the package.”
The other accounts generally align with this: there was a main island about 80 acres big, with houses, beaches and olive groves – and several smaller islands surrounding this (I discuss the descriptions of the island in more depth in my Substack newsletter, Follow the Sun). These details also correspond to documents held in the UK’s National Archives which record the application from the Beatles’ lawyers for permission to buy property dollars, and the government discussions that eventually led to approving this request.
The file includes a letter from the Beatles’ solicitors to the Bank of England requesting permission for the group to buy a Greek island as well as five smaller unnamed islands off its shore, believed to be uninhabited. The main island had about 300,000 square metres (74 acres) of arable land as well as beaches, olive trees and rocks, according to the letter. It also says that the island had five fisherman’s cottages, which the Beatles wanted to occupy. The cost would be £89,914 – meaning that including legal fees and repairing and furnishing the cottages, the Beatles would need to spend £120,000 in total.
This information is compatible with the descriptions of the island we have. But confusingly, the archive documents withhold some key details: they don’t give an overall size for the island, nor name the vendor. Even more confusingly, they state that the island is called Aegos in Konstadinos. To my knowledge, there is no Greek island called Aegos, and I’m not aware of any place in Greece called Konstadinos, either.
Where was the island?
These strange discrepancies have presumably contributed to the fact that the island has never been located. Perhaps that’s no big deal – it’s hardly the most significant fact about the Beatles’ lives, after all. Nonetheless, by looking at some other relevant details, I’ve identified an island which closely matches the available information about the one the Beatles were interested in buying.
What are these details? Firstly, it seems that the Beatles only spent a few days cruising on the yacht they hired. According to Barry Miles in his book “The Beatles: A Diary”, the group’s party arrived in Athens on 21st and 22nd July, but didn’t board the yacht until 26th (According to Miles, Ringo Starr, whose wife was pregnant, and the Beatles’ personal assistant Neil Aspinall did not board the yacht but flew back to London from Athens on 26th July).
George Harrison, his wife Pattie and the group’s road manager Mal Evans then left for London on 29th, when, again according to Miles, the group had already visited Leslo and instructed Alistair Taylor to put the sale in motion. The Beatles can’t have travelled far from Athens in the few days between 26th and 29th, given that they spent some of this time “swimming, sunbathing and taking LSD” (Also from “The Beatles: A Diary” by Barry Miles) – and according to several accounts, also visited other islands. That suggests that the island they wanted was fairly close to Athens.
This aligns with Taylor’s recollections in “Yesterday”. Describing his recce visit to the island with Alex Mardas, Taylor indicates that it was easily accessible from the Greek capital, saying: “We drove out of Athens to a little village and took a fishing boat out… to Paradise.”
He also recalls a specific scene from the later trip with the Beatles:
“Once we sailed up to a kind of natural canal through some rocks between two islands, which was spanned by a lifting bridge. As we chugged slowly up to the raised bridge, we saw thousands of the local people on either side, waving, shouting greetings and brandishing Beatles records. So much for getting away from it all into the wide blue yonder of the Aegean!”
To me, all of these details point to one place: the gulf which runs between the Greek mainland and the country’s second largest island, Evia. Close to Evia’s capital Chalcis, this gulf narrows into the strait of Euripus, less than 200m wide at the tightest point. In Chalcis the strait is spanned by two bridges, including the so-called ‘old bridge’ which can be opened to let boats through. In my opinion, it is probably this bridge which Alistair Taylor is referring to, with the “two islands” he recalls actually being Evia and the Greek mainland (although today at least, the bridge opens by swivelling rather than being lifted up).
The Evian gulf is home to a number of small, secluded islands. Just south of Chalcis, for example, is Agia Triada – the supposedly guitar-shaped island often said to be the island the Beatles wanted. Further towards Evia’s southern tip are the Petalioi, a group of ten small islands which count many notable figures among previous owners. But in my view, the group of islands that most closely matches the details we have is the Lichadonisia archipelago, which lies at the very tip of Evia’s north-west corner.
The largest island in this group, Monolia, is about 345,000 sq m, or 85 acres, close to the size often stated for “Leslo”. And there are five smaller islands spreading out to Monolia’s south (The southernmost Lichadonisia island, Strongyli, stands slightly separate from the others. Its ownership arrangements are different too, and I suggest it wouldn’t have been included in any mooted sale.). The islands match most of the other features in the descriptions, too – from the handful of stone houses to the gently curving bay – and they contain large numbers of olive trees. They are certainly a much closer fit to the accounts than any other groups of islands I’m aware of.
As the photographs below highlight, the islands’ flat silhouettes and distinctive landscapes also seem to match glimpses of islands that are included within footage in the “Anthology” documentary. (Monolia’s combination of shrubby green trees, golden sand and black volcanic rocks is unusual for Greece.)
If the Beatles were indeed cruising in and around the Evian gulf, this may also help explain why rumours have arisen about other islands in that part of Greece. It would certainly have been possible for them to visit Agia Triada within the same trip, and possibly Tsougria as well (since Skiathos is not far from the northern tip of Evia). It would also align with George Harrison’s recollections in the book, “The Beatles Anthology” (2000). “We rented a boat and sailed it up and down the coast from Athens, looking at islands”, he says, later recalling a scene where “Greece was on the left, a big island on the right”.
That “big island” could well have been Evia, as the group sailed north towards the Lichadonisia. Earlier this year I spoke to Georgios Lyberis, whose family own land on Monolia. He told me he had heard from his grandfather that the Beatles had made an offer to buy Monolia from a number of families that owned its land, but that this never progressed to an actual sale. In his understanding, somebody had come to Monolia on the group’s behalf “to see the island, and to see all the olives around the island – and they [the Beatles] want[ed] to buy [it], but…it never happened”.
So to me, it seems very likely that the Beatles were interested in buying Monolia and the smaller Lichadonisia around it. But some questions still remain. For example, Georgios told me that the smaller islands belong to the local municipality, Istiaia, which he believed meant that the Beatles wouldn’t have been able to buy them (the municipality have not confirmed this). The letter from the Beatles’ lawyers, though, clearly says the group wanted to buy the main island and the several small islands surrounding it.
There are some other confusing details. Georgios didn’t think that the Beatles themselves had actually visited the islands. And what he told me somewhat contradicts Alistair Taylor’s recollection that “one family” owned all the land on Monolia. What’s more, the lawyers’ letter to the Bank of England requesting permission for the purchase is dated 25th July – which, according to the timeline above from Barry Miles’ book, is before the Beatles had even been to the island.
The political background to the Beatles’ trip is also interesting. Greece had recently been taken over by a military dictatorship, which apparently tried to use the group’s visit to enhance its image abroad. I’ll be writing about this and other issues regularly in my Substack newsletter, Follow the Sun – please subscribe if you’d like to stay updated.