An Awfully Big Adventure in The Scilly Isles:
‘Before I kick the bucket’ lists tend to revolve around places far from home. The Taj Mahal, Manchu Picchu, The Galapagos Islands – they’re all on my wish list waiting for the right opportunity. Sometimes though, it’s easy to forget how much there is to see on our doorstep. The Scilly Isles, the most southerly part of the British Isles, have always had something of an allure for me, though for whatever reason I’d never actually been.
Well, why not? It’s easy enough to get there – for my part I caught the Cornish Riviera overnight on Sunday night from Paddington to Penzance, then flew from Lands End and arrived in plenty of time for morning coffee. More of my rail journey later, an adventure in itself. If you prefer not to travel overnight by train, the day service takes around 6 hours to Penzance or you can travel to Exeter by train in around three and half hours – flights from Exeter Airport. There are even connecting flights from City Airport. It’s up to you which combination of trains planes and automobiles you use. I’m sure, however, whichever way you choose to reach your destination, you’ll find yourself in the middle of what feels like an awfully big adventure…
Flying from Lands End involves a 16 seater or 8 seater plane and takes just 26 minutes. Be warned, the idea of cabin baggage really doesn’t exist. You can carry a small camera, but not a laptop. Hand luggage is purse rather than handbag sized. Check in takes minutes – if the flight is full then the longest queue will be 15 people in front of you. And, if you happen to travel on the 8 seater, you and your hand luggage will be weighed so that the seating can be organised to balance the plane.
Of the five inhabited islands, the largest is St Mary’s, with a population of around 1,600 and 6.6km square. The two smallest inhabited islands, Bryher and St Agnes have populations of 92 and 73 respectively. There’s something rather charming about a place where the main settlement is called ‘The Town’ as it is in Bryher.
I discovered even before I went that, that people come back to the Scilly Isles again and again. I met the Marketing and Sales director of a rather large airline and happened to mention that I was going there in a few days. He’d been every year for the last eighteen years! And, my old Cornish friend who shared lunch with me at the Duke of Sussex had been several times. Nicette from Tin and Thyme who joined me for a couple of days told me that she’d first visited when she was at school and fallen in love with the place.
Everyone had their favourite island, everyone had their favourite story. And, one or two people whispered that they’d really rather other people didn’t find out about The Scilly Isles. There’s something of a famous five feel about the place; I left wishing my own parents had taken me there as a child, to explore, adventure and play on the stunning and almost deserted beaches.
There’s plenty to do, whether your interest lies in history, food or wildlife, from guided walks to excellent seafood suppers to wildlife sea safaris where you’ll be able to get up close and personal with whatever birds, seals, dolphins or sharks happen to be around.
I was lucky to see plenty of puffins, shearwares and shags together with some very nosey grey Atlantic seals and stunning herring gulls on my two-hour sea safari with Mark and Susie from Island Sea Safaris.
And I was fascinated by the wealth of local history – from shipwreck sites to the ruins of homes left when Augustus Smith demanded the inhabitants of Samson left the island to the Pest House on St Helens, a three-roomed granite building built in 1764 for the isolation of sailors who were suspected of carrying the plague!
Novices like me take a day or so to realise that the schedule for boats travelling to and from the different islands are completely dependent on tides and weather.
I spent a leisurely lunch basking in the sunshine on the terrace at Hell Bay Hotel in Bryher only to discover that the last boat back to St Mary’s was departing at 2.45 and that after that I’d either be stuck on the island or have to find a friendly fisherman! Not only that, but Bryher, as I discovered, has two quays. The original quay where I was dropped off is called Church Quay as it is near a rather charming church, while the quay at Bar was built in 1990 by the ‘Challenge Anneka’ television programme and allows access to the island during low tide. Locals call it ‘Annaquay’.
Luckily the island isn’t too big – the hotel gave me directions to Annaquay, which involved ‘going past the chickens, turning left at the shop and following the path to the sea’ – and even I didn’t get lost, despite a complete lack of google maps. Perhaps I’d have been able to hitch a lift with a gig had I got stranded.
Although you can hire buggies or rent bicycles, I walked for the most part and enjoyed that leisurely feeling that comes from going at a slower pace. I managed to visit three of the islands – although a couple of hours on Tresco isn’t really enough time to do more than visit the stunning Abbey gardens which are so much more than the description I spotted ‘like Kew without the glass’. It is, I believe, the personal passion of the Abbey Gardens creators which makes it so special.
The Scilly Isles belong to the Duchy of Cornwall but the entire island group was leased to Augustus Smith in 1834 who gave himself the title of ‘Lord Proprietor’ and established himself as a kind of local philanthropist, managing the island communities in the way he thought best. That included removing the population of one of the islands, Samson, which he found to be unsustainable. Needless to say, he wasn’t always popular for his actions.
Most the Scilly isles reverted to the Duchy of Cornwall in 1920, but Tresco, where he had made his home, remains in the family, now owned and managed by Robert Dorrien-Smith. The gardens evolved through generations of the family; Thomas Algernon, the nephew of Augustus, founded the island’s bulb industry, similarly,his son Arthur developed the gardens by collecting plants and seeds from the Chatham Islands and New Zealand. The tradition continues – I was fascinated to learn that the shell house was built by Lucy Dorrien-Smith after the great storm of 1987 as a kind of memorial to the event which nearly destroyed the gardens.
Tresco does have a different feel to the other islands. There’s a very small resident population and much of the rest of the island has been sold on timeshare leases. Unlike most timeshares though, you could have a week in a traditional fisherman’s cottage for your cash, or a luxurious sea front contemporary cottage.
On Bryher, I walked to Hell Bay Hotel which is the only part of the island still owned by the Tresco estate. Lunching on a very delicious although perhaps more Scillonian than French Bouillabaisse, I couldn’t help but want to stay.
The hotel is more a complex of studios and apartments than a normal hotel but room rates to accommodate a family with a couple of small children are very reasonable.
Back on St Mary’s I also enjoyed exploring. Hugh Town, the main village, has a few good pubs and bars. The Atlantic, where I ate on my second evening is both a pub and a hotel, with a rather posher restaurant to one side and a typical pub menu on the other. I recommend eating al-fresco upstairs on their wonderful open terrace, looking out over the harbour.
We arrived on St Mary’s at the end of the Gig Racing weekend which is by far and away the Scilly Isles most popular event. As a result not only were the pubs and bars brimming over, but there was something of a shortage of local Lobster. Instead, I indulged in a large portion of Scillonian mussels (and had plenty of lobster later in my stay!)
Juliet’s is a walk around the harbour and up the hill. Definitely worth it for the fresh seafood, I feasted on the freshest local crab salad and then topped it off with a large portion of sticky toffee cake with clotted cream.
Here, the end of Gig Weekend was very evident with the gold medal winners of the Women’s veterans (over 40s), a Dutch team from Scheveningen, celebrating in style with plenty of champagne.
I didn’t realise until later that there’s a long history between the Dutch and the Scillonians – The 335 Year War began in 1651, during the English Civil War. The Scilly Isles were great Royalists and not only was St Mary’s the hiding place for the Prince of Wales, later to become Charles II, in 1643, it was also the home of the Royalist navy at the time. And, that navy, infuriated the Dutch had sided with the Parliamentarians, began to raid the Dutch shipping lanes. The result was a declaration of war on the Isles of Scilly which was never actually effected as the Royalists surrendered to Cromwell just 3 months later. But, the war was overlooked…
Only in 1985 when a local Scillonian historian, Roy Duncan contacted the Dutch Embassy, was the state of war uncovered. And so, on 17th April 1986, the Dutch ambassador, Rein Huydecoper visited the islands and a peace treaty was signed. Perhaps the Dutch women’s team hadn’t been told?
The walk back to Star Castle hotel where we were staying, took us past a little group of artists studios where we chatted with the inventor of Scilly socks (beautiful felted slipper socks), Susan Seddon.
She told us that she’d moved from Dublin with her husband and decided that she’d give up nursing and pursue her passion for painting and crafting. The poem of the Leprachaun pinned to the wall, which Susan told us she’d learnt at school, seemed entirely appropriate in this fairy grotto.
Upstairs we visited the studios of local artist Peter Smith and of Chris Garratt, the creator of BIFF cartoon strip who moved to the Isles of Scilly in 2001 and shares the Garratt studio with daughter Sarah and with Sophie Hooper. Chris offers one day printmaking workshops for £50 including materials – a good option if you happen to be unlucky enough to run into bad weather.
We walked back along the beach. The army vessels were, apparently, part of Gig weekend and vanished the next day.
There were a few other strange goings on that evening in Hugh Town. But locals told me that Gig Weekend is much the busiest time of year, so perhaps Batman and Robin WERE needed…
Back up the hill to Star Castle Hotel, we were grateful for the comfy rooms and pretty terrace looking out over the Atlantic. The Scilly Isles DO provide a great adventure – and one which is quite unique. More to come about the hospitality at Star Castle Hotel in my next post. For now, here’s the sunset that I enjoyed from my room
Thinking of going there now? Why not pin this post for later