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The Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly

T‬he Isles of Scilly form an archipelago of five inhabited islands‭ (‬six if Gugh is counted separately from Saint Agnes‭) ‬and numerous other rocky islets‭ (‬around 140‭ ‬in total‭, ‬lying 45km‭ (‬28‭ ‬miles‭) ‬south west of Land’s End‭. ‬Access is by the Scillonian ferry from Penzance across a notoriously rough section of the North Atlantic‭.  ‬Before the discovery of the way Latitude and Longitude could be properly determined‭, ‬many proud ships came to grief by sailing too close to the Scilly’s‭.‬

With a perennially mild climate‭, ‬the Isles of Scilly were inhabited by pre-historic people‭, ‬many of them building their round houses on land that is now under water‭, ‬following the end of the last Ice Age‭. ‬Since then the islands became home for small scale‭ ‬farmers and fishermen who exploited the benefits of a mild climate‭. ‬Until recently early daffodils and new potatoes and spring vegetables grown on the islands were brought to market weeks before the rest of the country‭.‬

The semi-tropical climate encourages a wealth of plants that would not normally be found outdoors

The Penzance ferry‭, ‬the Scillonian‭, ‬picks its way carefully past the eastern islands and outcropping rocks‭, ‬to berth at Hugh Town harbour on St Mary’s the largest and most populated island‭.  ‬With plenty of accommodation on offer‭, ‬St Mary’s is the busiest resort and it comes as a shock to have to deal with traffic‭, ‬however light it might be‭.  ‬Access to the outlying‭ ‬villages and beaches is easy as there is a fairly good bus service running throughout the year‭.  ‬Please note that despite the volume of local traffic‭, ‬it is virtually impossible to take your car on a holiday to the isles as all large freight must be craned on and off the Scillonian ferry‭.‬

To explore St Mary’s we started in the west‭, ‬high above Hugh Town where the extensive ramparts of the Garrison‭, ‬a fortress built to ward off Napoleonic forces has become something of a public park and resort‭.  ‬Below it and in the main town proper‭, ‬a wide range of shops and restaurants‭, ‬together with cycle hire are on offer and there is a small museum of the island’s history‭.  ‬One of the items covered by the museum is the highly competitive sport of gig racing‭.  ‬This takes place throughout the summer and harks back to the days when experienced local sailors were rowed out to offer to pilot incoming vessels‭.  ‬As there‭ ‬was no way this could be planned in advance‭, ‬several fast rowing boats known as gigs‭, ‬would set out at once and it became a race to be first‭.  ‬The sport of gig racing has followers mainly from all over the south west‭, ‬but competitors travel even from as far away as Holland‭.  ‬The race is from Hugh Town harbour to Nut Rock near Tresco and back‭: ‬a total distance of about 1½miles‭.‬

One of the many quiet bays

The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary had a holiday home in Hugh Town‭. ‬Even though there is a rule that only‭ ‬locals can be buried on the island‭, ‬special dispensation was given when the popular visitor died‭.  ‬He is buried in the graveyard of the tiny medieval chapel at Old Town on St Mary’s south-facing coast‭.  ‬His wife’s ashes were later scattered on his grave when she died‭.‬

There are plenty of coastal footpaths on the island‭.  ‬We followed the one going eastwards from Hugh Town‭, ‬in and out of tiny coves and headlands‭, ‬past Old Town and its friendly café‭, ‬then inland to St Mary’s to the‭ ‬‘main road’‭ ‬that meanders in a tight circuit of the centre of the island‭.  ‬About half a mile from Old Town we were puzzled by a notice warning us of low flying aircraft‭.  ‬The answer soon came when an outgoing plane took off a matter of feet directly‭  ‬above our heads‭.‬‭   ‬This was the Isles of Scilly airport‭.‬

There are regular boat trips going to the outlying islands‭, ‬not simply for tourists‭, ‬but also as the main supply link with the regular ferry‭, ‬the Scillonian‭.  ‬St Martin’s is the most easterly of the inhabited islands‭.  ‬Its single road acts as a link between three hamlets whose names seem to be lacking in imagination‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬Higher Town‭, ‬Lower Town and in the middle as you might guess‭, ‬is Middle Town‭.  ‬The island is popular with‭ ‬sailing enthusiasts and under water explorers who pick their way amongst the remains of countless vessels that came to grief on‭ ‬the uncharted rocks littering the hazardous passage of any captain foolishly attempting to sail between the islands‭, ‬rather than round them‭.‬

Tresco‭, ‬owned by Robert and Lucy Dorrien-Smith is the jewel in the islands’‭ ‬crown‭.  ‬A luxury holiday resort‭, ‬it centres on a beautiful garden founded in the nineteenth century by Augustus Smith‭.  ‬Rare sub-tropical plants grow in pine sheltered sun-trapped gardens‭, ‬enjoying the year-long mild weather‭.  ‬Alongside the flowers‭, ‬a small museum is devoted to a collection of exotic figureheads taken from wrecked shipping around the coasts of these tiny islands‭.‬

Tresco was first inhabited at least 3000‭ ‬years ago by Neolithic farmers and during the English Civil War‭, ‬Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces built a fortress on the island’s most southerly point in order to control shipping through the narrow channel known as The Roads‭.   ‬

Fishermen from the north of England used Tresco as a southern base when following the annual flood of herring‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬the silver darlings‭.  ‬Possibly feeling homesick‭, ‬they named their settlement New Grimsby‭.‬

About 1½miles long and‭ ‬½mile wide‭, ‬it is possible to reach Bryher at exceptionally low tides from Tresco‭. ‬This is the smallest inhabited island in the archipelago and was called Brayer in 1336‭, ‬then Brear in 1500‭, ‬obviously the phonetical spelling of the spoken word as interpreted by some government clerk or other‭.  ‬Hell Bay on the north western tip of Bryher was a notorious place for shipwrecks when violent Atlantic storms drove vessels into this remote spot‭.  ‬Bar Quay‭, ‬the landing place for small ferries‭,  ‬was first built by volunteers in the 1990‭ ‬production of the TV series‭ ‬‘Challenge Annika’‭, ‬but replaced by a more substantial concrete structure in 2007‭.  ‬Accommodation is in self-catering cottages or on the island campsite‭.‬

There are three SSSIs‭ (‬sites of special scientific interest‭) ‬on Bryher’s heathland and this is a popular nesting place used by visiting birds and also the site of many rare wild flowers‭, ‬some brought‭ ‬by seed travelling thousands of miles along Atlantic currents‭.‬

St Agnes is England’s most western point‭.  ‬It sits in quiet isolation on the far south western tip of the Isles of Scilly‭.  ‬It has one pub‭, ‬the Turk’s Head and one camp site near the main settlement at Troytown along with a handful of self-catering cottages‭.   ‬Tiny fields now‭ ‬dot a landscape that would have been well known to the early Christian missionary Saint Warna‭, ‬but even in his time an ancient maze was cut above Long Point as part of a pagan rite‭.‬

The island shares a small natural harbour with its neighbour Gugh‭, ‬the two islands being joined by a gravel bar which is only covered by the highest tides‭. ‬Despite its offer of shelter‭, ‬boats entering or leaving Porth Conger bay must first dodge the hazard‭ ‬of the Cow and Calf Rocks that almost block the entrance‭.  ‬At high tide the Calf sits just beneath the waves‭, ‬just waiting to trap the unwary‭.‬

While we were waiting for the ferry back to St Mary’s‭, ‬the boat when it came in‭, ‬disgorged half a dozen teenagers who must daily take the ferry in all weathers to reach the islands’‭ ‬secondary modern school‭.  ‬There cannot be many in mainland Britain who travel to and from school that way‭.‬

Finally‭, ‬just a small request‭. ‬Please‭, ‬please‭, ‬never call the Isles of Scilly the Scilly Isles‭.  ‬For reasons that should be obvious‭, ‬it upsets the locals‭.‬


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