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 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.
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.