From a small twin otter plane coming in to land at St Mary’s airport the Isles of Scilly look like a glorious patchwork of different shapes set in a dark silky blue sea, tinged with hazy emerald green. The journey from the mainland to Scilly is always a bit of an adventure. Whether you brave the Scillonian (affectionately known as the great white stomach pump) the tiny plane flying off the cliff top airport at Penzance or the slightly more relaxing but far more expensive journey from Exeter airport there are always stories to be told.
At the airport I made friends with a little girl and her grandma who were travelling on from St Mary’s to Tresco. It was the little girl’s first flight and she was busting with excitement, as indeed I was, in a slightly more grown up way, at the thought of seeing Scilly once more.
It is about the seventh time Alan and I have been back to these islands and they never disappoint us. But this time I had to remind myself it was not just a holiday! I had chosen to go ahead for 4 days in order to do some serious study-leave research, take some photos meet a few people before Alan joined me for 2 weeks proper holiday.
Having arrived and booked into my B&B at Mincarlo, with its comfy hospitality and stunning views over Town Bay suddenly I was at a loose end. I’d signed in and unpacked my case, got my bearings and done all the things you normally do but somehow something was missing. The something was someone to talk to and discuss where we were going for supper. Suddenly I realized this was the first time I’d been on Scilly without Alan.
It was getting late so I hit along to the mobile fish and chip which I knew from previous experience serves the best fish and chips on St Mary’s and spent a while reflecting in the evening light over Porthcressa beach enjoying watching the sun go down and ‘communing’ if that’s the right word with a seagull who seemed to have a beady eye on my supper. A couple of days later when he swiped half a crab sandwich we nicknamed him the pest of Porthcressa!
Getting to know the islands.
In total the Isles of Scilly number over 140 if you count every single rock and inlet, however there are 5 main inhabited islands: St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, Bryher and St Agnes. The population of the inhabited islands is just over 2,000 with around just over 1,500 living on St Mary’s.
As the largest island St Mary’s is the most cosmopolitan in feel. It is of course very peaceful in comparison with the main land, there are few cars as visitors travel either by foot, bicycle, on the island’s bus or the recently introduced Scilly Carts. These are small electric buggies, a little like golf buggies which are just the thing for helping the less able walkers up and down the island hills. St Mary’s has the main harbour for the islands it also has the only airport although plans are currently being discussed to re-start a helicopter service which will also serve Tresco and the off islands. St Marys has a range of shops and businesses, a boat yard, superb pubs, restaurants and hotels. There is a town hall, a police station, a small hospital, a vet’s surgery, the only bank and cashpoint on the islands and the Co-op supermarket much loved by locals and visitors alike. It also has an excellent Museum where, taking shelter one very wet morning, I enjoyed several hours exploring the history and geology of the islands, the famous shipwrecks and indeed the wildlife.
Church wise St Mary’s is served by a Methodist Church, a Roman Catholic Church and two Anglican buildings St Mary the Virgin in the centre of the town and a lovely small and ancient church dedicated also to St Mary dating originally from 1130 AD at Old Town overlooking the bay.
Tresco the second largest island is famous for its subtropical abbey gardens with more than 20,000 exotic plants gathered from all corners of the world, many of which cannot be grown anywhere else in Britain.
These gardens were established in the 1830s by Augustus Smith. Within the Abbey grounds there is also the Valhalla Museum with its impressive array of figureheads salvaged from the island’s shipwrecks. Unlike the other islands, where the Duchy of Cornwall owns most of the freehold land, Tresco is privately owned and is currently cared for by Lucy and Robert Dorrien-Smith. The gardens are extremely popular with visitors staying on the Islands and indeed with day visitors from Penzance. For those who wish to stay on Tresco there are a range of self-catering cottages and apartments as well as rooms at the New Inn. There is a small indigenous population (round about 150) but at the end of the tourist season the character of the island changes dramatically.
St Martin’s is the third largest and northernmost of the inhabited islands. There are three main settlements on the island and several farms and cottages. St Martins is home to Churchtown flowers a small family farm base run firm which, for the past 20 years, have been supplying gift boxes of scented flowers (in the summer Pinks and in the winter scented Narcissi) to anywhere in the U.K by post all year round. The farm also has a herd of Red Devon cattle providing extremely tasty traditional beef.
There are several excellent ‘eateries’ to suit all tastes and budgets including the Karma Hotel, the Seven Stones pub, the Little Arthur café , the Polreath tea room and Adam’s fish and chips (thoroughly recommended especially when visited on the supper boat from St Marys). The island has a Bakery, a vineyard, a gallery, a post office and 2 churches. St Martin’s Anglican Church and a Methodist Chapel. It combines lovely quiet beaches with the soft white sand which is a feature of Scilly with some fantastically rugged coastline. At the northeast corner is the large red and white daymark which was erected in 1683 as an aid to the safety of shipping. The daymark is built on the highest point of St Martin’s and is the 2nd highest point on the Isles of Scilly on a clear day you can see the Cornish mainland from here. To the north St Martin’s is joined by a tidal causeway to White Island. At the especially low spring tide, which occurred just after we left, it is possible to do a three island walk between St Martin’s, Tresco and Bryher.
Bryher is the smallest of the inhabited islands of the Isles of Scilly. Just one and half miles long by half a mile wide its coast line is remarkably varied. The island has a small working community. There is a shop with bakery and post-office, local produce stalls including Bryher fish specializing in delicious shellfish, a cafe and a bar, a community hall and a church dedicated to All Saints.
There is also the spectacularly situated Hell Bay Hotel on the island’s rugged west coast overlooking the Atlantic, making it the perfect place for watching a storm on a blustery day. The east coast overlooks the sheltered channel between Tresco and Bryher. There are several gorgeous beaches including Rushy Bay with its fine white sand and crystal clear water. There are also wonderful views from Bryher right across Scilly and out to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse.
St Agnes is the most remote of the inhabited islands on the south westerly edge of the Isles of Scilly. With a population of under 100 people it has a pub the Turk’s Head and a café. There is a campsite at the farm and the island also has several small businesses including post office & general store, a gift shop, a bulb shop and Twenty eight, which takes its name from the twenty eight miles between the Isles of Scilly and the Cornish coast, and produces lovely hand crafted soaps and bath products from natural ingredients. A visit to St Agnes is never complete without a visit to Troytown Farm to sample the delicious ice cream. The Troytown girls, a small herd of Jersey and Ayrshire cows, produce some of the creamiest ice cream possible in 30 different flavours.
St Agnes church has wonderful views over Periglis. The original church was built in the sixteenth of seventeenth century but it was destroyed in a gale. It was re-built in the eighteenth century only to be destroyed again. The present building was built by the islanders in the nineteenth century using the proceeds from the sale of a shipwreck, the bell in the church was taken from that wreck. Interesting the naming of St Agnes may have less to do with the historical Saint Agnes and more to do with the corruption of the old Cornish word ‘ek enes’ meaning a separated island, one that is on the edge. In her book Agnes the last outpost Glynis Cooper writes: ‘it is possible that the ‘saint’ prefix was added during the Tavistock Abbey period.’ This was the period in 12th century when the islands were given to Tavistock Abbey, St Nicholas Priory was established on Tresco and ‘Saint’ names were given to the islands: Seynte Nicholas (Tresco with Bryher), Seynte Sampsonis, St Helen’s, Sancta Maria and Seynte Theona (Tean).
St Warna, however, is the saint most associated with the island with both a cove and a well named after her. Little is known about Warna, there have been tentative attempts to link the saint with a Celtic goddess of the sea on the other hand she may have been one of the followers of St Bridget of Kildare. If, as some have suggested, Warna was a man he could have been a follower of St Patrick. According to one legend Warna sailed from the south coast of Ireland in a coracle made of wicker and covered in animal hides or alternatively in a wicker basket and lived in a hermitage beside the well on St Agnes imparting a holiness to this place. The traditions about pilgrims visiting the well hoping to receive miraculous cures for various ailments go back a long way. In days gone by pins were also thrown into the well and a wish made in order that a ship would be steered away from treacherous rocks. Alternatively when a bent pin (or several bent pins) were thrown into the water wishes made for a ship to be guided onto the rocks and wrecked so that the booty could be plundered by the locals. Once washed ashore the booty was regarded as ‘belonging to the islanders’. Ironically St Warna is patron saint of shipwrecks.
At Wingletown Down there are ancient stone stacks and cairns and at Beady pool visitors still hunt for 17th Century treasures in the form of tiny red and white beads thought to be from Bohemia or Vienna and part of the cargo of a wrecked ship. Just off of St Agnes are the western rocks and Annet with its bird sanctuary.
St Agnes is linked to the tiny island of Gugh by a sandbar, with just 2 houses on the sea shore it is the smallest of all the inhabited islands. The island has many entrance graves, cairns and evidence of Bronze Age round houses on the northeast and northwest sides of the island. At the base of Kittern Hill stands the Old Man of Gugh an imposing 9 foot high menhir or standing stone which is believed to have been associated with Bronze Age rituals.
One of the distinctive landmarks on St Agnes is the lighthouse. With treacherous rocks around the island pilot gigs have long played an important part in island history guiding boats to safety and rescuing those who had run aground. The 6 man +coxswain boats were involved in many spectacular adventures and many brave crews also lost their lives. Today the gigs are mainly for sport many races beginning at St Agnes and ending at St Mary’s. It’s a long hard row especially when there’s a swell and the local pubs tend to do rather well on gig race nights. In April/ May each year the World Gig Racing Championship takes place on Scilly. Crews attend from as far afield as Holland and the USA. The majority of participants, however, come from the South West where the wooden pilot gigs are still built locally and race regularly.