As I have mentioned before a large part of our time on Scilly was holiday rather than study.
Right on cue once Alan arrived on the Scillonian the sun came out and we were able to do what we most enjoy, island hopping. Part of this was an excuse to take photos for the project but equally on a lovely day there’s nothing nicer that going down to the quay, choosing where you want to go and just hopping on a boat. During the course of the fortnight we visited all the inhabited islands and discovered several places we hadn’t seen before including the tiny island of Gugh.
We spent a gloriously sunny morning on Samson. We had the island all to ourselves having gone ashore from the launch in an inflatable because the tide was low. For me Samson with its wonderful views, quiet beaches and wonderful colours is a truly spiritual place, a little taste of paradise where God feels very close indeed. The kind of place which invites you to tread gently and quietly, keeping your eyes and ears open to observe the beauty and detail of creation.
The moment of course I speak about Samson I think of all the other islands we love so much. Bryher with its small welcoming community and the contrasts between Hell Bay and the softer side of the island. St Martin’s with its white sandy beaches and again a very welcoming community. On a glorious sunny day we walked along the rugged cliffs searching for Billy idol the small stone statue thought to date from anywhere between 500 BC and 500 AD and which probably represents some long forgotten god or goddess. We never did find Billy idol but having worked up quite an appetite we sat on the cliff edge enjoying crab sandwiches watching the waves play on the rocks. Food is always important for pilgrims and over the course of the fortnight we had sampled many Scillonian delights.
First prize for fish and chips went to Adam’s fish and chips on St Martin’s closely followed by the Porthcressa mobile fish and chip van. We enjoyed a visit to the Turk’s Head on the St Agnes supper boat, and yes we even got back to our favourite tapas restaurant on Alan’s birthday, this time with no fog or rain to spoil things.
St Mary’s provided some wonderful walks taking in the Buzza tower which now houses the Camera Obscura and cabinet of curiosities. Unfortunately it is only open when the weather is clear and not windy so we were unable to visit what sounds like a wonderful and unusual way to see the island. Next time we return, hopefully!
Having already walked many miles on our travels (if we’d had a pedometer by this stage it would have measured well over a hundred) we enjoyed walking quite a few more on Scilly and not just to combat the fish and chips.
On St Mary’s from Old Town Bay we walked around Tolman Point photographing the spectacular rock formations. Passing the airfield we waited obediently for the lights to turn green before venturing across the runway. We walked up to Giant’s castle and then down through the valley scented with bracken and wild fennel until we came to Porth Hellick the place where Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s body was washed ashore.
All kinds of stories abound concerning the fate of the HMS Association and the fleet under Sir Cloudesley’s command. Returning from a campaign in Toulon on Nov 2nd 1707 Shovell’s flagship struck the rocks near the Isles of Scilly. The ship went down in 3-4 minutes and none of the 800 men on board survived. The Eagle, the Romney and the Firebrand also sank, a total of 2,000 sailors lives were lost that night making this one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history. The cause of the disaster has been attributed to the navigator’s inability to accurately calculate longitude. However one story alleges that a common sailor on the flagship tried to warn Shovell that the fleet was off course but Shovell had him hanged at the yard arm for inciting mutiny.
The Admiral’s body and those of his 2 stepsons were all found at Porth Helick Cove almost 7 miles away from where his ship was wrecked and it was possible that they left the flagship before it went down and were drowned trying to reach shore. Local legend has it that Shovell was alive, at least barely, when he reached the shore but was murdered by a woman for the sake of his priceless emerald ring. According to a letter written in 1709 by Edmund Herbert, who was sent to Scilly by Shovell’s family to help locate and recover items belonging to the admiral, Sir Cloudesley’s body was first found by two women stripped of his shirt and “his ring was also lost off his hand, which however left ye impression on his finger.” Shovell’s widow, Elizabeth, offered a large reward for the recovery of any family property. It is claimed that the murder only came to light some thirty years later when the woman, on her deathbed, produced the stolen ring and confessed to a clergyman that she had killed the admiral. The clergyman supposedly sent it back to the 3rd Earl of Berkeley, although several historians doubt the murder legend as there is no record of the ring’s return and the story stems from a romantic and unverifiable deathbed confession.
On another walk around St Mary’s we walked around the west side to the north of the island taking in the views across to Taylor’s island then around Halangy and Bar point and on to Innisdigen taking in the ancient historic burial chambers, dating from the Bronze age around 2,500-750 BC with their stunning views out toward Tresco, St Martin’s, and the Eastern Isles, literally a tomb with a view.
One of the highlights of our evenings was a slideshow by a local diver entitled Shipwrecks, Seals and Sea squirts. Held in the hall behind the Methodist church it was packed out on both occasions. I enjoyed it so much the first time I did a return trip with Alan and we were treated to a wonderfully entertaining talk about the underwater life of the islands with up close and personal pictures of shipwrecks, seals and tiny sea slugs. The seals were enchanting as they got up close and played with the divers allowing them to tickle their tummies. Seals are incredibly strong creatures with large mouths and fearsome teeth, yet as the diver pointed out they also seem to instinctively realize that human beings are at as much of a disadvantage in the water as the seals are out of it and so in their own territory they are happy to play.
As a photographer I marveled at one image of a sea slug. Caught in the light of an underwater camera it was among the most beautiful things I have ever seen. My mind went back to the thoughts of the lady we met on Lindisfarne earlier on our travels and her words about a God who creates each day anew and delights in everything he makes. I like to think God would enjoy photography playing with different colours and lights, looking at the tiniest things from every kind of conceivable angle, yet of course he does that anyway, without the aid of technology.
On our travels we met various people and animals, all kinds of characters. I was struck by the fact that many dogs tend to love boats as much if not more than their owners. Many of the boatmen have dogs but this is a photo of Prince who we met on a trip to St Agnes with his owners. Prince was a real sea dog making friends with both passengers and crew and sticking his nose in the air to smell the sea and the direction of the wind. We spoke with several people involved in the Scilly swim challenge. 150 swimmers took part swimming and walking between Scilly’s main islands – from St. Mary’s to St. Martin’s to Tresco, Bryher, Samson, St. Agnes and back to St. Mary’s. Not a race simply a challenge said the publicity. It was a tough challenge taking round about 12-13 hours and on one particularly choppy leg one of the swimmers described feeling sea sick because of the waves. Another fellow visitor to Mincarlo had come over for the rowing. By far the majority of visitors we spoke to had been to the islands before, I think the record was one couple who were on their 15th visit.
One afternoon after a long walk we stopped for tea and apple strudel at the Cafehaus (where else but on St Mary’s would you find a café run by a German lady serving the most delicious apple strudel right out in the wilds), when a couple sitting opposite us leaned across and said ‘didn’t we see you on Westray?’ It turned out that they had been on the ferry to Kirkwall, nearly 3 months before, on the very day that our car nearly refused to get on the boat and they recognized us. As we spoke it became obvious that they were as fascinated by islands as we are.
But what is so special about Scilly?
Of all the islands we had visited on our travels so far I think if someone asked me where we might choose to live for both Alan and I it would be the Isles of Scilly. This is partly to do with climate, the clearness of the air, the beautiful colours, wildlife, plants which make the place such a magnet for artists, writers and photographers. Yet there is also something about the spirit of the place and the people their kindness, willingness to welcome the stranger and also their ability to work with and indeed to laugh at the challenges of island life as illustrated in this little poem on display at St Mary’s flower festival.
Our obsession with the weather
As Scillonians we live by the weather,
it’s the first thing we think of each day.
Have we fog or a gale?
Will we get today’s Mail?
Or the papers? We really can’t say.
Can we all get away for appointments?
Will we once more be stuck in Penzance?
When in rolls the fog
it’s not fit for a dog.
Trust the weather to lead us a dance.
Has the life boat been out in the night time?
Will the steamer be able to sail?
The questions come fast,
just how long will it last?
The Co-op has nothing on sale.
But when we have days of bright sunshine
a smile soon appears on the face
We’re happy to say
‘come over and stay’
cos it’s really a beautiful place.
Just look at the wonderful sunsets,
the colours that gleam in the sea.
Plants exotic can grow
(as we rarely have snow),
it’s the isles of Scilly for me.
There is also something really special about the gentleness of pace which allows time for conversation, thought, reflection and creativity. Here out in the Atlantic you also become aware of being a small part of the vastness of creation, of being able to gaze into infinity. On a fine day the views are stunning, on a windy day the seas are spectacular and even the fog adds an element of eerie mystery. Each island has its different character yet on every one there are places where you feel you are standing at a spot where heaven touches earth, miles away from anywhere yet at the centre of the universe.