Marooned off Cornwall’s coast, the Isles of Scilly are overlooked, but as locals attest: set foot among its bird colonies, gardens and tombs and you'll find yourself staying longer than you thought...
“It’s like Swallows & Amazons meets Enid Blyton here,” said Mike Nelhams, curator of the Isles of Scilly’s world-famous Tresco Abbey Garden.
“If you have kids, you can let them explore and not worry about them. Or you can be a kid yourself, look in rock pools and take a boat between islands. Where else can you get a beautiful beach to yourself?”
Not that I was in a rush to explore a beach; at that precise moment I was huddled in the Garden’s cafe, my hair and clothes dripping from the heavy rain that was lashing down outside. I had woken that morning to a thick fog and the conditions had deteriorated quickly as I approached the former abbey’s grounds.
“We live the weather here,” smiled the charismatic Mike. "We get a variety of conditions over the year but that’s what makes it the Isles of Scilly. It could be really windy, or it could be thick fog like today, or it could be sunny and you’ll suddenly think you’re in the Caribbean.”
There was little chance of the latter that day, but I could see how the island’s gardeners would love it.
“By use of shelter belts and microclimates, we can grow anything,” said Mike, “from New Zealand tree ferns, which need lots of water, to plants from very hot places that require hardly any water at all.
It’s a mix you’ll see nowhere else. They grow well because we don’t get cold here. We generally have over 300 different types of plant in flower on New Year’s Day.”
Admiring the luxuriant foliage – and the red squirrels introduced to its pine trees – it was hard to believe there was once hardly any vegetation here.
In 1834, Augustus Smith took over the leasehold of the islands at a time of great poverty and set about reforming their running. He built schools, restructured the farming industry and generally raised standards.
He also settled on Tresco and created a wonderful garden in the grounds of its Benedictine abbey. His descendants still lease the island today, and the garden attracts visitors from around the world, drawn to its mix of species taken from across five different continents.
Mike explained how he had first come to the gardens to work as a student in the 1970s, and had jumped at the chance to come back as head gardener in 1984. Having married a local from the island, it already had a special place in his heart.
“That’s the thing,” he said. “People come for a holiday, fall for the islands and then come back year in year out, and even generation after generation.”
As the rain fell and Mike continued to eulogise about the joys of island life, I wondered if the same thing would happen to me.
I had arrived on this far-flung UK archipelago, its shores filled with birdlife and wild tales of shipwrecks, knowing little of its past, but even through the fog and the downpour, I was starting to see how it could cast its spell on visitors.
A little later I sat eating an impressive seafood platter overlooking the beautiful beach of Raven’s Porth. The sun finally fought through the clouds, lighting the pristine white sands while the sea glinted a cerulean blue.
I took a ferry the short distance back to the neighbouring island of Bryher, where I was staying at the multi- award-winning Hell Bay Hotel, owned by the same family as Tresco Island itself.
The smallest of the inhabited islands, Bryher has a population of just 80. As I dawdled up the hill from the harbour, there was no one around when I explored its tiny museum, built within a red phone box, and wandered the honesty stalls offering up fresh fruit, new potatoes and simple crafts that I found scattered about the island.
The weather was back to fog and rain the next morning when I took a ferry from Bryher to St Agnes, the southernmost inhabited island in the archipelago, and home to 81 people – or is it now 82?
“A new baby was born a few months ago,” said resident Chris Simmonds, who moved here 15 years ago when his wife took up a teaching position.
He met me off the boat, and from the harbour I could see another smaller island was joined to St Agnes by a sandy spit. “That’s Gugh,” said Chris, “and what looks like a sandbar is known as a ‘tombolo’. Do you want to take a walk over there?”
I’d had hopes of seeing some of the seabirds that the rocks around St Agnes are known for. “Did you see any puffins from the boat?” Chris asked as we strolled. I shook my head and we both gazed at the grey sky.
Chris has been at the forefront of the island’s Seabird Recovery Project, which completely eradicated rats from St Agnes in early 2016.
“They fed on both the bird eggs and the fledglings,” he explained. “We put down traps every 50 or 100 yards, which we checked daily. We tried different things to tempt them in but found chocolate seemed to work particularly well for ours. We managed to remove the rats much faster than anticipated.
Fortunately, it has been a huge success there are now a number of birds starting to breed successfully again, such as Manx shearwaters and storm petrels, which is a real delight. And even the island’s shrews seem to be increasing in numbers.”
Reaching Gugh, we passed former flower fields now left wild. Growing flowers used to be a key industry here but it is no longer viable. There’s just one farmer on St Agnes still growing them, I was told.
Over the years different industries have been tried and some were successful for a time, but then times change. These days people will do a bit of this and a bit of that to make ends meet.
Gugh is only about 1km long, and half that wide, so we climbed a hill to its highest point. It was too foggy to see far, and the rain started to tumble down again, but it lent an appropriate atmosphere as we stopped by a Neolithic tomb.
A figure huddled up in a raincoat emerged from the fog and stopped for a chat from under her hood. I realised with a start that it was a famous actress; I’d been told by a resident that many celebrities visit the islands, and he’d named a few who were currently visiting but stressed: “We never bother them. And that’s one reason why they love to come here and always come back.”
Chris took me to another hilltop archaeological site hidden behind a tangle of bushes, and from where we had a view down to St Agnes.
Little is known yet about these neolithic sites but the islands have a huge concentration of them. The Isles of Scilly have been a crossroads for the seaways of Europe for ever; it’s quite probable that the islands of St Mary’s, St Martin’s, Tresco and Bryher were one island if you go back 3,000 years, I was told.
There’s evidence of Iron Age populations and others dating back further, and the sheer density of burial mounds is easily among the highest in Britain.
As the fog started to clear and ocean views emerged, it felt like a magical and isolated spot. Life here would have been very much defined by its geographical location and by the changeable weather.
With shallow waters and hidden rocks, this was also a potentially dangerous spot for ships, and there are over 530 recorded shipwrecks around the Isles.
“The people weren’t ‘wreckers’ who encouraged ships to run aground,” said Chris. “If there was a shipwreck, then they would go all out to save lives.” The islanders would have been in a type of boat that became known as a ‘gig’, and which went on to become a vital part of the economy.
“Ships coming by would want to pick up a local pilot who could safely guide them to Bristol or Plymouth. They’d be paid handsomely for it, so it was very competitive to get to the ship first and be picked. Each family had a gig they would use to row out to a square rigger; they took eight rowers and seven would come back if they’d been successful.”
Today, gig racing as a sport is alive and well with weekly fixtures, and competition between the islands is fierce. Back down on St Agnes, we popped into a boatshed to admire a legendary gig called The Shah, which dated back to 1872 and was still raced by an island team.
Parts of the boat had been replaced over the years, and at the nearby Pot Buoys Gallery I admired a handmade book covered with wood from The Shah.
The profits from its sale went to support the racing team: ‘Own a piece of history,’ read the accompanying sign.
Gallery owner Emma Eberlein came over as I admired a cabinet with jewellery made from recycled plastic.
“Most of the work here is made from materials found on the islands, whether it’s plastic, glass or driftwood from the beaches,” she said. “This cabinet is made from wood from a shipwreck – the Cita.”
She took me over to another cabinet that contained jewellery made from beads found on ‘Beady Pool’, a cove on the south-east of the island where ceramic beads from a 17th century shipwreck are still found today.
In the island’s church, a beautiful stained-glass window depicted the St Agnes pilot gigs rowing to the rescue after a shipwreck, as described by Chris. It was designed by Oriel Hicks; and by chance, the next day
I found myself in her studio on the island of St Mary’s, where she was busy making a decorative window.
And where a range of exquisite home decorations and tempting glass jewellery were also on sale. Yet another reason to stay longer.
St Mary’s, the main island in the group, is the gateway in and out of the Scillies, and returning there by ferry, after the tranquillity of Bryher, felt like being back in the Big Smoke.
Its main settlement is Hugh Town, gloriously set along an isthmus, the ocean on each side. With several shops, artists’ studios, a couple of banks and a museum, this is essentially the capital of the islands.
After only a few days in the Scillies, I’d adapted to a slower, friendlier way of life. It had been an alternate reality of boat taxis; of birds that didn’t fly away when you approached; of red squirrels scampering by; of honesty boxes and freshly caught fish.
It was actually a shock to see cars again, even if they were few and far between on St Mary’s – golf buggies seemed to be the preferred transport for some visitors. However, as with all the islands, it offers good walking if you want it.
I went for a nature walk with Nikki Banfield from the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. Birdsong filled the air as we followed footpaths lined with forget-me-nots and buttercups through the Holy Vale to Higher Moors and Porth Hellick Bay, passing reed beds and patches of wildflowers buzzing with bees. At one point we took a curved boardwalk made of recycled compressed plastic.
“There’s the equivalent of 1,000 plastic bottles per square metre,” said Nikki. “It won’t rot like wood; it’s anti- slip and should last at least 50 years.”
Nikki was born and bred on the island but had studied and worked on the mainland before being drawn back to settle down here.
“More young people would come back but we need more housing and more work for them,” she explained, adding that most residents normally don’t have just one job. “People do what they need to do to survive, so fishermen may be builders in winter. They’re used to having several jobs.”
As we reached the deserted curve of beach at Porth Hellick, Nikki’s love of the islands shone through. She talked of snorkelling with rare Atlantic grey seals, horse riding on the beaches and hiring a boat and boatman to explore the myriad small uninhabited islands.
“They are rich in history but you need someone to interpret them for you,” she explained.
While under no illusions that Scillonians – as people from the islands are known – need to work hard to make a living, I could see how they and the islands’ many visitors would be drawn back.
One lady I met in a weaving workshop on St Agnes told me that she’d been coming for 30 years and was still finding new things to do – “I hate leaving,” she bemoaned.
We turned back to a bird hide overlooking the island’s largest body of freshwater. Martins and swallows swooped over it chasing insects, while a heron sat motionless on the far side.
But more surprising was the sight of an exotic visitor: a dark-coloured bird with a curved beak and an iridescent greenish sheen to its wings as it waded the shallows.
“That’s a glossy ibis,” said Nikki. “We had seven here over the winter from South Africa. The others have gone but this one must have stayed behind!”
Just another visitor that couldn’t bear to leave the islands.
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