Escape to the Scilly Islands this autumn (Image: dreamstime)
Article Words : William Gray | 18 September

Escape to the Isles of Scilly

William Gray discovers coral-fringed reefs and flirtatious seals off the Cornish coast

Snug in blubber, a dozen seals lounged on the rocks watching us squirm into our wetsuits. Masks, snorkels and fins on; deep breaths and in we went, easing ourselves over the side of the dinghy. A miserly 15°C (two degrees cooler than the Cornish coast, 45km to the east), seawater slipped inside my wetsuit like a chilled blade. I bobbed at the surface, a frigid lump of neoprene-clad flotsam, and glanced back at the rocks. The seals had gone, of course. There was nothing for it but to take a peek at what lay beneath.

Iexpected to recoil from the cold water, but after the initial shock I held my face under, a smile tugging at numb lips. Combed back and forth by the gentle pulse of the current, thick leathery straps of kelp formed a tangled orgy of golden limbs a few metres below me – and there, wrapped in its slippery embrace, a silver-white seal met my gaze.

So entranced was I by this close encounter, that I completely forgot the words of our guide, local diver Anna Cawthray. “Keep looking behind you,” she had warned us while manoeuvring the dinghy through the rocky shoals of the Eastern Isles, searching for suitable spots for a seal rendezvous. “If they’re feeling playful and inquisitive, they may come up behind you and try to nip your fins.”

Without warning her advice sunk in.

A larger seal with grey blotches had attached itself to my leg and – not for the first time that day – I was grateful for my extra-thick wetsuit. There was nothing malicious or predatory in the seal’s bite. It was more of a cheeky nibble, a playful prelude to a few minutes of flirting with my fins.

Other members of the group were getting on even more intimate terms with our newfound flippered friends. Jenny was treading water, practically nose-to-nose with one – its breath wasn’t great she told me later – while a young family had up to six seals at a time cavorting around them.

“They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to,” Anna explained as she ferried her shivering but euphoric charges back to St Martin’s. “They’re completely wild animals; totally unpredictable.”

Scilly seasons

The same unpredictability is a feature of the weather on the Isles of Scilly. Peeling our wetsuits off at Anna’s dive school beach shack on St Martin’s east coast, I noticed that the islands were shrugging off the morning’s steely-grey Atlantic shroud and slipping into something altogether more exotic. Walking along the single track that straddles St Martin’s, I had clear views south towards Tresco and St Mary’s: swathes of turquoise and jade wrapped around sugar-sand beaches; cupcake dunes sprinkled with blue and white agapanthus; heather-blushed hills, mustard-streaked rocks and the whole scene stippled with brightly painted boats.

This was my third visit to England’s south-west island outpost. The first trip had been an autumn short break with my wife – a gunwale-grabbing ride aboard the Scillonian III from Penzance followed by a memorable hike across the isle of Bryher.

A few years later, we returned with our young children, camping on St Mary’s and taking a water taxi to a different island each day, rockpooling in deserted coves and cycling along empty lanes.

From romantic island escape to family seaside idyll, the Isles of Scilly are nothing if not diverse. This time, it was the archipelago’s rich environment that had lured me back.

Consisting of five main islands (St Mary’s, St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s) plus dozens of uninhabited ones, the Scillies almost seem to have a toehold in the tropics. Abbey Garden on Tresco, for example, runs rampant with plants from the Med, South Africa, Mexico, Australia. The surrounding seas – a Marine Special Area of Conservation – not only support teeming kelp forests but also granite reefs festooned in sponges, anemones and corals.

On a scan of recent sightings chalked up on a blackboard in St Martin’s Middle Town, I could appreciate the islands’ importance for birds – the tick list was puffed up with feathered fancies such as golden oriole, osprey, bee-eater and honey buzzard. The cultural heritage is equally impressive with some 238 ancient monuments (the highest concentration in the UK).

Back to the Bronze Age

I began exploring a few days earlier on St Mary’s (the largest and most populated of the islands), by hiring a mountain bike and setting off into the scant web of lanes and tracks that covers the island. You can’t cycle far without seeing a sign for a Bronze Age burial chamber. The place is dotted with dolmens. It was the remains of the Iron Age village of Halangy Down, however, that really piqued my curiosity.

There wasn’t much to see – just the skeletal outlines of stone walls, shaggy with lichen, a few ancient hearths and the odd aedicule (a small chamber that may have been used as a shrine). Squatting on the hill above, the huge granite capstones of Bant’s Carn Burial Chamber were far more impressive.

But what Halangy Down lacked in visual clout, it more than compensated for with historical significance. When people lived here, it’s likely that much of Scilly was a single landmass. It was only at the end of the Roman period, when rising sea levels flooded farmland between the present-day islands, that the village was abandoned.

“You can still walk from Tresco to Samson during a low spring tide,” explained Katharine Sawyer the following morning.

I had joined the Scillies’ resident archaeologist on one of her guided tours, taking a boat from St Mary’s to Samson. As the Meridian pottered across the calm, shallow flats between the two islands, Katharine pointed out kelp-covered reefs that marked the boundaries of drowned prehistoric fields.

The largest uninhabited island in the archipelago, Samson is managed by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and is a nesting site for over 1,000 lesser black-backed gulls, along with kittiwakes, common terns, oystercatchers and ringed plovers. Abandoned around 1855, the island has no harbour or slipway, so we clambered into the Meridian’s dinghy before wading the last few metres to a pristine sandy beach. Terns skipped along the shoreline, dagger bills aimed at small fry in the shallows, while gulls peppered the skies above Samson’s distinctive twin hills.

Katharine led us on a time-travelling amble, wading through swathes of chest-high marram grass. There’s evidence that Neolithic people lived here 5,000 years ago, she told us, and we peered into the obligatory Bronze Age burial mounds that pockmarked the hills. It’s Samson’s more recent history, however, that fires the imagination.

By the mid-19th century, the island’s population was reduced to just two families – the Webbers and the Woodcocks. We explored the stone shells of their cottages, while Katharine evoked tales of hardship – from storm-driven waves inundating the island to foul-tasting pork (the islanders’ pigs were fed on a diet of limpets).

Pickings from shipwrecks furnished homes with everything from timber to Wedgwood teapots, while pilotage provided a key source of income. Families throughout the Scillies would keep watch for approaching ships, before rowing six-oared, 10m-long wooden gigs out to meet them and offer pilot service through the islands. Gig rowing is still a highly competitive sport in the islands, with races held every Wednesday and Friday.

Firebrand-ed

Speed was evidently on the minds of Mark and Susie Groves when I boarded their RIB, Firebrand IV, for a sea safari around the islands on my penultimate day. Equipped with a whopping 225-horsepower outboard engine, the souped-up inflatable was like a greyhound on a leash, straining to leave the restricted speed zone of Hugh Town harbour on St Mary’s. Once clear, Mark eased the throttle forward and Firebrand’s bows lifted eagerly in response.

Soon we were skimming the shallows east of Tresco, scything through Pentle Bay before sweeping out into the Atlantic. After a few stomach-lurching moments playing leapfrog with the ocean swell, Mark reined back the RIB and we dawdled into the lee of St Helen’s. The puffins had left the previous week (they nest on the islands between April and July), but the granite pedestals of St Helen’s were still staked out with fulmars, shags and gulls, squatting in rocky niches like feathered gargoyles.

After a high-octane, ozone-charged sprint across to White Island, we nosed into St Martin’s Bay. Firebrand coasted to a standstill in shallows so clear I could make out blue-and-orange-striped cuckoo wrasse flickering like sparks through swaying fronds of kelp. There was no need to the use the RIB’s underwater camera – we were floating in an aquarium.

“Looks like the Caribbean,” mused Mark. “Until you get in, that is.” The skipper trailed his fingers over the side, feigning a shudder.

A few minutes later, we were drifting quietly near a colony of seals basking on rocks in the Eastern Isles. The sun was warm on my back and the sea was as smooth and blue as a royal sash. It’s probably fine once you get in, I thought to myself, wondering what it would be like to slip over the side and join them. The seals merely stared back, wide-eyed and innocent.

Top 5 things to see and do

1. Tresco’s unmissable Abbey Garden (open daily from 10am; £12pp, under-16s free) is built around the ruins of a 12th-century priory. This sub-tropical oasis is divided into geographical zones ranging from the Canary Islands to Australian Outback; exotic plants on show include Namaqua daisies, banksias, succulents and tree ferns. Explore the paths and terraces, tracking down statues of Gaia, Neptune and The Tresco Children, before delving into the Valhalla Museum near the garden entrance, for a collection of shipwreck figureheads.

2. You won’t see much of the Scillies without taking a few boat trips – even if it’s only to hop between the main islands using the water taxis operated by the St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association. The Boatmen’s Association also runs two or three 90-minute circular trips each day, visiting the Eastern Isles, Norrard Rocks or Bishop Rock Lighthouse (from £12pp). Island Sea Safaris operates a one-hour Island Taster tour and a two-hour Shipwrecks, Seals & Seabirds trip aboard its high-speed RIB, from £22pp.

3. Snorkelling with seals is available from St Martin’s Dive School (£39pp; minimum age eight).

4. Guided walks can be arranged with archaeologist Katharine Sawyer (scillywalks.co.uk; £5-10pp) or wildlife expert Will Wagstaff (islandwildlifetours.co.uk; £6-12pp).

5. One of the pleasures of visiting the Scillies is landing on an island and simply wandering off to find your own secluded bit of sand. Two of the best beaches, however, are Great Bay on St Martin’s (a swathe of fine, granulated sand, granite-boulder bookends, wonderful snorkelling and absolutely no facilities whatsoever) and The Cove on St Agnes (squeaky clean sand on the bar that links St Agnes to the islet of Gugh, sheltered swimming and great rockpools at low tide).

Top 5 places to stay

1. An elegant, refurbished townhouse, St Mary’s Hall Hotel (B&B from £65pp) is close to both Porthcressa and Town Beaches, and just a five-minute walk from the quay. Rooms are bright, modern and well equipped, while the restaurant serves superb local cuisine, such as Scillonian crab and Cornish sirloin steak.

2. A collection of 12 luxury beachfront cottages sleeping up to ten, The Flying Boat Club (Tresco; 01720 422849; from £1,475 per cottage per week) offers free use of an indoor pool, spa, tennis courts and golf club.

3. For the ultimate luxury escape in the islands, head for Hell Bay Hotel (from £135pp DB&B), renowned for its rugged sea views, New England-style décor and fine dining.

4. Pick of the pitches, Troytown Farm Campsite (from £7.50pp, plus £1-7 per tent and £3pp for luggage transportation from the quay) has spectacular views towards Bishop Rock Lighthouse and the Western Rocks. The farm makes its own ice cream and also has ready-pitched, fully equipped bell tents for hire (which sleep four), from £300 per week.

But there are plenty of other options available for those particularly fond of groundsheets and peg diplomacy: well worth considering are Garrison Holidays Campsite on St Mary’s, Bryher Campsite and St Martin’s Campsite.

5. The Scillies have a wide choice of holiday cottage and guesthouse accommodation. For a traditional B&B in a great location, Greenlaws (£38pp) overlooks Old Town Bay.

Top 5 places to eat and drink

1. With sweeping views across the harbour towards Hugh Town, Juliet’s Garden Restaurant has a lovely outdoor terrace – perfect for savouring a local crab salad, homemade cakes or cream tea. The restaurant also has an evening menu with some excellent local seafood.

2. On Tresco, the New Inn (New Grimsby; 01720 422849 offers tasty pub grub, plus blackboard specials such as scallops, steak or sea bream. The cosy, maritime-themed bar has one of the islands’ best selections of real ales.

3. Bryher’s Fraggle Rock Bar Café (01720 422222) is a wonderful spot to enjoy a coffee or double-decker crab sandwich while gazing across Kitchen Porth towards Tresco.

4. On St Martin’s, Little Arthur’s Café (Higher Town; 01720 422457) serves wholesome, homemade food – using local seafood and organic vegetables – in a quirky conservatory, half consumed by a grapevine and with views over the Eastern Isles.

5. Don’t miss St Martin’s Bakery where you can pick up all sorts of local goodies, including Cornish pasties, beef and horseradish rolls, home-smoked parma ham pizzas and Atlantic salmon quiches. Three-day, all-inclusive baking courses (£745pp) are also available.

William Gray is a contributing editor to Wanderlust and is author of the Footprint Guide, Wildlife Travel.