The Isles of Scilly
Yet, like so many places, its name is a little poetic. It’s not quite the end because further out there’s a little bit more of England: an archipelago of 140 or so islands, islets and big rocks known as the Isles of Scilly.
Words Mark Parren Taylor
A ferry pushes out once a day from Penzance, the terminus of an epic rail journey from London. It’s almost three hours’ sailing, and when the water’s choppy the boat is renowned for being ‘bouncy’…a product of it having a shallow draft to avoid the risky shoals.
These can be treacherous waters: the 45km of sea between Penzance and Scilly’s St Mary’s Harbour are spiked with hazardous rock pinnacles and reefs – with names like Wolf Rock (because fissures in the solid lump of lava make a howling sound in high winds) or Shark’s Fin. Over the centuries they have claimed many ships.
They’re particularly perilous around St Agnes, at the south-western edge of the archipelago. This small island takes the full-on lashings of the Atlantic’s winter gales. It is one of Scilly’s five inhabited islands, with a resident population of a little over 70! But it’s a number that is multiplied during the tourist season thanks to people like farmer Sam Hicks whose Troytown Farm offers a campsite and holiday cottages, as well as making some delicious ice cream (it’s the only dairy farm on Scilly, with nine cows) that draws sweet-toothed day-trippers too.
An Island Race
Farmer Hicks is a gentle, pleasant-faced islander – and he epitomises the native Scillionian. Calm, untiring, outward-looking. “There have been Hicks’s here for centuries. Working the land or the sea. Father, Grandfather and Greatgrandfather were all gig oarsmen. And, so…!” He shrugs – with his rower’s shoulders In his spare time, Hicks is a member of a gig team. Gigs are row-boats common in Cornwall and Scilly. They had long been used for pilotage and always kept readied as lifeboats (as they have been since the 18th century) to rush to the aid of distressed vessels.
Gigs are raced rather than worked nowadays – and the summer sees weekly fixtures. The annual World Pilot Gig Championships are held here each May – seeing hundreds of teams competing from places as far off as the Netherlands, USA and Bermuda. On fixture day, before the St Agnes crew can even think about the competition, they must first row the 4km of rough (what sailors call ‘lumpy’) water between St Agnes and Hugh Town on St Mary’s island, the principal settlement of the archipelago (where half of the total 2,150 ‘Scillionians’ live).
Local gig clubs are often supported by money from ‘honesty boxes’ that are dotted around the islands – these are bookcase-like stalls that contain handmade jam, perhaps, or flowers, handicrafts or home-grown vegetables, which passersby pick up and then drop their payment in a collection tin. That’s the kind of place Scilly is. Residents are happy to leave their front doors unlocked, a bicycle unchained, an honesty box open. Probably because any culprit wouldn’t be able to get very far very quickly!
Beauty and The Beast
The beastly seas that pummel these beautiful islands also protect them. It’s no surprise this is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Scilly is rugged, remote and unspoiled, lushly green with sweeping sandy beaches and azure waters. In the depths of winter, the North Atlantic Current brings a mild air that encourages subtropical plants and wildflowers, and the associated biodiversity that they support.
It was thanks to this climate that growing flowers for export to the mainland, especially London, became a major industry in the early 20th century – by the 1950s there were up to 90 family farms involved. And though in 2016 just nine remain, the extent of the industry at its height is visible across the main islands in the form of tall hedges screening off narrow strips of land. This is a mild climate, but not a gentle one. The tall hedges were grown to shield flower crops (notably narcissi) from the bruising ocean winds. Today they protect vines and market gardens.
These hedges are known locally as ‘fences’…and, would you believe, stone walls are called ‘hedges’!
You might think it’s no surprise, then, that Scilly is pronounced ‘Silly’. But, apparently, the name is a variation of the earlier ‘Sully’, which came from the Romans calling these the ‘Sun Islands’.
And there’s good reason why they are called this: added to the milder climate, the islands clock up about 200 extra sunshine hours a year compared to the England average.
Head over to Tresco – using the interisland ferry-boat service that crosses about five times each day from Hugh Town – and explore the glorious Tresco Abbey Gardens, a subtropical wonder that harnesses this unique climate. It occupies a sheltered one-time quarry, the granite from which was used to build the island’s cottages. This extraordinary seven-hectare garden of flame trees, lobster-claw clianthus, banana trees and palms is home to roaming Chinese pheasants and red squirrels, and can be all yours at the start and end of the day when there are few visitors.
The Little Things
Each of Scilly’s five inhabited islands has its own personality. This one, Tresco, is well-tended and well-to-do. Golf buggies zip around neat country lanes, linking timeshare cottages with beachside bistros. St Agnes is thoughtful if easygoing; St Mary’s – especially Hugh Town – busy and businesslike. St Martin’s, to the east, is an island of entrepreneurs and beach-bums. And westerly Bryher is hardworking, craggy and windswept. Despite their proximity, most of the time you must wait for the interisland ferry to carry you between Tresco and neighbouring Bryher. But, for a handful of days each year, when ‘spring’ tides bring extraordinarily low water, bare feet and rolled-up jeans are all you need for the walk across.
Bryher is the most evocative island in the archipelago. The side that catches the morning sun – which faces Tresco – is a place of huddled hamlets, of boatyards and chandlers, of Kris Taylor who makes fudge, and Island Fish, run by the Pender family, who catch, cook and dress lobster and crab. But the other side, the ocean side, is wild and majestic, with a sawtooth volcanic shoreline and features with names like Hell Bay and Badplace Hill.
Back across the island, at the quay, I meet up with Mark Pender, whose sister Amanda runs their shop in Bryher’s central hamlet, known as ‘The Town’. I climb aboard his boat while he inspects baskets and barrels filled with the day’s catch. He pulls out a big-clawed crab. “This is your dinner tonight,” he says with a grin.
The restaurant I am booked into, it turns out, had phoned through a special order for me. That’s the kind of place Scilly is. Everyone knows everyone else. They know how to be friendly, and how to make little things special.
London (Heathrow) via Singapore
Flight Time 14 hours 15 minutes
Frequency 5 ﬂights per week
London (Heathrow) to Jakarta
Flight Time 11 hours 55 minutes
Frequency 5 ﬂights per week
From Colours October 2016
5 Senses – Scent
SCILLY FRESH AIR
Get a lungful of that air! The Isles of Scilly air smells so clean, salty…so ozone-y. The air here is so much clearer than that on the English mainland that the stars shine extra bright and sharp at night. The British believe that sea air has curative powers – good for both mind and body – and recent evidence shows that it’s rich with negative ions that boost oxygen absorption and balance
serotonin levels (a chemical that affects our happiness and sense of well-being).