Saturday, 27 May 2017

A different world

We have just come back from a week-long trip to the Scilly Isles - for non-UK readers, a tiny archipelago 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall. These 5 inhabited islands (and others ranging from small isles once inhabited to bare rocks) are huddled close together and can be seen from each other, except when a sea-mist comes down and blots everything out.  They are also well-known for their bird life, and indeed we saw puffins, razorbills, fulmars, gannets, and the islands' recent success story, shearwaters; plus Atlantic seals and, briefly, dolphins.
Getting there is  bit of a mission: for us a train to London then a sleeper train down to Penzance, and the once-daily crossing on the ferry, Scillonian. When the weather permits, a small aircraft also plies a regular short trip across to the largest island, St Mary's, from Newquay, Exeter or Land's End.

Between the islands small open boats, taking about 40 passengers, bounce across the waves to simple quays, and sometimes they drop you off at one quay and pick you up at another because there isn't enough water: the tides have to be closely observed.

The permanent population of the islands is 2,200; of these 1,800 are on St Mary's, and the remaining 400 are shared between St Agnes, St Martin's, Tresco and Bryher. With so few people it is easy to find yourself the only human in sight.

We had a fine view across St Mary's harbour from our accommodation. Scillonian is moored at the quay, dwarfing the little boats.

The islanders are friendly and welcoming, robust and self-sufficient. They make ice cream from a tiny Jersey herd, keep chickens, ducks and geese, grow vegetables and herbs, and catch fish, of course.
There are numerous fine places to refuel after a strenuous walk. We walked our feet off, sometimes over quite rugged terrain, such that (luckily on the last day) the soles peeled off my  boots (which I have to admit were ancient.) On the uplands the soil is peaty, dark and spongy, supporting chiefly heather and gorse. The bones of the land can be seen where it meets the sea, eroded into boulder-tumbled cliffs by the crashing surf, especially on the Atlantic coast of Bryher. On the other side, and on St Martin's in particular, are wide sweeps of white-sand bays, with not a soul on them, apart from the occasional fishing boat.

On the lower ground there grew plants I'd never seen before, including succulents which often totally engulfed the dry-stone walls over which they scrambled, and echium which towered over our heads; but for exotic plants there was a spectacular setting: the Abbey garden on Tresco, home to plants originating in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, the Canaries  and other unexpected places, helped by the Gulf Stream which gives this corner freedom from frost.

My favourite place of all, hard as it was to choose, was the tiny, but still used, church overlooking Old Town beach. We approached it from the cliffs, coming down to a rugged bay. It is surrounded by trees and almost invisible. The churchyard, where the founder of the Tresco garden, Augustus Smith, and a former UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, are buried, is serenity itself.

Of course island life is dominated by the sea, and the sea provides a favourite sport - pilot-gig racing. Every Wednesday evening the ladies race, and every Friday it's the men's turn.

On our last day we had some hours to while away before Scillonian sailed, and we spent an hour in the small but immensely interesting museum. I was particularly taken with the vivid accounts of the many ships which have been wrecked off the Scillies over the years: no surprise, when you see the jagged rocks and lurking sandbars, especially in centuries before reliable navigation aids. In 1707 three ships of the Royal Navy were wrecked on the Outer Gilstone Rock with great loss of life, including the Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was washed up on Porth Hellick beach where there is a memorial to him; now he is buried in Westminster Abbey.