Scilly is an amazing place.
It’s easy to forget you are in England. We use the pound, you can get a nice cup of tea and you can watch Eastenders on BBC1. Not that you’d want to stay in glued to the box.
Some people say it is like England in the 1950s. By that we think commentators are referring to our friendly community where people have time to chat and our High Street, Hugh Street which isn’t overrun by bland national chains.
But saying we’re 50 years behind the times isn’t, perhaps, the right message.
We have boutique hotels and stylish accommodation. A significant arts and crafts sector and plenty of wholesome nature and environment – and activities to enjoy from walking to sailing, kite surfing to kayaking.
Some islands’ businesses have embraced the passion for good, locally sourced food. St Mary’s Hall Hotel and Adams Fish and Chips on St Martins serve up the best that Scilly has to offer. And with fantastic islands-made fudge, beer, pasties and ice cream, this is not a place to come for a detox, diet break!
Radio Scilly and ScillyToday are based on St Mary’s which is the largest island with a massive island-wide population of 1,600! St Mary’s is our throbbing metropolis with cars, our only supermarket (a small Co-op), a handful of shops, four pubs, the only cashpoint and the hospital, health centre and the main school base. The Council, the islands’ largest employer is also on St Mary’s.
People who live on the other islands (the off-islands) travel to St Mary’s by boat or sometimes work at home. St Mary’s is also home to the Police station but this is not a crime-ridden resort! There were under 50 crimes reported in 2010 and many of those involved unlocked bikes being ‘borrowed’. It is true that people often leaves homes unlocked and keys inside their cars.
Evening entertainment is whatever you make it. There are slide shows on history and wildlife and traditional amateur dramatic theatre in the summertime. Most activities revolve around the water, island-hopping by day and sometimes by night, eating in pubs and restaurants, often overlooking the water and our stunning sunsets …….and that’s about it.
Most places stop service at 8.30pm or 9pm. You cannot get chips after 9pm! No cinema, no bowling, no shopping malls. No nightclubs opening until 3am. No streetlights, late night brawls, no hassles.
And on Sundays there are no flights, so you can pick up the Sunday papers and read them on a Monday, like the rest of us
But you may have better things to do than read the press.
You can travel around St Mary’s by foot. It only takes around 90 minutes to walk the length of the island from the Garrison (the hill where the Star Castle is) to Bar Point at the north of St Mary’s. You can also hire a bike or catch the community bus between April and October. Or you can call a cab. You can’t hire cars and probably wouldn’t want to. There’s only 7 miles of lane and the gorgeous beaches are better viewed by foot.
Each of the islands has its own boat operator. They all travel between the islands but the usual form is that you would use your ‘base-island’s’ operator to travel to and from that island. St Mary’s Boatmens Association travel to all islands from St Mary’s. Bryher Boats serve Tresco and Bryher, St Martins has its own boat service and St Agnes its own too.
Boat times air at around 8.45 and and 9.15 am on Radio Scilly.
If you miss the schedule boat or want to travel at a different time you can usually negotiate a ‘special’ with a boatman.
The main settlement on St Mary’s is Hughtown. That’s the capital and the place where the Quay is – and where Scillonian III ferry from Penzance docks. It’s only a 2 minute walk to town to see the dozen or so shops there.
The second biggest settlement is Old Town, just 20 minutes walk from Hughtown. It has cafes, a shop and a pub. Remember, there’s only one cashpoint, in Hughtown.
The Airport sits above Old Town and many visitors pop into the Old Town Church to see the grave of the former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
Pick up a map for details of paths around St Mary’s from the Tourist Information Centre at Porthcressa. You can roam anywhere here if you respect the land. There’s an informal agreement with the Duchy of Cornwall – Prince Charles’ organisation owns most, but not all, the land outside Hughtown. Much of the land is administered and managed by the Isles Of Scilly Wildlife Trust.
Bear in mind that many islanders have strong views on Prince Charles and the Duchy – their landlord. The Wildlife Trust can be a bit of a Marmite issue too. People either love them or aren’t awfully keen on their land management policies. It may be wise to gauge the view of anyone you talk to before you make a bold comment for or against either body!
Although there are dozens of islands, only five are inhabited. Samson, a popular boat trip, was forcibly de-populated in the 1800s for the good of the residents who were facing starvation.
Tresco,is privately owned. Most people who live on Tresco also work on Tresco. Many of the holiday cottages are timeshares and they attract people from the high-end of the tourism market. You can see that from the sort of goods on sale in the Tresco Stores. Lots of Waitrose-type items and they have specially selected olives flown in. Some St Mary’s residents travel over by boat to shop there.
Tresco is very well-kempt and has elements of the luxury Caribbean resort about it. The New Inn pub has good food and good beers and is a popular Sunday outing for St Mary’s residents.
There are 2 main drop-off and pick up points for St Mary’s Boatmens Association services on Tresco. Carn Near is nearest St Marys and is used at lower tides. It can be a long walk for some to the New Inn or the Island Hotel – a pleasant stroll lasting 45 minutes. New Grimsby is the Quay by the New Inn. Old Grimsby is where the Hotel and Church are. You will usually need to walk to New Grimsby (20 minutes) or Carn Near to get a boat back to St Mary’s.
Tresco is known for the stunning Abbey Gardens which have been lovingly developed since the mid 1800s to showcase what can be grown in our unique subtropical climate. The warming gulf stream helps prevent temperatures from falling below 7c in winter. It’s just a shame the water can be a bit nippy. 13c is the warmest it gets in the height of the season.
Summer is cooler than the mainland. The cooling sea breeze is nice and it’s rare to get more than 25c. You’ll burn quickly though. We have very little pollution and that means you can fry much quicker than on the mainland!
The lack of pollution also allows stunning flora and fauna. The Royal Horticultural Society acknowledge that many plants that won’t grow outdoors anywhere else in Britain grow in Scilly. You’ll see stunning flowers and succulents – whether specifically planted as on Tresco or in the excellent and free Carreg Dhu Gardens in the middle of St Marys or in cottage gardens. The bright orange lichens you see on nearly every wall are rarely seen on the mainland. And sometimes you can see phosphorescence in the water. Kids will love pulling their hands out of the water and seeing their hands glow from the plankton. You don’t get that in polluted waters.
We don’t have light pollution either. Many visitors and locals love to spend time taking in the spectacle of the stars and planets in the night skies above Scilly. The off-island viewing is best as there are no street lights there at all – St Marys has 47 street lamps – we know from attending a Council debate on the issue!
On all of the islands, we’ve stacks of wildlife spotting opportunities from seals to dolphins to puffins. And Scilly has its own special inhabitants too. The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust at Carn Thomas will be delighted to tell you all about the Scilly Shrew or the rare Red-Barbed Ant. Also look out for our common black rabbits. You’ll hear and see lots of bees here too. Our hives haven’t been decimated by the Varoa mites that have killed mainland bees.
Birdwatching is big here and that’s why Radio Scilly has a bird watching guide and report every Saturday with Will Wagstaff after 10.30 am. We’re the first point of land for birds blown off course crossing the Atlantic and some impressive sights have been spotted over the years, particularly at the end of the season in October.
So what of the other islands?
Bryher has the Hell Bay Hotel and, like all of the islands, stunning beaches. You can go to Hell Bay as a non-resident for a meal. The views are good. It has a New England feel about it.
The West Coast around Hell Bay is a fantastic storm watching location. It can be more tricky to get to Bryher when tides are really low. Evening boat services from St Mary’s are less frequent than on other islands. The community has fundraised for and built a large, community centre which visitors are welcome to use. Games, web access and other services are offered and there are regular events.
St Agnes is most famous for it’s lighthouse and the excellent Turk’s Head pub. You can enjoy excellent food and take in the view of the harbour. There are regular evening tripper boats from St Mary’s for diners.
Troytown Maze has recently been refurbished by the Wildlife Trust after the paths started to show signs of erosion. At Beady Pool you can see still find beads washed up after a shipwreck in the 1800s. And it’s expected that you will take a picture of the lighthouse!
Some says St Martin’s is the most beautiful island.
We couldn’t possibly comment. It is rugged on the seaward side with high heathland topped by the red and white “Daymark’ navigational aid, built in the 1600s to help mariners. The Bryher, Tresco and St Mary’s facing sides features beautiful plants and even a vineyard. You can call into Church Town Farm, home of Scent from The Islands, a flower exporting business. There are displays and plenty of information about Scilly’s historic flower industry.
There are two quays at either end of this long island. The main lane which covers most of the island from top to toe takes around 30 minutes to walk from Hotel Quay to Higher Town Quay. Food options include the Stores, Polreath Cafe and the Bakery. Toby, the baker, puts on residential bread making courses. When Roman Abramovitch’s luxury yacht was in our waters in 2009, Toby was contacted by his staff and asked to make a special Russian bread, which he did.
You would’t say no, would you?