A truly Scilly holiday

Peter Lynch

Peering down from the 20-seater De Havilland DHC-6, the emptiness of the blue and green sea is broken by a group of dazzlingly green islands with crescent-shaped golden fringes. They are the last landfall before the Americas. As we come in to land, the plane skims palm trees, tree ferns and eucalypts.

The islands could be in the Pacific or the Caribbean - but in fact they are the Scilly Isles, a few of the 6289 islands that make up the British Isles.

Islands scattered around the British coast make up 4.4 per cent of the UK's landmass, although to be honest 5000 of them are little more than lumps of rock and only 137 are permanently inhabited.

Many British islands have played a significant role in the country's history whereas others are relatively unknown, but one of my favourite lesser-known places is the Scilly Isles. Part of the Duchy of Cornwall, they are an archipelago just under 50km south-west of Land's End. Only five of the 140 islands are inhabited - St Mary's, St Martin's, St Agnes, Tresco and Bryher - with a combined population of a little over 2000, three-quarters of those people living on the largest island of St Mary's. The other islands are a haven for wildlife and seabirds, some visited by day boats, others never visited at all.

The Scillies are awash with myth and legend. The entire archipelago may once have been joined together, making up one large island that some people believe was the lost Arthurian land of Lyonesse.

They were a popular pirate haunt and the seabed is littered with shipwrecks, especially around Bishop Rock, a 50m rock column that is submerged during spring high tides. In 1707, several ships of the British fleet were wrecked here with the loss of 2000 lives, now guarded by the UK's most south-westerly lighthouse.

My last visit to the Scillies was in the 70s although it felt like the 50s. The islands are comfortingly old-fashioned - a place where everyone knows each other, visitors can't bring their cars and front doors can be safely left unlocked.

I am relieved to find the islands look just the same in 2013, although they're more geared up for modern visitors. There are now a few up-market luxury options such as the Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher and the Star Castle Hotel, St Mary's. Cottage rentals are now available but the traditional B&Bs are still there, as well as camping options.

One of the pleasures of a Scilly holiday is landing on an island and simply wandering off to explore and finding your own secluded bit of sand. The little beaches are fabulous. The water is crystal clear but even though the islands are bathed in the Gulf Stream, swimming is a chilly experience.

Exploring the "off islands" - that's anywhere that isn't St Mary's - by boat is the mainstay of a Scilly holiday. In fair weather local boatmen ferry visitors to all the islands every day and each has its distinct character and appeal.

The boatmen take great pride in their knowledge and experience and will usually put in an appearance over breakfast at your hotel or B&B to let you in on what they're going to be up to that day - where to be picked up and when to arrive on the quay.

High Town on St Mary's is the only town on the Scilly Islands / Picture: Visit Cornwall


St Mary's is the central hub for the islands; it's got the airfield, the port and the only town, Hugh Town. This is where to find a choice of pubs, shops and banks, as well as a seafarers' museum and general tourist necessities.

St Mary's may be the biggest island in the Scillies but it is less than 4sqkm with fewer than 10km of roads but over 48km of paths and nature trails. One of the first things every visitor should do is walk up to the Garrison, a massive 17th century granite fortification that provides panoramic views across the islands.

St Mary's is wonderful strolling country. But I begin exploring by hiring a mountain bike and setting off into the scant web of lanes and tracks that cover the island. The only traffic is people on horseback, so that's another new option.

Tresco, the second-largest island, is renowned for its Abbey Gardens, a magnificent and beautifully tended profusion of subtropical colour at the southern end. But walk 20 minutes north and it becomes wild and rugged heathland watched over by Cromwell's Castle and the ruins of King Charles's Castle on the hill. (King Charles II hid out at the Star Castle while fleeing from the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War.)

St Agnes is wilder still and is the somewhat isolated home of the Turk's Head, the last pub when travelling west from England. At low tide it's possible to walk across the short sandbar on to the island of Gugh, where there are ancient dolmans, cairns, burial mounds and a solitary Bronze Age standing stone known as the Old Man of Gugh.

Piloting ships through these dangerous waters has always been an important source of income for islanders. Families throughout the Scillies would keep watch for approaching ships, before rowing six-oared, 10m-long wooden gigs out to meet them. Gig rowing is still a highly competitive sport in the islands and training and races are held every Wednesday and Friday evening during the summer.

Not everything on the Scillies potters along at a slow pace. Mark and Susie Groves run a Sea Safari with a 225hp outboard engine attached to a RIB, Firebrand IV that hurtles around the islands. For visitors needing an adrenalin rush or just want to get around and see all the islands in quick time - this is the way to do it.

FACT FILE

A train from London's Paddington station runs directly to Penzance from where the Scillonian III passenger ferry departs daily between March and November (Sunday sailings from early July to early September). The crossing normally takes 2 hours and 45 minutes. If you're already in Cornwall, Skybus flights depart from Exeter, Newquay and Land's End. The flight takes 15 minutes from Land's End. islesofscilly-travel.co.uk.

For accommodation and travel information visit simplyscilly.co.uk.