Discover the Isles of Scilly
Sparkling white beaches, turquoise seas, world-class wildlife and one of the best cream teas in Cornwall – Jo Tinsley reveals just a few of the reasons to visit this sub-tropical paradise.
The Isles of Scilly lie 28 miles southwest of Land’s End. Only 11 by 5 miles in size, the pint-sized archipelago consists of five inhabited and more than 50 uninhabited islands, as well as numerous other rocks and islets.
Known as the Fortunate Isles, Scilly enjoys a sub-tropical climate; in winter temperatures are comparable with the south of France and even at the winter equinox 300 plants will be in flower in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. What it offers is a landscape of contrasts. The underlying granite creates a rugged and desolate scene on the islands of Bryher and Samson, but also makes the sand on the pristine white beaches sparkle. The inter-island waters are calm and glassy on a fine day with visibility up to 15m (50ft), but Atlantic rollers break with such force on the archipelago’s outer limits you can see the spray for miles.
The islands draw an eclectic crowd; Scilly is a world-class birding destination and tempts birdwatchers from around the globe (in 1999 a rare blue rock thrush was spotted and within the hour a 700-strong crowd had gathered). Yet the islands also pull in top-drawer celebrities like Jude Law and Brad and Angelina. There are certainly plenty of ways to splash the cash and live like an A-lister if it’s a luxury island retreat you’re after but, while it’s not exactly on a budget air route (a return from Bristol on the island’s own airline, Skybus, costs more than £300) there are still low-cost options, including several excellent campsites, affordable excursions and delicious locally caught fish and chips. What’s more, many of the delights on offer can be enjoyed without dipping your hands in your pockets at all. Exploring Scilly’s rich and intriguing history, for instance, can be done on a shoestring. The craggy hilltops are littered with Bronze Age burial chambers and there are countless castles, deserted villages and shipwreck sites to explore for free and in your own time.
There’s much speculation about the origins of the islands themselves: the archipelago has one of the largest tidal ranges – up to 5m (16ft) – and at low tide the waters recede to reveal ancient field walls running right on into the sea, and expose archaeological remains lying beneath the waves. On Nornour, a remote skerry far too small for farming, archaeologists have found remains of a prehistoric farm. It all goes to paint a picture of not a collection of individual islands, but rather the high tops of a once larger land now struggling for air in the rising tide. Picture Dartmoor, but flooded.
It’s evidence like this that fuels myths linking the Isles of Scilly with the ancient civilisation of Lyonesse, a rich and fabulous land that allegedly once stretched between the Cornish mainland and Scilly. Belief in a lost civilisation lying to the east of Scilly has persisted for centuries, backed up by signs of an ancient forest lying hidden beneath Mount’s Bay in Penzance (at low tide petrified tree trunks are still visible and the name Mount’s Bay, Carrack Looz en Cooz in Cornish, translates as “the grey rock in the wood”). Could Scilly be the long lost location of a mysterious land?
With the island’s only airport and the docking point of the Scillonian III, St Mary’s will be the first island to greet most visitors. At 2½ by 1¾ miles, it’s also the largest island and home to three-quarters of the Scilly population.
St Mary’s is the busiest of all the islands and the capital, Hugh Town, is what some locals consider over-commercialised, boasting five pubs (one of which does karaoke) and more than 20 shops. The island has a grand total of 9 miles of road yet no traffic lights, pedestrian crossings or speed limits (other than the standard 60mph national limit).
Colourful pleasure launches collect passengers from St Mary’s harbour for trips to Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes, Bryher and Samson, as well as picking up the more adventurous for wildlife safaris, fishing jaunts and to follow alongside the famous gig races. On a summer’s evening there’s nothing better than catching an evening boat to St Agnes to kick back with a pint at the most southwesterly pub in the British Isles, The Turk’s Head.
With 10 miles of coastline, take a day to explore St Mary’s on foot. If you start early you can walk the coastal path to Old Town, where the Tolman Café serves up a delicious locally sourced breakfast until 11.30am. Those who aren’t too full up can then continue on to the highest point on Scilly, the Telegraph Tower, where there are views over the entire archipelago and as far as the mainland on a clear day.
If the islands do throw a bit of bad weather your way (and Scilly bears the brunt of its fair share of Atlantic storms), head to the bright lights of Hugh Town where you have a choice of five cosy pubs. Here you can sit, pint of local ale in hand, and watch the winds lashing the boats in the harbour and console yourself that no matter how bad the weather is on Scilly, it will be worse on the mainland.
One evening activity you won’t tire of is sunset gazing, and even if you’re not staying in the historic Star Castle Hotel it’s well worth climbing up to the garrison to watch the sun set over the islands. The light is ever-changing and you may find yourself taking countless photos of the same scene, but don’t spend too much time looking through the lens or you’ll miss the mysterious green flash as the sun sinks beneath the horizon.
A visit to Samson is a highlight of any visit to Scilly. The island’s hills feature in many a sunset shot, and the views from the beach at low tide, when the white sand is exposed and the sea turns an unbelievable turquoise, will stay with you long after you return to the mainland. The island was once inhabited, but in 1855 Augustus Smith, lord proprietor of Scilly, decided to evict the remaining 10 dwellers and turn the land into a deer park. But the deer did not take to the habitat and promptly escaped. It’s worth wading ashore from the launches to explore the ruins of the nine deserted cottages, before spending a lazy hour watching the sea pull away from the sparkling shore. Augustus Smith had a hand in one of Tresco’s main attractions too. The Abbey Gardens on Tresco are home to 20,000 exotic plant species from over 80 countries. This oasis in the Atlantic is all down to Smith, who carved terraces in the south-facing slope and channelled the weather with walled enclosures built around the priory ruins. Even from St Mary’s you can make out the spiky silhouette of the Abbey Gardens date palms.
But the gardens aren’t the only draw to Tresco. The north side of the island offers a rugged wilderness of granite outcrops, windswept heathland, ruined castles and breathtaking views out to the Atlantic. Turn left off the boat and follow the coast path to explore Cromwell’s Castle, then scramble up to King Charles’ Castle, a 16th century artillery fort later garrisoned by Civil War Royalists.
If it’s real wilderness you’re after, hop over to Bryher, where Atlantic rollers batter Hell Bay on the northwest coast, creating great swirling clouds of spray. On the opposite side, the sheltered and secluded Rushy Bay, framed by dunes, forms a perfect white cove and is known for its excellent bathing and views towards the dozens of islets that make up Norrad Rocks.
East of Tresco you’ll be surprised to find even brighter blue seas and even more dazzling white sandy beaches, while St Martin’s is home to the most southerly vineyard in Britain. The owners have grown vines on the southern slopes of the island since 1996. The owner tells the story of a visiting clergyman, who offered condolences along with his appreciation of the view. When asked to explain he said: “Well, you are good people, but when you die, you won’t notice any improvement.”
St, Mary's, TR21 OTA
Tel: 01720 442317
Built in 1593 the grand eight-pointed star fort stands on Garrison Hill, overlooking Hugh Town. The oddly shaped rooms, glasshouse swimming pool and dungeon bar add a quirky touch and it’s the best place to watch the sun set over Samson. Doubles £80-£164 per person per night, including dinner.
St Agnes, TR22 OPL
Tel: 01720 422 360
The UK’s most southwesterly campsite, Troytown offers a remote and wild camping experience. There are no cars and the pitches are right on the water’s edge, so you wake to the roar of the Atlantic ocean and panoramic views over the rugged western rocks. Camping from £6.50-£7.50 per person per night.
Found on the uninhabited islands.
There were once 100,000 puffins in Scilly, now there are fewer than 100 pairs, which nest off the remote rocks and uninhabited islands between late March and July. Special boat trips are laid on for visitors to spot these remarkable birds.
Found all across the island.
The Isles of Scilly are the first stopping off point for many migrant birds and rare species excite birders’ interests throughout the year, but especially in October when people come from far and wide to watch the winter migrants arrive.
3. Basking sharks
Seen off St. Martins.
The world’s second largest fish – they grow up to 11m (36ft) long! – and totally harmless plankton feeder can be seen around the islands between April and June, often within metres of the boat launches.
4. The Scilly Shrew
Found on Tresco
Originally a stowaway from France, the rare, tiny Scilly Shrew (a subspecies of the lesser
white-toothed shrew) is found nowhere else in the UK and can be seen foraging Scilly’s beaches.
Found on the Eastern Isles.
The outlying rocks are home to colonies of Atlantic grey seals. Take a sea safari to the Western Rocks to observe these large marine mammals sunning themselves in the spot they have been left in by the receding tide, or dive in and snorkel with these inquisitive creatures.
Sound all over the islands.
A lack of predators and a steady stream of tourists make the sparrows on Scilly remarkably bold and inquisitive. They will quite happily take food from your hands, your plate, your tent…
- Scillonian III ferry sails from Penzance to St Mary’s (2 hours 40 mins) daily in peak season.
- The islands’ own Skybus offers frequent services daily from Land’s End (15 mins), Newquay, Bristol, Exeter and Southampton.
- The Isles of Scilly helicopter flies from Penzance to Tresco and St Mary’s daily (not Sunday) and takes 20 minutes.