As the small Skybus twin-prop plane came into land at the airport on St Mary’s it seemed more like landing in the Caribbean rather than a group of islands located in the British Isles. Clear blue skies, shallow, crystal clear aquamarine seas, visible sandbanks, and long sandy beaches, the signatures of the Scilly Isles seem almost unique within our shores.
The young border collie which had been the most disinterested, but best behaved passenger during the short flight from Newquay did at last seem excited as the plane touched down. He was no doubt remembering walks along quiet beaches from previous visits, playing in the waves or with discarded seaweed and chasing seabirds until exhausted…… or maybe just sniffing other dogs butts!
The main street of St Mary’s resembled many of the fishing villages dotted along the Cornish coast. Rows of small shops under terraced houses, and pretty coloured cottages, but it also felt like stepping back in time, or into a television set. I half expected Nick Berry the star of 1960s drama “Heartbeat” to be walking his beat on the pavement of the islands capital.
This feeling was further reinforced by the arrival of the “Island Rover” local bus, which was certainly a throwback to another era. The charming, old-fashioned bus in sky blue climbing up the shallow town centre hill was an appropriate welcome, seeming to set the tone for the rest of our visit.
Checking in to the Tregarthens Hotel did nothing to dispel the perception of stepping out of time. We were greeted by a helpful, friendly reception team at the recently, but tastefully refurbished hotel which oozed old-worldly charm.
By the time it came to unpacking the bags in the simple, but comfortable room it was all smiles.
As well as enjoying some very good home cooked meals at the hotel over the next few days, it is also great for views across the town and quay. We watched the comings and goings each day, including the arrival of the Scillonian III passenger ferry, and the gig boat training crews training in the harbour.
This sport is popular in the islands, with several boats crewed by men and women racing in the Cornish leagues. The boats originate back to the 18th century when they were used to transport pilots out to sailing ships too large to anchor in the harbours. I found myself fascinated by the history and watching the hardy crews training in all weather and sea conditions.
Although the archipelago is made of many small outcrops of land, there are five main islands; St Mary’s is in the centre, flanked by St Martin’s, Tresco and Bryher to the north, and St Agnes to the south.
Each of the islands has an individual character, with a variety of attractions, small castles, archaeological sites, country house gardens, lighthouses, nature reserves and small fishing villages. Over the next few days we enjoyed sandy beaches and rocky shorelines, common on all islands, as well as easy to follow walking trails with plenty of opportunities to enjoy the wildlife, especially birds and take dozens of pictures.
We had opted to use St Mary’s as a base and plan an itinerary around visiting the islands and attractions which appealed to us most, but in the end basically visited just about all of them. They are easy to reach, hopping on small boats, which were booked through the hotel and often include wildlife watching or snorkelling as a diversion before heading to the intended island.
Seals and a variety of seabirds were spotted on our excursions, although it was too early to see puffins, which was slightly disappointing. I’d advise visiting after late April if seeing these funny little birds with a charm all of their own is a prime reason for visiting. Taking an inflatable rib around the islands is also worth doing at least once, the need for speed especially in the slowed down pace of the Scilly Isles is exhilarating fun.
Hugh Town, is St Mary’s main town and is easy to explore on foot, though it only takes a few hours to walk around an island, which is less than 2.5 miles in area. However, we found the most pleasurable and fun way was to hire a golf cart. Bookable from the hotel, taking a cart allows greater freedom and more time to stop at the beaches and coves which line the coast. Between stopping to paddle in the waves, clamber over rocks and attempting to spot some of the rare migratory birds at the nature reserves there was time to enjoy a fresh cream tea at one of the small cafes.
Old Town, is the second largest settlement, with a quaint, old slipway and a picturesque beach and its own nature reserve, where I apparently saw a yellow dipper, yeah I know lucky me. Harold Wilson, who owned a cottage on the island is also buried in Old Town Church, though grave spotting wasn’t high on my list of priorities.
Finding ‘honesty boxes’ selling eggs and small souvenirs along the road which circles the island was a pleasant surprise, bringing back the ‘out of time’ feeling and the smiles.
Although not a notorious ‘twitcher’, I did waste a few fruitless hours searching for the exotic, and apparently elusive hoopoe. Yes, you guessed it, totally in vain, fortunately the views from the hilltop where they are supposed to nest also provides some impressive views.
So much so, that we returned there on several evenings to catch the sunset, which thank fully was more cooperative than the hoopoe, providing some quite acceptable sundowner moments.
On one evening we were joined by one of the local ‘bobbies’ (police constable for my American friends). Definitely not Nick Berry, but he stopped and chatted with us for the best part of an hour, providing another ‘Heartbeat’ moment. He had transferred from Cornwall several years ago, he seemed in no rush to return, a feeling we were soon to understand.
The reason is obvious, the sense of community, which many of us are unfamiliar with, living in busy cities, it’s this which feels like we’re stepping back in time. This community spirit does have a slightly unfortunate downside, not all islanders welcome outsiders, which for a place which relies on tourism is especially strange. It certainly isn’t common, but we were made to feel slightly uncomfortable more than once and enough to at least mention it to potential visitors.
Despite a few delays due to bad weather it was with a heavy heart that we boarded the plane to return to Newquay. Rain dancing on the runway hadn’t worked so after a week of peace and quiet it was time to return to ‘normality’, though it took more than a week to acclimatise to the usual weather and pace of life found outside the Scilly Isles; a cross between Cornwall and the Caribbean, and a little piece of paradise within the British Isles.