“Archipelago” is such a lovely word. It conjures images of far-flung island chains, sunkissed beaches and ragged shorelines. Twenty-eight miles off the southwestern tip of England is Cornwall’s own archipelago: The Isles of Scilly.
The islands are a place of contrast. Beautiful yet wild. Bright white beaches nestle alongside sea ravaged cliffs. Windswept hills sit beside sheltered coves and inlets.
My wife Katie and I have visited many times: With friends; As girlfriend and boyfriend; As husband and wife; And more recently, with our small family.
This is my love letter to the Islands: A collection of memories from all those trips to Scilly. Out of order and somewhat idealised. The way good memories should be.
In 2012, Katie and I were due to fly via helicopter, alas it was grounded due to technical difficulty. We had to stay overnight in Penzance and catch the ferry the following day…
Every morning, throughout the summer a passenger ferry departs from the quay in Penzance. Aboard you’ll find serval hundred seats, two cafés and thousands of small white bags in dispensers attached to the bulkheads.
This is the RMV Scillonian III, and she’s been transporting excited — and occasionally green — tourists from the mainland to the Isles of Scilly since 1977.
There are more comfortable ways to get to the Scillies: A small seven-seater plane dubbed Skybus that flies from Lands End, Newquay or Exeter. And, in times past, there was a helicopter that flew from Penzance that was always our favorite way to get to the islands. Alas, this ceased operation at the end of 2012. We were booked on a mid-morning flight, but due to there being a large hole in the side of the helicopter, we were forced to overnight in a nearby hotel to catch the ferry the following day.
On this particular voyage, we secured our regular spot on the middle deck, near the back door. This is the ideal spot for Katie to sit as motionless as possible and endure any rough crossing.
Knowing the best thing to do is leave her alone, this position also avails me of an escape route outside to the upper deck. From here, it’s not unusual to spot gigantic shoals of fish or even dolphins in the wake of the engines. In rough water, this is also the optimal location to enjoy the power of the seas. And to keep a weathered eye on the horizon, just in case.
At capacity, the Scillonian carries 485 souls some of whom line the upper deck like birds on a telephone wire. It’s a busy place to be, people perched atop benches, leaning on the rigging, or hanging over the rails.
Whatever may come, we’re all now locked together for the two-hours and forty-five-minute trip. Knowing looks are passed over the heads of the unsuspecting day trippers by those of us who’ve travelled this way before. “Poor sods” our brief eye contact seems to say, as we don our pressure point travel bands and pop an array of chemical remedies for mal de mare.
Luckily, all this preparation is for nought. Once we rounded Gwennap Head off Lands End, and are in full steam towards the islands, most of the more unpleasant effects of the sea are behind us. On a sunny day, there’s no better way to arrive on Scilly than by boat.
What’s astonishing is the speed at which the passengers disappear once we’ve docked in St Mary’s harbour. Some hang around on the quay waiting for smaller tender boats to the off-islands. Most make the happy walk up the dock, past the Mermaid pub and along Hugh Street, draining off down the various alleyways and lanes to their holiday accommodations.
At any one time throughout the summer there are thousands of visitors on the islands. And yet, it doesn’t ever feel busy. Scilly is full of secret places, quiet beaches and deserted coves.
Our journey took us via the Kavorna Café (to pick up our first Cornish pasty of the holiday), over Garrison Lane and onto Littleporth to where our friend’s mum has a place that looks out over Porthcressa beach.
Naturally, the door is unlocked. Unloading our bags in the doorway, we made our way through the house and out into the garden. Finally, we sank into various bits of unmatched garden furniture and savoured our pasties in silence, taking in the gorgeous view, ready for our holiday to start.
A lovely day for boating
In 2017, my wife Katie, daughter “Roo” and I visited Scilly along with our friends Cath and Dave…
“Mummy! I want to get up now!”
I turned over and looked at my watch. 8:05. Wow, she slept well.
OK, kid, give me a minute here. But Katie’s already out of bed and padding down the creaky corridor.
“Shh, you’ll wake Cath and Dave”, I hear Katie tell Roo. Rolling over I caught a glimpse of the sun streaming in at the window. Time to get up.
“Mummy, we on holy-day”, Roo confidently tells Katie as they, by degrees, make their way down the corridor. Katie was taking significantly more care than Roo, who skipped down the hall like a demented rabbit.
I joined my family in the Kitchen. It really was a gorgeous day. A quick check of the BBC’s weather app informed me that it’s a balmy twenty-five degrees with light winds. A lovely day for boating.
After breakfast we executed our plan: Heading for St Martins. Five of us; intrepid seafarers standing on the quay, tickets in hand watching the Sea King draw alongside the waiting passengers.
Landing at Higher Town, our first port of call was The Island Bakery for the day’s supplies. Fully stocked with Cornish pasties and cola cake, we trundled up the single track road and over the brow of the hill before taking the path cut through a field overgrown with Scilly’s ubiquitous Bracken. The vast swathe of white sand of Great Bay was almost deserted. Besides a few families lounging here and there we’re the only people, so finding a sheltered spot was simple.
Seaside days used to be a relaxed affair but with Roo in tow, it’s now more like mobilising a beach assault. Once the shelter was up, beach mats laid out and sun cream applied, we unpacked the various excavating tools. Thankfully she’s still a bit too small to want to bury daddy, so digging giant holes was the order of the day. Roo took up her position as site foreman then Dave, and I set about our task of digging several large holes and interconnecting trenches. Eventually, the tide will come up and fill this carefully engineered system, much to Roo’s delight, after which Dave and I will have to frantically shore-up walls and rebuild various dams.
All too soon the site whistle sounds for lunch.
Sated, crumb covered, and chocolate stained we emerged from lunch. If only Roo can have a nap in the beach shelter, maybe we can have a relaxing hour catching up on some reading. She doesn’t take much coaxing, exhausted from bossing us around she’s happy to sleep.
One or two of us drifted off too. It’s hard not to in the warmth of the day and with the rhythmic whoosh of the sea lapping at the beach. On waking, I felt the need to burn off all that pasty. It’s was time to break out the wetsuit and snorkel and explore the crystal clear waters.
Wetsuit, booties, flippers, mask and flippers. All the gear and no idea. Penguin-like, I gingerly waddled my way down to the shoreline and into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. Once waist-deep, I took a big breath and rolled forward into the water. Waiting for the cold water effect to pass, I wrangled the mask into position over my face and entered the underwater world.
Below the water barrier, I’m in another world entirely. From the beach, I must look like Manatee in distress, but down in my aquatic environment, I felt like Jacques Cousteau about to discover some previously unimagined species.
Further out the water was clear all the way to the bottom some five meters below, where Kelp forests sheltered shoals of fish. A sudden shot of panic as my lizard brain picked up movement in my peripheral vision: A large striped fish darted out of the Kelp. I followed at a distance. He came to rest in a clearing, and I was able to float above him and just watch for what seemed like an eternity.
“I saw a massive fish out there”, I announced to Katie, extending my arms to demonstrate its size, adding a few centimetres in the tradition of men everywhere when talking about the size of things.
“That’s nice dear”, she replied. “But we need to pack up and go, or we’ll miss the last boat back.”
Everyone was contemplative on the return to St Mary’s. Even Roo — who was up on her knees so she could see over the side — was uncharacteristically quiet. It was hard not to get lost in that view; the ocean glinting like a blanket of tiny diamonds, the twin islands of St. Agnes and Gugh slung low on the horizon.
Roo was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Perfect, especially as Dave and Cath had kindly offered to babysit.
A great tradition on our visits to Scilly — perhaps the tradition — is partaking in a scone or two at Juliet’s Garden. Perched on top of a hill, the garden offers spectacular views over Tresco. On a warm day, there’s nothing quite like sitting in Juliet’s Garden cramming copious amounts of scone and tea into ones face.
Juliet isn’t just famed for her cream teas, she also runs a fantastic restaurant. On arrival this evening, Katie and I were served drinks in the garden while watching the gorgeous sunset. Then, taking our seats inside, we were treated to an incredible three-course meal.
As the evening was warm, and our bellies were full we decided to forego a taxi and walk. We sat a while on the flat rock above Town Beach and watched the boat lights bobbing around in the harbour. I don’t think either of us wanted the evening to end. Eventually, though, the lure of bed called us, and we reluctantly slunk back to the house. I often think of that romantic evening on the flat rock as one of my stand out memories of our trip that year. For me, a balmy evening watching small boats on the water is quintessentially Scilly.
The Scilly Cart, Co.
In 2014, on our last holiday, before Roo was born, we visited Scilly with our friends Cath, Dave and Emily.
The Scilly Cart Co used to have a Facebook page on which it posted pictures, usually taken by disgruntled locals, of the imperfect parking decisions taken by tourists when hiring a cart for the day. When you arrive at the Cart Co’s depot, you’re greeted with a display board of these photos followed by a pep-talk by the owner on the evils of annoying the locals with where you choose to park.
With these words of warning rising in our ears Dave and I pulled out onto the main road, each of us determined to follow the rules to the letter. How we ended up attempting to break the land-speed record is anyone’s guess. One moment we were driving along sensibly, the next we were bouncing up and down in our seats trying to squeeze every ounce of speed we could from our formula-z cart. Needless to say, we weren’t very successful, and no traffic laws were violated.
After the girls were aboard, we set out along the Telegraph Road that circles the innards of the island. There was no plan beyond maybe finding a beach and most definitely finding somewhere for lunch. I’ve gotta admit that — despite appearances — driving a golf-buggy is crazy fun. So we kept driving, twice around the island in fact, before we eventually decided we needed some lunch.
This was the birth of another great tradition: Lunch at Kaffeehaus Salbei, a German-inspired café and guesthouse. When it’s hot, and not too busy, you can get a table outside or else swelter inside the conservatory. The German Platter is a must, with homemade bread and Bavarian meats and cheeses. Then, of course, one must have either the Apfelstrudel or — my personal favourite — a slice of Sacher Torte. I swear the cart was noticeably slower after lunch. It was either the weight of the food, or the battery had taken a beating from our multiple laps of the island.
Locals on the islands often supplement their income by making things, which are offered for sale by the side of the road. An honesty box is provided for you to remunerate the artist for their handiwork. There is such a place on Porth Loo Lane. With time on our hands, we parked the cart and went for a look.
This particular treasure-trove was in the craftsperson’s garden shed. Inside, we found all manner of items. Some cobbled together from flotsam and jetsam. Some reclaimed from household bits and bobs. One thing, in particular, caught Dave’s eye: A fox, made from an old piece of brown carpet. One mad button eye was sewn onto its face, another for its nose. It was beautiful. It was perfect. He had to have it. I think it is a source of great regret that he didn’t buy it there and then. We should have known really, but when we returned later it was already gone. I like to think of it in an ornamental frame, in pride of place above someone’s fireplace. Lucky buggers.
Later, the cart safely returned with minimal damage, we headed to the Atlantic for dinner and the pub quiz. We were all too drunk (or too stupid) to answer any of the questions well, and “team bum trumpets” inevitably place dead last.
On any other evening, a night-out on Scilly would end with the closing of the pub. But not tonight, tonight we were off to Barry’s.
Once a week, Barry opens the doors to his basement for the world famous Barry’s Disco. Imagine the scene: 50 sweaty people dancing the night away in a tiny basement to the hot disco “hits” of the late 90s. God knows what time we finally got out of there. Needless to say, we all had a little lay-in the next morning.
In 2009, without planning to, Katie and I visited St.Mary’s in the same week as the World Gig Pilot Gig Championships…
All week, St.Mary’s had been its usual, tranquil place: Little sailing boats had bobbed in the harbour; Gentle winds had blown across the sun-kissed beaches. And the island’s pubs and eateries had no queues at the bar or required bookings for dinner.
That all changed on Friday morning when the Scillonian docked and brought ashore the first of the revealers who’d come to Scilly to enjoy the weekend’s racing. The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company runs the Scillonian twice-a-day on Gig weekends, dumping several thousand people on the islands in quick succession.
The whole character of the island was transformed. Pubs, who’d obtained exclusive licences for the occasion, remained open 24-hours a day for the duration. There was a not-so-small minority of people who were here for the weekend, but hadn’t anywhere to stay, electing instead to spend their entire time in the boozer.
This didn’t dent the enjoyment, far from it. Experiencing this new aspect of Scilly was exciting. Everyone was very jolly, and even a weekend fueled by alcohol and little sleep didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm for cheering on their team.
If you’re not familiar, a Cornish Pilot Gig is a six-person boat about 10 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. In addition to the six rowers, a Cox steers and shouts encouragement and is responsible for ensuring the crew makes land before last orders.
Gigs are a common sight on the Scillies. Their names, like “Slippen”, “Bonnet” and “Nornour” pay homage to the memory of their namesakes who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, were used as transfer vessels to take Pilots out to larger ships. A Pilot was a local sailor who could navigate safely through the treacherous, rock-laden waters of the archipelago.
We got chatting with a man in a pub. A misty-eyed old sea dog. He told us that it was often the case that more than one Pilot was available at any one time, and the first man to arrive would get the job. So the Gig crews took to racing, the fastest sailors would get paid, and that’s how the Gig races on the Isles started. It’s a romantic story, and I’d like to believe it’s true.
The races start out at sea. The officials string a line buoys to form a start line out by Nut Rock. The crews then wait in their boats as close to the start line as they can. But woe betides any vessel that crosses the line before “go” is called. They get instantly disqualified.
There are old rivalries and alliances between teams who come from all over the world. These all go out of the window once the call comes to start. Every crew for themselves. A crew of six, pulling for all their worth. From the start line, they race across the clear stretch of water to St.Mary’s harbour.
From our vantage point up on the Garrison, it looks pandemonium; oars churning the sea into a raging torrent. All around the Gigs are the island’s small ferry boats filled to bursting with spectators who’ve paid for the privilege of a close-up view. Add to this the hundreds of smaller private crafts, and you wonder how they don’t smash into each other.
All around us, people are screaming at the top of their lungs, as if the object of their affection could actually hear them way out at sea. I wouldn’t be surprised if they could, such is the roar of the crowd.
The shouting reached fever pitch as the first of the boats rounded the quay, finish line in sight. Given how long they’ve been racing the gap between them was astonishingly close. I’m not sure how they tell, but the first Gig to cross the finish line immediately started to celebrate. They must have been knackered, but somehow they found the strength to row the final few meters to Town Beach. Here, there’s a whole army of people to help them drag the Gig up onto the beach.
Wanting to drink-in more of the atmosphere and a couple of the local ales, Katie and I headed to the Mermaid. This place is incredibly claustrophobic at the best of times, with memorabilia covering every inch of every available surface. Saturday evenings are particularly busy, but this was something else. We could see punters spilling out onto the pavement as we approached. The only way to get in was to forcibly push through the sweaty throng. I imagine as we introduced ourselves into the crush, two other people were ejected from another door somewhere. This place was full.
Inside the beer was flowing. People were dancing on tables. Tall tales were being told of the day’s victories. Somehow we managed to get a seat, Katie on the end of a bench, and me perched awkwardly on a window ledge. What a night! We emerged several hours later, a little drunk and horse from trying to make ourselves heard.
This is one of my favorite memories of the Islands. I felt totally immersed in the culture. Caught-up in something. It was a unique experience that I don’t think we could ever recapture. In a way, I wouldn’t want to. It was perfect, trying to get it back would somehow sully it.
In 2008, I took my first trip to the islands, and my first flight on a helicopter…
There’s always a sadness that accompanies leaving the Isles of Scilly. It started for me this first year and has never diminished on subsequent trips. At least you used to be able to offset this with the excitement of a trip on the helicopter.
After waving goodbye to our bags, which would be taken to the airport for us by Island Carriers, we headed into town. Now was the chance to buy as much IOS branded tat as we could lay our grubby hands on. Of course, there was the Isles of Scilly tea towel; The Isles of Scilly fridge magnet; The Isles of Scilly puffin jigsaw; And the Isles of Scilly pencil and pencil sharpener deluxe set. Our friends and family were, understandably, delighted!
Maxing-out your baggage allowance on a helicopter is surprisingly straightforward. We discovered this at check-in when both of our cases — now laden with souvenirs — were well over the 15 kg limit. Luckily the airport staff were as laid-back as every other islander we’d met, and waved us through.
St.Mary’s Airport is by far the smallest terminal I’ve ever flown from. It’s miniature waiting area probably never any busier than it was now. A few people milled around, while others enjoyed hot drinks from styrofoam cups.
When the time came, we were called into a small side room with the other passengers for our flight. Here, we were shown a short safety film from the late 80s. Then we heard it. A helicopter coming into land. The great throb-throb-throb of its propeller blades displacing the air.
One of British International’s two Sikorsky S-61 helicopters landed with the slightest bounce. The side door flung open, and the passengers disembarked, ducking instinctively under the rotor blades.
Then it was our turn. Our air steward lead the way out onto the runway. We ducked under the rotors too, clinging desperately to lose items of clothing. Of course, we felt like rock stars.
Once belts were fastened, the door was shut behind us with a reassuringly heavy click. Not that you can hear much above the roar of the engine, which now wound up ready for take-off. We felt an increase in the side-to-side wobble, and suddenly we were moving. The helicopter’s nose tipped forward and we swept up and along the runway. It’s exhilarating! The raw power that’s required to push this massive metal tube into the air must be immense. You feel every last joule of it.
The view is spectacular. Passengers lucky enough to get window seats were furiously taking as many photos as they could. It’s too loud for conversation, so we just gesticulated to each other, pointing at things we recognised.
Flying at 150 mph, it only takes 20 minutes from St.Marys to Penzance. All too soon the islands disappeared over the horizon, and Lands End appeared in the port side windows. Moments later we were touching down at Penzance heliport.
And that was that. Suddenly we were back to reality. Cars and people everywhere. Waiting for our bags, Katie asked me what I thought. She’d been extolling the virtues of Scilly since we’d met. “I’m in love”, I said. Or something like that. That’s the problem with memories, isn’t it? It’s sometimes hard to tell them apart from dreams.