Stepping Out in... the Isles of Scilly
PUBLISHED: 00:16 26 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:33 20 February 2013
Ian Wilkinson recommends some beautiful places to see on the enchanting Isles of Scilly – a place he has been holidaying in for over 20 years
Ian Wilkinson recommends some beautiful places to see on the enchanting Isles of Scilly a place he has been holidaying in for over 20 years
It is now over 20 years since I first set foot on St Marys in the Isles of Scilly. I had travelled alone in search of respite from a busy work schedule and wasnt entirely sure what to expect. Being relatively new to the Westcountry, I asked colleagues about the Islands and got a mixed response. Theyre meant to be beautiful, said one. Too quiet, said another. Theres nothing to do, from someone else, and people say they are lovely but Ive never been. In fact, none of my colleagues had been but I decided that I had nothing to lose. After all, if I didnt like it, the mainland was just a short sea crossing away.
I neednt have worried. The Isles of Scilly are enchanting! A sense of timelessness, beguiling beauty, friendly people and a way of life lost on the mainland, all combined to create a destination that my family and I have returned to every year. When they were very small my children were fed on a summer diet of Ibiza, Disneyland and Menorca. A decision in 1998 to holiday on the smallest of the Isles of Scilly, St Agnes, did not therefore meet with approval! But glorious summer weather, a freedom to roam and the forging of new friendships that have lasted to the present day, sealed our fate. While we take short breaks to other places, our main holiday is always on the Islands. Our children are now grown up, but they still return every year, and one day I know they will bring their own children. We are not alone. The Islands returning visits statistics show that the numbers of people returning year after year are among the highest in the country. So for those committed to holidaying in a new location every year be warned a visit to the Islands could change the habits of a lifetime!
Tresco is arguably the most beautiful, albeit in a cultivated sense, Bryher the most rugged, St Martins is justly renowned for its beaches and birdwatching, and St Agnes is the smallest and, in my view, the nicest
Get off to a good start
The Islands are 28 miles due west of Lands End. There are 50 or so islands in the group, give or take a rock or two, but only five are inhabited. These are St Marys (the largest, and home to the Islands capital, Hugh Town), followed by (in size order) Tresco, St Martins, Bryher and St Agnes. Each Island has its own special character and everyone I know has their own favourite. For a first visit, I would recommend St Marys. There is a far wider range of accommodation here than on the other islands, a variety of shops where you can buy most of lifes necessities, as well as a few luxuries, and a number of restaurants and pubs. It is also the hub for the Islands boat services, with operators running both scheduled services to the other islands (known as the off islands), as well as various excursion trips to uninhabited islands or for specific activities such as birdwatching, fishing or seal watching. Of the off islands, Tresco is arguably the most beautiful, albeit in a cultivated sense, Bryher the most rugged, St Martins is justly renowned for its beaches and birdwatching, and St Agnes is the smallest and, in my view, the nicest. As I said, we all have our own favourites.
Why visit now?
Perhaps the best time to visit the Islands is early spring. The climate is reasonably mild all year round but nature awakes from winter much earlier here, and in March and April the flowers will be in full bloom. For most of the last century, the Islands were famous for their early narcissi and indeed the flower industry was a mainstay of the economy. There are still many cultivated fields of blooms and even where the fields have been abandoned for commercial growing, the daffodils return spectacularly every year in their semi-wild state. The Islands are also less crowded than at other times of the year, and accommodation, often difficult to find at the height of the season, is plentiful.
There are some things on the Isles of Scilly that simply arent to be missed. The world-famous Tresco Abbey Gardens are open all year and have been described as Kew without glass. A bewildering array of sub-tropical plants grow here, many of which are impossible to cultivate on the mainland. The landscaping and attention to detail in the gardens is superb. Birdwatching is good at all times of the year but particularly in spring and autumn when passage migrants mix with native breeds a spectacular sight.
Cornwall has always been famous for spectacular scenery combined with that special light that has attracted generations of artists, and it is the same on the Isles of Scilly. Most of the galleries and studios are on St Marys but you will also find the work of local artists displayed on other islands.
Treat yourself to a meal at one of the Islands hotels. Four in particular spring to mind: Tregarthens in Hugh Town, The Hell Bay on Bryher, The St Martins Hotel and the Island Hotel on Tresco. All have spectacular views and all provide good food with immaculate service. If you are on St Agnes you will have discovered that there is no hotel. However, the Turks Head (the most south-westerly pub in Britain) serves excellent food.
The coastal paths here are superb. A walk around St Marys will take you all day, and maybe a bit longer, while a walk around St Agnes can be accomplished in an hour. My own favourite is to walk from New Grimsby on Tresco, north to Cromwells Castle, then to King Charles Castle and Pipers Hole, returning south to the Island Hotel in Old Grimsby. Whichever path you choose will reward you with some of the finest coastal scenery in Britain.
Enjoy the view
Its hard to pick out a favourite viewpoint as there are so many. King Charles Castle on Tresco, Hell Bay on Bryher, Round Island from St Martins, The Garrison on St Marys or, from anywhere, the stars are spectacular on a clear night because of the absence of light pollution. I love the view of Annet from St Agnes at sunset; the sky is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of gold, red and deep purple. I have sat here on many nights in wonderment, hoping to witness that final moment when the upper edge of the sun blazes with an emerald green colour as it dips below the horizon. I have always suspected that the green flash was a myth but last year an eminent academic assured me that it certainly did. Perhaps this year, on the Fortunate Isles, I will see it!
Walk Scilly, 2-9 April
Scilly Folk Festival, 6-10 April
World Pilot Gig Championship, 29 April 2 May
Art Scilly, 7-14 May
How to get there:
By sea: MV Scillonian sails daily from Penzance from 26 March 29 October. Journey time 2 hours. 0845 710 555
By air: Skybus flights from Newquay, Lands End, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton. 0845 710 555
British International Helicopter flights from Penzance. 01736 363871
Tourist Information Centre, Hugh Town, St Marys. 01720 424031, simplyscilly.co.uk
More holiday information available from: scillyonline.co.uk
PHOTOS: IAN WILKINSON