Thursday 12 September 2013

Isles of Scilly - Part 1

Some of you will be aware that Jane and I have recently been for a few days to the Isles of Scilly (to a Cornishman, just "Scilly" - NEVER "The Scilly Isles", which just makes them sound silly!). This was on the strength of another competition win by Jane (to whom we owe most of our holidays these days).  I know she will be writing about the Competition aspects of this on her own blog, so I shall just concentrate on what we saw and did...

My Father was born on the main island of the Isles of Scilly - St.Mary's - so the prospect of being able to visit his birthplace was very exciting for me, especially as I had only once before been there, and that was when I was aged about 6 or 7. I am going to write about the family history aspects of our visit in another post, but in this one I am just going to write about the place.

To get there we drove down to Exeter (about two and a half hours' drive) and took a plane like this for the rest of the journey:

It is a De Havilland Twin Otter, an aircraft with a very short take-off and landing run - hence suitable for small airfields. This is an interior view - very cosy! It carries 18 passengers and two crew:

We had a clear view into the cockpit, and we could see everything the pilots did (like using the Garmin Sat-Nav pretty much like the one many of us might have in our car). Since the plane was so narrow it was possible to see out on both sides and we had some great views - like this one of St.Michael's Mount (do you remember me showing you this from ground level a couple of weeks ago?)

Our first view of the islands was a real thrill. To be honest I had little idea what to expect. This is what the islands look like from the air - a complicated array of small rocky outcrops, some of which are fringed with lovely sandy beaches.

The airport at St.Mary's is very small and perched on a clifftop. Here's a view from the plane window, seconds before touchdown:

Our arrival at the St.Mary's airport and transfer to our hotel could not have been quicker or easier. The whole process took about 15 minutes! No luggage carousels here. The bags come to you on a trolley, straight from the aircraft (out in the open air) and you just grab your own suitcase, and give it to the driver of a minibus who loads it onto his vehicle, stationed a full five yards away, and off you go. Minutes later we were at our hotel - Tregarthen's Hotel in Hughtown, the "capital" of the islands, and their only significant town. The population of Scilly is only about 1800 all told, and 1500 of those live on St.Mary's.

This hotel is ideally situated, very near the centre of town, and with fabulous views over the islands. It is also more or less at the foot of the ferry pier where the "Scillonian" docks. This is the only ship that runs a regular service to Scilly from Penzance (and only at certain times of the year).

You can probably guess from the last couple of photos that the weather was very chageable - bright and sunny one minute and grey and windy the next. Fortunately the rain that fell came at times that didn't really inconvenience us, like first thing in the morning before we were ready to go out for the day. This view is of the harbour at Hughtown, with the main pier to the right, and Tregarthen's Hotel is the big white building slightly left of centre, at the landward end of the pier.

The room we were given in the hotel was in fact a very fine and nicely-appointed suite, with bedroom, bathroom and living-room. The only aspect of the arrangement that left anything to be desired was the "sea-view"...

Well, yes, technically it IS a sea-view, but not a really special one (What did you expect - an enormous herd of wildebeeste??). Notice the raindrops on the window-pane and the rather disconsolate Herring Gull sitting on the flat roof opposite.

We arrived on the islands at lunchtime, so the afternoon of our first day was spent on "orientation" - walking around the local area to get our bearings. Hughtown is not big, but is nevertheless full of interest with lots of beautiful views and interesting features to photograph! This is a view of the harbour from a slipway next to the Atlantic Hotel:

The town is actually a merger of two towns - St.Mary's and Hughtown - but one single name was adopted when they met in the middle across a narrow isthmus:

To some people the place might seem a little claustrophobic, but we loved the peacefulness of the place, although I have to say that we were surprised by the amount of vehicular traffic in Hughtown. It seems like every inhabitant must have two cars! The islands are definitely most attractive to those who like outdoor pursuits, particularly sailing, fishing, walking and watching birds and wildlife. Oh, and also lazing on the beach, because there are some fabulous sandy beaches and beautiful clear water for swimming. This photo is of Tresco (with Bryher in the distance), but it illustrates my point quite nicely:

The islands are arranged around a very shallow basin (above the waterline until about 2000 years ago), and at low tide it is sometimes possible to walk from one to another without getting (very) wet. The clarity of the water was amazing, especially when seen from the air.

Our accommodation at the hotel was on a half-board basis, so we didn't have to go out looking for somewhere to eat dinner, which was very convenient for us. There are some cafes and restaurants on the island, but not in huge numbers, and I imagine they might get very crowded during high Summer.

I don't want to make this post TOO long, so I will briefly mention some of the things we did during our time on the islands. For instance we spent some time looking at the local museum, which was absolutely crammed with artifacts (just like most museums used to be, a generation ago). It was here that I learnt some more about my family history, but that's a story for another day.
One day we went on a boat trip to the uninhabited Eastern Islands to see seabirds and marine wildlife. Gulls of all sorts were plentiful, and we also saw lots of Cormorants / Shags, a few Gannets, a Manx Shearwater and a Fulmar Petrel, but the main attraction was the seals, of which there were loads - probably a couple of hundred.

Our boat trip allowed us to spend some time on one of the other islands - St.Martins - a delightfully peaceful place with a tiny population but some lovely beaches and beautiful scenery, including several private gardens crammed with flowers, fruit and veg, such as this gorgeous Fuchsia:

We explored the military history of the islands, walking all round the so-called Garrison - a hill topped with an impressive star-shaped fort built originally in 1593, but amended and augmented many times afterwards. Here is a 17th-century cannon on one of the bastions:

We went on a tour round the island (driving over about six of its eight miles of road!) in a lovely old Austin K2 bus, built in 1948, with an informative and amusing commentary from its driver Fred - a real "card" as we would say:

From the comfort of our hotel dinner-table we witnessed a couple of the strenuous gig races for which the islands are so famous. A gig is a sleek 32-ft boat propelled by six rowers and steered by a coxswain at its stern. Originally used to get pilots out to ships, these boats were built for speed, and wow, they really do move fast! This is one:

OK, have you got the message yet? Scilly may be small, but there's plenty to do and see!

I'm going to stop here, but I'll return to the theme in a day or two.


  1. Amazing !! Blue sea ..
    Though technically the sea isn't blue.
    It looks like you had an amazing time and I await part 2

    Will then wildebeests be showing up ?

  2. Now this sounds like a lovely place. I wish we had sweepstakes here that were real. Ours are mostly scams and you never win trips :(

  3. Wow, lovely photos. I want to go there now. Glad you had a great time.

  4. beautiful photos, Mark. For some reason, I thought you went to Sicily when it was Scilly!

  5. Thanks for sharing the photos of your trip! It looks like an idyllic getaway for the two of you and now I've learned something about a bit of the world I was never aware of.

  6. What a lovely place! The sea looks very clear and I love all the rocks - long expanse of crowded beach is not for me.

    Years ago I worked in Westminster, and often saw the old Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife loading their suitcases into a car to go off to the Isles. Now I can see the attraction!

  7. Beautiful. I visited St Mary's for a day years ago and adored it. I'd love to go back there one day. Thank you for sharing your lovely photographs.

  8. Fab-u-lous Mark - I fell in love with the place after watching the television series about it. Definitely a must on my bucket list.

  9. Lovely but I think I'd find that small plane a bit scary but you had lovely views from the air!

  10. That plane would definitely put me off, but the place itself looks beautiful. It must have been a fascinating place for you to visit with your family connection, I think Jane was definitely meant to win this one.

  11. Looks like a wonderful holiday - how long a flight is it? Thanks for sharing

    1. David, the flight from Exeter takes one hour, but you can also go from Newquay or Land's End, which are much shorter flights - but a longer drive from my home.

  12. Lovely post Mark. Very interesting to see different parts of the world through the internet. The roly-poly seal made me laugh he/she doesn't look as though he/she has ever missed a meal that's for sure. A strong gust of wind would probably topple him/her off the rock!

  13. Wow Mark, your pictures are beautiful! I'm so jealous of your travels I'm sure your having a great time.

  14. Loved going through your pictures, Mark. The place is beautiful and your photos are superb! Have a wonderful holiday!

  15. Thank you so much for posting this! I'm currently writing a novel set primarily on the Isles of Scilly, and this is lovely detail. Gorgeous photos, too!


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