Blending white-sand beaches, tropical gardens and maritime history, the Isles of Scilly is the perfect destination for time out of mind
If a small stretch of Devon coastline can successfully brand itself as the English Riviera, then the Isles of Scilly could comfortably lay claim to being Britain’s answer to the Caribbean. Deserted white sand beaches, shallow turquoise waters and a laidback pace of life into which it is easy to fall, one can instantly forget that mainland England is merely 30 miles away. Yet while this Atlantic outpost mostly attracts visitors in search of wild flowers and warmer climes, it also boasts a chequered military history that is unmatched anywhere else in Britain.
With an airport and a quay, St Mary’s is the gateway for most visitors to Scilly. It is the largest of the five main islands, despite covering less than 2.5 square miles and boasting a population of just 1,800. The medieval Ennor Castle was St Mary’s first major fortification, but the island’s military capacity truly developed in the mid-16th century. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic Church in Rome, making England’s south coast vulnerable to attacks from France and Spain. The Isles of Scilly were an important strategic outpost at the beginning of the English Channel and, in 1551, work began on a major artillery fort on St Mary’s during the brief reign of Henry’s successor, Edward VI.
The site – known today as Harry’s Walls – was abandoned unfinished when a better location was chosen on the headland across the harbour. Work on
The Garrison began in 1593, with the eight-pointed Star Castle and a curtain wall. The latter was extended during the English Civil Wars, at a time when Prince Charles (later King Charles II) sought refuge at Star Castle for six weeks, and Scilly became one of the last remaining strongholds of Cavalier forces.
The Garrison was rearmed during the Napoleonic Wars and employed again during both World Wars. Today the walls make the basis for a pleasing circuitous walk around the headland, while the Star Castle is an exemplary, family-run hotel that combines cute, low-beamed rooms in the original Tudor fort with modern, chalet-style accommodation in the sheltered gardens.
Both The Garrison and Harry’s Walls sit either side of the harbour at Hugh Town, the hub of St Mary’s, home to around half of Scilly’s entire population, and a charming, bunting-strewn enclave of gift shops, pubs, eateries, and the island’s only supermarket (self-catering would take some forethought on the other islands). The town is also home to the Isles of Scilly Museum, opened in 1967 following the discovery of Roman, Iron Age and Bronze Age artefacts on the small eastern island of Nornour, and visited shortly thereafter by Queen Elizabeth II herself. Fifty years on, the volunteer-run venue is delightfully ramshackle with shipwreck relics, taxidermy seabirds and even a complete 1877 gig (a narrow sail boat) that stretches up through the museum’s two floors.
While the rest of St Mary’s can easily be explored on foot, electric buggies can also be rented from The Scilly Cart Company for a more leisurely jaunt around the archipelago. As one local noted, “Everyone driving them has a big grin on their face. They’re like dodgems for grown ups.” Book one for the day to take in Porthloo Studios, Carn Vean Tea Room and several Bronze Age burial chambers, as well as the eastern Heritage Coast. You can also find the grave of Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the grounds of the Old Church of St Mary the Virgin, just off the Old Town Road. Wilson regularly holidayed on Scilly and even conducted a press conference on the uninhabited isle of Samson in 1965, answering questions from journalists about Liberal-Labour coalitions and Anglo-Russian relations while relaxing on the beach with his pipe, shorts and sandals.
Back at Hugh Town quay, boats also run daily to the other four inhabited islands. Exact timings vary according to the weather and the tides – most hotels and B&Bs will update you the night before, or tune into Radio Scilly (107.9FM) just after 9am each morning. The most popular destination is Tresco, largely thanks to the Abbey Garden.
This sub-tropical paradise was developed by Augustus Smith, a young Hertfordshire philanthropist who had, in 1834, leased the entire Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall for the princely sum of £20,000. He built his home on Tresco and began landscaped planting around the remains of a 12th-century Benedictine priory.
Smith was wise to the mild climate of the islands that is unlike anything else in Britain. The warm Gulf Stream causes early springs and long autumns, and ensures average temperatures on Scilly rarely go below 6°C, even in mid-winter, despite the islands being on a similar latitude to Newfoundland, which sees thermometers regularly drop around 25 degrees lower.
Meanwhile, the constant salt-laden Atlantic breezes mean that shelter was required – in 1850, Smith noted of his new garden that “the winds have played sad havoc there of late” – and, once walls, rockeries and granite terraces were constructed, he was able to grow plants from all five Mediterranean climate zones. Towards this aim, relationships were cultivated with a number of noted botanists, including Sir William Hooker at London’s
Kew Gardens, who furnished him with rare specimens in the early 1850s. Smith had also collected figureheads and other key artefacts from the many ships that were wrecked on the islands and, shortly before his death in 1872, he created a permanent home for them within the Abbey Garden that is known as the Valhalla Museum.
The gardens are now spread across more than 17 acres of land, taking in Californian pines, Chilean palms and all manner of lush, tropical flowers. Look out for the colourful golden pheasants lurking in the bushes and also be sure to step away from the promenades and terraces to admire the fruit and vegetable gardens – archetypal British plots with sweet peas, apple trees and salad leaves all planted in neat little rows.
Venture to the opposite end of Tresco to discover two castles that look out across the New Grimsby Sound. Sitting on top of the hill are the ruins of King Charles’s Castle, named for its Royal occupation during the Civil War yet thought to be built a century earlier, while the sturdy, cylindrical Cromwell’s Castle perches by the water’s edge. The latter was built in 1651 to capitalise on the Parliamentarian capture of Scilly with a lower terrace that still contains two cannons and a gun platform at the top offering panoramic views from Tregarthen Hill in the east to the isle of Bryher to the west.
For a truly relaxing experience, a visit to St Martin’s is a must. While this is the most northerly of the inhabited islands, it also boasts the most tropical atmosphere, all white sand coves and teal-coloured waters. Arriving at Lower Town Quay brings you straight to the beachfront resort of Karma St Martin’s, part of an international hotel chain whose other branches are in the likes of Goa, Bali and Indonesia. Tie up at Higher Town Quay, meanwhile, for a short walk to the family-run St Martin’s Vineyard. Look out for mid-week tours and the chance to sample a smooth Siegerrebe or the dry St Martin’s Reserve.
Another Higher Town highlight is Little Arthur Green Shoes. In 2015, a fire gutted the old stone workshop-cum-shop but the “Island Shoemaker” quickly bounced back thanks to donations from both locals and HRH The Prince of Wales. From the hand-painted sign and the traditional techniques practiced inside to the wind-generated electricity and presence of an online shop, it is a perfect summation of Scilly’s winning blend of classic and contemporary and a lesson in how to thrive on a sparsely populated island in the 21st century.
Really though, no one comes to Scilly for retail therapy. Like all of the islands, St Martin’s is best suited to a bit of gentle exploring. Windswept trees and flower-covered stonewalls make the winding, almost traffic-free lanes a very enjoyable experience, while the north-eastern headland is dotted with cairns and the remains of prehistoric settlements. The area is visually dominated by the curious Daymark, a sort of pencil-shaped navigational aid that was built in 1683 yet only given its distinctive red-and-white striped paint scheme more recently. For a cluster of islands that measure a little
more than six square miles in total, you are never short of charming surprises like this in Scilly.
Aside from St Mary’s, St Martin’s and Tresco, the other two inhabited islands are Bryher and St Agnes. The former inspired the Michael Morpurgo book Why The Whales Came and is home to several Atlantic boatyards, a tasty Crab Shack and the Black Pearl Aquarium. Explore
St Agnes to find the Bronze Age burial chamber of Obadiah’s Barrow, the rock formations of Wingletang Down, and the Troy Town Maze, apparently laid out by an 18th-century lighthouse keeper.
Eat and drink
September’s second Taste of Scilly food festival is a month-long programme of pop-up restaurants, tours, taster events and more, with a focus on ingredients grown, reared and caught on the islands. Salty dogs should chart a course to The Mermaid Inn on St Mary’s (www.mermaidscilly.co.uk) for a historic bar decked out in nautical paraphernalia, and a restaurant serving fresh catches. On St Martin’s, the Seven Stones Inn boasts the best spot for hearty pub food with views across The Flats, while the Polreath Tea Room has been brewing up for more than 60 years. The Ruin Beach Café on Tresco also does excellent afternoon teas, best enjoyed on the decking overlooking the sands.
For a friendly reception and a cosy room steeped in history, look no further than the Star Castle Hotel on St Mary’s (www.star-castle.co.uk). It also boasts an indoor pool, a dungeon bar and private gardens around which to walk off a three-course meal at the vine-adorned Conservatory restaurant. Karma St Martin’s (www.karmagroup.com) meanwhile is a high-end beach resort with a spa, a sun terrace, and a bar complete with curated library and an Enomatic wine dispenser.
Direct trains run from London Paddington to Exeter St David’s, Newquay and Penzance. Skybus flights to St Mary’s run daily from Exeter and Newquay airports, as well as Land’s End airport (book a Skybus shuttle from Penzance station). The train to Exeter is three hours shorter, but the flight time is more than double. From Penzance, you can also book the Scillonian Penzance ferry to St Mary’s, which takes a little under three hours. www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk/book