Saturday, April 24, 2010

Holiday in the Isles of Scilly

Had we arrived at Penzance, Cornwall 12,000 years earlier we would have been able to walk or perhaps ride a donkey to the Scilly Islands. As it is the good ship Scillonian 111 ferried us the 30 miles ESE across the Western Approaches to the British Isles. By 4000BC Scilly had become the single island of Ennor as sea levels rose by 75 metres as the ice cap retreated north toward the Pole. In the Pubs on the mainland old Cornish fishermen still recount stories of how on a calm day with a still sea you can hear the mournful toll of bells moved by the tide in the steeples of 140 graceful churches of the land of Lyonnesse now lost under the waves. It was not until around 1000AD that the 50 Scilly Islands as we now know them began to arise from the sinking Isle of Ennor. Of these only St Marys, Tresco, St Agnes, St Martins and Bryher are now inhabited.  
Archaeology tells us that the first humans to reach Scilly were the Mesolithic people (8000BC – 4000BC) who moved north from the Mediterranean after the end of the ice age probably following herds of migrating animals as the ice retreated. They were followed by the Neolithic people (4000BC – 2500BC) who shared a common culture with peoples from the Atlantic seaboard from Spain, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland. Widespread cultivation of the land, village settlements of small round houses or hut circles occurred during the Bronze Age (2500BC - 700BC). It is evidence of the foundations of these structures in the shallow waters between the existing islands that may have fuelled the fishermen's tales of the lost land of Lyonnesse. The Iron Age (700BC – 400AD) brought more sophisticated civilisation to the Scillies and in its later period when Rome ruled Britain the Celtic status quo and Iron Age culture continued to develop unhindered although there appears to have been frequent contact with Roman trading vessels. The fall of the Roman Empire in Britain heralded a decline in trade and commerce and the Christianity which had spread from Rome was replaced by the altogether different Christian tradition of the Celts from Wales and Ireland. Island life declined dramatically with the gradual rise in sea levels to the extent that around 1000AD the population had diminished to a mere few hundred.
Despite Edward 111 granting the islands to the Black Prince, the first Duke of Cornwall, the islands sank into obscurity for the next 500 years plagued as it was by insecurity and the loss of agricultural land to the rising sea. From Tudor times onward the Scillonians took advantage of the Scilly's strategic position on the newly established commercial shipping routes to North America and Africa by engaging in piracy. Elizabeth 1 ignored this as long as it was to the detriment of the French and Dutch but ultimately the Spanish Armada highlighted the vulnerability of the Islands to attack and in 1593 Elizabeth started to build defences including the Star Castle on St Marys. The staunchly Royalist islanders afforded Prince Charles shelter in the Star Castle during his flight from the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War and, after subjugation by parliament in 1648, reverted to their piratical past by attacking passing merchant ships. At the end of the Civil War Parliament set up defences on the Islands to deter foreign invasion but the Dutch declared war on Scilly; the peace treaty being signed only some 20 years ago!
The Napoleonic Wars disrupted the Scillonian's major industries of smuggling and fishing and by the beginning of the 19th century and a series of poor harvests thereafter once again heralded the rapid decline of the Islands. I was not until 1831 that prosperity began to return with Augustus Smith leasing the Islands from the Duchy of Cornwall. He instigated proper education for the children and new agricultural practices and the coming of the railway to Penzance in the middle of the 19th Century bought the first tourists to the Islands and allowed the establishment of a flourishing flower industry.
St Marys, where our ferry landed, is the largest of the Scilly Islands that emerged from the sea and is a halfway house between the mainland and the four 'off islands'. Some off islanders regard St Marys with similar disdain as they do the mainland. Cars and buses speed around the roads of the Island in stark contrast to travel in the off islands where tractors and golf buggies are preferred. The sheltered centre of the Island is mainly cultivated for flowers and in particular winter and early spring daffodils and narcissi which are sent to market in London. Vegetables and early potatoes are also widely cultivated. Prehistoric monuments abound on St Marys as a result of its position on ancient sea routes from the Atlantic seaboard stretching from Portugal and Spain in the south to Ireland and Scotland in the north. The best examples of these late Stone Age/early Bronze Age settlement can be found at Halangy Down.

St Agnes, the smallest of the inhabited islands that has its particular Celtic history and traditions. We had little time to explore although we walked from the sheltered and pretty harbour at Porth Conger through Higher Town passing the 1680 lighthouse, one of the first lighthouses built in Britain but now defunct, and beyond Lower Town for fine views over white sand beaches, Annet, the home of the puffins, the Western Rocks and The Bishop rock and its lighthouse.

The Western Rocks have been a graveyard for shipping for centuries. Hundreds of ships have been wrecked with the loss of thousands of lives. As late as the early 18th century Navigators could plot their latitude, or position along a north/south line, fairly accurately by reference to the pole star but were unable to establish with any certainty at all their position on an east/west line; their longitude. It was the loss of over 2000 souls in one night alone when part of the British fleet foundered here in 1707 that prompted the Admiralty to set a prize for the first person to find a reliable way of establishing longitude, a prize won by John Harrison with his spring mechanism based chronometer.
The Bishops Rock lighthouse guards the western extent of the rocks. The first structure built with cast iron columns was finished in 1850 only to be washed away by a storm before it was commissioned. A solid tower of Cornish granite replaced it but vertical cracks appeared soon after construction showing that the structure was not equal to the force of the very high waves that battered it making it shake violently, knocking plates off the shelves. In April 1874 waves exceeding 40 metres broke clean over the structure washing away the lantern and flooding the lighthouse nearly drowning the keepers. In 1881 an outer stone structure was built around the existing tower increasing its height and strength. This exists to the present day.
St Martin's is the Scillies north eastern bulwark to the ravages of the North Atlantic and the landscape of the island reflects this with its uncultivated weather beaten north eastern side and fertile sundrenched western slopes running down to the dunes and white sand of the waterfront. The cultivated western side is covered with sheltered flower and vegetable fields and wild Agapanthus, Lily and Hottentot fig grow from every hedgerow and dry stone wall. The flowers harvested here are packed and flown to the mainland and further afield.
Wide eyed and whiskered grey seals pop their heads above the water lounge or with their pups on the beaches of the Eastern Islands just south of St Martin's. Gannets, gulls, shags, cormorants, shearwaters and guillemots fly from rock to water and back and a Peregrine falcon nests on a rock ledge.
Bryher Island can be somewhat bleak being subjected to the full fury of westerly Atlantic storms. The northern end is a plateau of high ground sparsely covered with dwarfed heather. Names such as Hell Bay and Badplace Hill reflect the fury of the storm waves that have travelled as much as 2000 to break clean over Shipman Head. The southern end of the Island is a little less foreboding being protected to some extent by the offlying Norrard rocks with names that conjure up the mystery of these islands such as Gweal and Illiswilgig. We limited our walk to the more cultivated central saddle of the island through The Town and around Timmy's Hill resting at the Hell Bay Hotel for a pot of tea on the terrace overlooking the idyllic sands of Great Par beach, Stinking Porth, Black Rocks and the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Last but not least the beautiful Island of Tresco, the pearl in the oyster and the Island upon which we stayed in a well equipped and excellently furnished house on the beach with superb views over the water and rocks of Old Grimsby Sound and St Helens Pool to St Martins, Tean, Round Island and the Eastern Islands. This view ranks amongst the best that we have seen in all our travels.
Softly undulating sand dunes covered with marram grass, bell heather and ling and wild flowers just about to burst into a riot of spring beauty dominate the south of Tresco. The panoramas looking seaward across the shallow water, white sand beaches and banks and foreboding rocks are magnificent with St Marys and St Agnes Islands to the south, Bryher and Samson to the west and St Martins and the Eastern isles to the east.
The Great Pool is a haven for geese, swans, egret, curlew and duck and the beaches are alive with the cry of oystercatchers, curlew, dunlin and tern. Within the trees of Abbey Wood and gardens stands Tresco Abbey. Its origins lie in the 12th century when Henry 1 granted all religious buildings of the northern Scillies to the Benedictine monks of Tavistock Abbey. The present Abbey is the home of the Dorrien–Smith family and descendants of Augustus Smith whose far sighted approach revitalised the depressed and poverty struck islands. The Abbey gardens created in 1834 by Augustus Smith house an extraordinary collection of plants from all over the world that thrive in the warmth and long hours of sunshine that bless the Scilly Islands. There are over 4000 specimens from countries as far away as Mexico, Japan, Australia, South Africa, South America and the Mediterranean including Cacti, Palms, Bamboo, Echium, Agapanthus, Aeonium and King Proteas. There are enchanting artefacts and sculptures including a stone Roman sacrificial altar and the evocative figureheads from wrecked ships that conjure up the Scillies dramatic seafaring past.
The landscape of the north of Tresco is distinctly different from that of the south with its windswept heather and gorse clad hills punctured with stark granite outcrops.  Cromwell's Castle built in the mid 17th century to protect Tresco Channel and New Grimsby harbour from attack by the Dutch. It replaced King Charles's Castle built on the hill above in the mid 16th century captured by the Parliamentarians due in the main to the fact that it was poorly sited with the shot falling out of the cannons when angled downward toward forces attacking from sea level!
For the three decades that we have owned a yacht on the south coast of England we have endeavoured to reach the Scillies but have always turned left to Brittany or the Channel islands because of the prevailing head winds. We have sailed past the Islands whilst racing or delivering yachts but finally we have landed upon them, walked around them as expansively as time has allowed and have experienced the incredible forces and delights of nature. We feel a debt of gratitude toward Miggy's mother, Betsy, who by celebrating her 80th birthday on the Islands made this experience possible for us and fifteen others of her close family. We feel privileged to have stayed in these wonderful islands just 25 miles distant, but a world apart from, the English mainland.