Palm trees and sandy beaches on Arthur’s legendary Lyonnesse
According to legend, the Isles of Scilly are all that remain of Lyonnesse, a lovely land ruled over by King Arthur before it vanished beneath the Atlantic. About 28 miles south-west of Land’s End, the archipelago consists of well over 100 islands and islets whose climate is so mild that flowers cultivated in small fields are the backbone of the economy in winter. There are delightful walks and miles of sandy beaches washed by the clearest of seas.
All but about 350 of Scilly’s population of 1,600 live on St Mary’s, the largest island with 1,554 acres. Gently undulating fields and low, bracken-clad headlands are surrounded by a fascinating, beautiful and easily explored coastline with several sandy beaches and many rocky coves. Bathing is safe in most places, but Pelistry Bay becomes dangerous at high tide when currents sweep over the sand-bar between St Mary’s and Toll’s Island.
The ‘capital’ of Scilly, Hugh Town, stands on a narrow strip of land between the sands of Town Beach and Porth Cressa Beach. Its main street, flanked by buildings of gale-defying granite, leads to a harbour where British and French trawlers mingle with private craft, and the sturdy passenger launches which take about 20 minutes to reach St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco or St Martin’s. The launches also provide opportunities to take a close look at grey seals and a great variety of sea-birds. Several of the uninhabited islands must not be visited when birds are breeding. Notices with details of the restrictions are posted on The Quay.
Hugh Town developed under the protection of Star Castle, an eight-pointed fortress completed in 1593 and now a hotel. It forms part of The Garrison, the headland which shelters the town from the west and was surrounded by stone ramparts in the first half of the 18th century. The well-preserved fortifications, complete with gun batteries, enhance a popular walk that is particularly delightful towards sunset. The beams of eight lighthouses – the Bishop Rock, Round Island, Peninnis, Wolf Rock, Longships, Pendeen, Tater-du and Lizard – are visible from The Garrison on a clear night.
The history and natural history of the islands are illustrated in Hugh Town’s museum by exhibits spanning more than 2,000 years. Its outstanding features include the pilot gig Klondyke, built in 1873, and a magnificent bronze gun recovered from the wreck of the 90-gun Association, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, which sank after striking the Gilstone reef in thick fog in 1707.
Old Town, an attractive cluster of stone cottages, was the main centre of population in St Mary’s until Hugh Town took its place. Its sandy, rock-studded bay curves round to a little church, shaded by palm trees, with the date 1662 carved above its door. Many victims of the Schiller disaster of 1875 are buried in the graveyard: the German liner was on a passage from New York to Germany when she encountered fog, struck a reef and went down with all but 37 of her 372 passengers and crew.
Porth Hellick, a very sheltered bay of sand framed by seaweed-draped rocks, is the starting point for one of two waymarked nature trails. The other runs from Old Town Bay to the A3111 road near Sandy Banks Farm. A small pillar of rough stone at Porth Hellick marks the spot where Sir Cloudesley Shovell was washed ashore after the Association went down. It is said that he survived the wreck and was lying exhausted on the beach when a woman murdered him for his jewel-encrusted rings.
The turf-topped burial chamber on Porth Hellick Down dates from the Bronze Age, and is one of the islands’ many tangible links with prehistory. Another burial place, Bant’s Cam, is on the north-western rim of St Mary’s and overlooks the granite hut circles of a Romano-British village that was inhabited almost 2,000 years ago. Fishing trips and boat trips are available.
GRAVEYARD OF SHIPPING
All around the Isles of Scilly, scattered reefs and rocky islets have for centuries taken a grim toll of shipping. Sailing ships blown off course or running for shelter from Atlantic gales and steamships lost in fog have had their hulls ripped open, often with huge loss of life.
Modern navigational aids have lessened the threat in recent years. In 1967, however, the oil tanker Torrey Canyon went aground on Seven Stones, north-east of Scilly, and was eventually bombed to burn off the flow of leaking oil that was polluting the beaches of Cornwall and Devon.
TWIN BEACHES Hugh Town, in St Mary’s, straddles a narrow isthmus between Porth Cressa Beach and Town Beach.
The Old Man of Gugh, a standing stone 9 ft tall, was erected by Gugh’s Bronze Age inhabitants. The little island – its name is pronounced to rhyme with ‘Hugh’ – now has only two houses and is linked to St Agnes by a sand-bar that is covered at high tide. The sandy beaches on either side of the bar provide safe bathing at low water, but the incoming tide creates dangerous currents as it sweeps over the barrier.
A patchwork of tiny fields, sheltered by lofty hedges, is overlooked by the disused St Agnes lighthouse whose portly white tower dominates the little island. The lamp was lit for the first time in 1680 and remained in operation for 231 years.
A road just wide enough for a single vehicle runs from the quay at Porth Conger to the sand-and-shingle beach at Lower Town, on the opposite side of the island. The east window of the hamlet’s church is dedicated to crews who manned the lifeboat based near by from 1891 to 1920.
A plaque in the church records the loss of the American schooner Thomas W.Lawson in 1907. The only seven-masted schooner ever built, she got into difficulties off Annet, west of St Agnes, and a member of the lifeboat’s crew went aboard to act as a pilot. He and 15 members of the crew were lost when the schooner sank, but the captain and engineer were saved from the Hellweathers rocks when the pilot’s son, Frederick Hicks, swam to them from the gig Slippen. He was awarded an RNLI silver medal and received a gold watch from the US Government. The US authorities also gave gold medals to the other seven members of the gig’s crew.
Britain’s tallest lighthouse rises 175 ft above the sea and stands sentinel over the southwest tip of the Isles of Scilly. Its 2.6 million candlepower light has a range of nearly 30 miles.
The first tower, a cast-iron structure, vanished during a storm in 1850. Work on its granite-block replacement started two years later, but it vibrated too much and its lantern was often shrouded in spray despite being more than 100 ft up. A survey conducted for
TROPICAL TRESCO Exotic plants flourish in Tresco’s Abbey Gardens. Many grow nowhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. created the subtropical gardens that deserve to be ranked among the wonders of Britain. It is the only place in Europe where New Zealand ironwoods and Mexican yuccas flourish in the open. Other species grow naturally nowhere else in the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. Tresco’s beauty is additionally enhanced by two lakes, Great Pool and Abbey Pool, where coots, moorhens, mute swans and other birds nest amid the reeds.
Piper’s Hole, on the island’s north-eastern tip, is a long, narrow cave which burrows about 80 yds into the island and has a small freshwater pool. The cave is said to have been used by smugglers, and local legends also name it as the home of mermaids.
The Isles of Scilly were a Royalist stronghold in the Civil War and did not capitulate until 1651, when Admiral Blake captured Tresco and mounted guns on Crow Point where they could attack any ships trying to use Hugh Town’s harbour. A fort now
Trinity House in 1881 resulted in the tower being encased in an outer shell and raised by two storeys. A helicopter pad was added in 1976.
This small, humpbacked island has been uninhabited since 1855 and is now a breeding ground for lesser black-backed gulls. Its population never recovered from a tragedy which claimed the lives of most of the young islanders during the Napoleonic Wars. They captured a French ship and were sailing her to the mainland when all were lost on the Wolf Rock off Land’s End.
In 1798 the leaking, 74-gun Colossus tried to ride out a storm off Samson, but her anchor broke and she foundered near Southward Well Point. The warship had helped defeat the French at the Battle of the Nile and was homeward bound with a cargo of art treasures belonging to Sir William Hamilton, the husband of Nelson’s mistress. The wreck was located by local divers in 1975.
Bryher’s western coast, battered into weird shapes by the awesome power of Atlantic storms, contrasts with the sheltered beach which faces Tresco and the tranquillity of Rushy Bay, where sands are overlooked by Bronze Age cairns on Samson Hill. The island’s population of just over 50 is Scilly’s smallest.
Unlike the rest of the inhabited islands, Tresco is a private estate which the Duchy of Cornwall has leased to the Dorrien Smith family since 1834. The first of the line, Augustus Smith, was an energetic and far-sighted squire who became Lord Proprietor of all the islands. He built Tresco Abbey near the site of the island’s medieval priory and known as Cromwell’s Castle was immediately built to control the narrow channel between Tresco and Bryher. It is only a short walk from King Charles’ Castle which, despite its name, was built 100 years earlier. Tresco has much to offer the walker, and the island’s superb beaches cater for visitors seeking nothing more than relaxation in the most peaceful and magical of atmospheres.
A population of 80 and an area of more than 500 acres make St Martin’s the third biggest island in Scilly after St Mary’s and Tresco. Its ‘capital’, Higher Town, has a sailing centre and is overlooked from the east by a steep little hill whose striped tower has been a landmark for sailors since the 17th century. Like Tresco, the island has several beautiful beaches within easy reach of the quay below Higher Town. The sands at Porth Morran on White Island, which is linked to St Martin’s by a natural, tide-covered causeway, lead to pits where seaweed was once burned to produce an alkali that was used in the making of soap and glass. It was an important source of income in the islands during the 17th and 18th centuries. <U