Kate Hum­ble en­joys the ec­cen­tric charms of these Bri­tish trea­sure is­lands

Kate Hum­ble casts off cyn­i­cism to savour the ec­cen­tric plea­sures and white sands of the UK’s very own Caribbean

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page - SCILLY SEA­SON

‘You must know the Isles of Scilly! Wonderful, aren’t they?” peo­ple often as­sume. And I’ve had to con­fess that I’ve never been. And this ad­mis­sion is greeted, not just with sur­prise, but al­most with sus­pi­cion, as if the fact that I haven’t vis­ited this lit­tle ar­chi­pel­ago off the Cor­nish coast is a sort of per­sonal fail­ing, like not ap­pre­ci­at­ing Wag­ner or dis­lik­ing olives.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to go. Every­thing I’d heard about the is­lands – the walk­ing, the sea food, the chance to snorkel with seals, the white sand beaches “that are just like the Caribbean” – did in­deed sound ap­peal­ing, but some­how the op­por­tu­nity to go had never arisen. But then a few days off, my hus­band’s birth­day and a bank hol­i­day week­end co­in­cided and we seized the mo­ment. We drove with our three dogs to Corn­wall, spent the night in a pub near the port at Pen­zance, and the next morn­ing joined the queue for the ferry to the main is­land of St Mary’s.

Queues are gen­er­ally sto­ical, rather silent af­fairs. Peo­ple shuf­fle about a bit, look­ing at their feet, or their phones, sigh and huff if things don’t seem to be mov­ing. But this was pos­si­bly the most cheer­ful queue I’ve ever been in. There were hugs and chat. Even the men who took our bags, la­belled them and loaded them into the crate for the is­land of Bry­her, our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, were all charm and laughs. It be­came ap­par­ent that as first-timers to the Isles of Scilly we were very much in the mi­nor­ity, but sim­ply be­ing in that queue al­lowed us to be part of the gang, a gang where ev­ery­body wears clothes in soft, faded pinks and blues, deck shoes and floppy hats – and doesn’t have an unkind word to say about any­thing.

I did won­der whether all this bon­homie might dis­si­pate once we set sail. The ferry jour­ney takes just un­der three hours and is in­fa­mously rough, but not to­day. We sat out­side in the sun­shine, the dogs con­tent­edly sprawled at our feet and as the first glimpse of the is­lands came into view we joined the ex­cited throng at the rail­ings. The isles looked more rugged than I had ex­pected: low, rocky humps cov­ered in close-cropped green grass and an oc­ca­sional windswept tree. But there were bays and coves, too, and star­tlingly white beaches washed by in­tensely turquoise wa­ter which did, as I had so often been told, bring to mind the Caribbean.

We cruised serenely into the bustling port of St Mary’s and trans­ferred to a smaller boat – our lug­gage, we were as­sured, would be on it too; no need to col­lect it or iden­tify it or any­thing – and half an hour later we were pulling up to a wooden jetty where a minibus was parked on the beach. The Hell Bay Ho­tel is the only ho­tel on the tiny is­land of Bry­her. There’s also a hand­ful of cot­tages and small farms, a gallery, a small vil­lage shop and a lady called Veron­ica who makes fudge and sells it at an hon­esty stall out­side her house. Our room was all tran­quil blue and cream, with seascapes on the walls, and bowls and treats for the dogs. Af­ter lunch in the gar­den, served by smil­ing girls with swing­ing pony­tails and blue-and-white shirts, we set forth to ex­plore.

Bry­her may only be one-and-a-half miles long and half a mile wide, but the walk around its perime­ter is a grat­i­fy­ing mix of rocky high points giv­ing dra­matic, sweep­ing views over the sea and the sculpted stacks of rock that lie just off shore, with gulls surf­ing the ther­mals. There are grass-cov­ered slopes that the dogs raced down with un­abashed de­light, swathes of wild flow­ers, tiny, pic­turesque coves, pretty cot­tage gar­dens, and beaches from where you can look over to the neigh­bour­ing is­land of Tresco.

“The Isles of Scilly are all about walk­ing and eat­ing,” laughed the cou­ple sit­ting next to us at din­ner that night. We were in a small stone hut, a few mo­ments from the ho­tel, where they host a pop-up Crab Shack once a week; a glo­ri­ous, messy, fin­ger-lick­ing feast of lo­cal scal­lops and crab (medium, large or mon­ster) with salad and chips. “We’ve been com­ing here for 30 years. There is some­thing about the place that makes you want to keep com­ing back.”

It was a story we heard time and again. The next day we took one of the boats that run be­tween the is­lands – the equiv­a­lent of the lo­cal bus ser­vice

A pop-up Crab Shack hosted once a week of­fers a glo­ri­ous and messy fin­ger­lick­ing feast

– to St Martin’s. One of the larger is­lands, it’s renowned for the beaches that fringe much of its coast­line. There are miles and miles of un­in­ter­rupted sand, mar­ram-topped dunes, flow­er­ing gorse with its co­conut smell, palm trees and huge blue spikes of echium. Although many of the peo­ple who got off the boat with us were also com­ing to walk, there are enough paths, enough di­ver­sions, that we were never walk­ing in a crowd. Swal­lows skimmed low over the grass catch­ing in­sects, seals bobbed in the kelp beds off the glo­ri­ously named Bread and Cheese Cove, and we climbed the steep as­cent to St Martin’s’ dis­tinc­tive bea­con, a rocket-shaped ed­i­fice with red-and-white candy stripes, work­ing up an ap­petite for the eat­ing that, ac­cord­ing to Scilly lore, must fol­low the walk­ing.

The Seven Stones Inn has a great col­lec­tion of gin, in­clud­ing a lo­cal one, makes a very fine crab salad, an ar­guably even finer sticky ginger cake, and has a view to ri­val that of any pub in the world. It is run by Emily and Dom, an­other pair who have been be­witched by the Scilly magic. Emily had come here for child­hood hol­i­days. When she mar­ried Dom they came for their hon­ey­moon and it was then that they dis­cov­ered that the St Martin’s Inn was for sale. Nei­ther of them had run a pub be­fore. Emily was a gar­den de­signer, Dom an ar­chi­tect. They lived in Royal Tun­bridge Wells. Now they are the proud pro­pri­etors of the Seven Stones, and have been for the past four years. They live on this is­land, with its 120 res­i­dents, year round. “Any re­grets? Ever? In the depths of win­ter?” I asked. They shook their heads. “We were stuck here for a month one win­ter in re­ally bad weather. No boats could come in or out, but we all man­aged. The dairy on St Agnes kept ev­ery­one in milk, peo­ple made bread, we had gath­er­ings in the pub. It’s a very dif­fer­ent sort of life than the one we had, and we can’t imag­ine ever go­ing back.”

We got an inkling of that can-do, noth­ing’s-aprob­lem is­land spirit on our fi­nal day. Overnight, a squall came in, rain lashed at our win­dows and we woke to a world no longer sparkly, bright and blue, but qui­etly muted, all soft greys, as if some­one had snuck out in the night and painted the land­scape with her­itage colours. This was the day of the spring tide. Low tide, at mid­day, was go­ing to be so low that the en­tire chan­nel be­tween Bry­her and Tresco would be ex­posed. An event like this had to be marked by – you guessed it – walk­ing and eat­ing. And no­body was go­ing to be put off by the fact that the skies were a bit grey and it was sud­denly rather chilly.

Rain coats were donned; trouser legs rolled up. Shoes in hand, peo­ple set off from the op­po­site shores, pad­dling through sea­weedy pools, tiny crabs skit­ter­ing away on the sand, to­wards a happy, ec­cen­tric gath­er­ing on a sand­bar mid­way be­tween the two is­lands. A boat had been turned into a bar, some­one was cook­ing a gi­ant paella, there were crab rolls, mack­erel in buns, bot­tles of pros­ecco drunk with a straw, lo­cal gin, chil­dren mak­ing sand­cas­tles, dogs chas­ing each other, and from ev­ery di­rec­tion came the sound of chat and laugh­ter.

Two hun­dred or so peo­ple, bare­foot on the soggy sand, feet wrinkly from the wet, legs slightly goosepim­pled, were rev­el­ling in do­ing some­thing that felt won­der­fully silly. And very, very Scilly. And it was at that mo­ment that I un­der­stood what it was that draws peo­ple back here time and time again. This is a place that en­cap­su­lates the essence of Swal­lows and Ama­zons, of lash­ings of ginger beer and honey for tea; where the shack­les of cyn­i­cism, of hav­ing to be sen­si­ble, of say­ing no be­fore even con­sid­er­ing what it might mean to say yes, fall away. Where old-fash­ioned things like cour­tesy and good ser­vice and talk­ing to strangers are the norm. And in a world that is so often dom­i­nated by bru­tal­ity and strife, to dis­cover a lit­tle corner of it that isn’t, is wonderful in­deed.

ROCKY SHORES The coast of St Mary’s, be­low; St Martin’s bea­con, right

PINTS OF VIEW The Seven Stones Inn on St Martin's of­fers stun­ning vis­tas and a great col­lec­tion of gins

DOGGY PAR­ADISE Kate and ca­nines on Bry­her, main; Tresco is­land, be­low; seal spot­ting, above right

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