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
‘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