Address: Scilly Isles, Cornwall



Scilly Isles History

Like the Orkneys, the Scilly Isles were first visited by hunters 10,000 years ago, this after the last Ice Age. Settlers then started arriving during the Bronze Age (2500-800 BC) and evidence of this can be seen with more than 80 burial chambers on the islands, with many being quite spectacular and well preserved. The Romans arrived during their occupation of Britain and the shrine on the island of Nomour and the altar in Tresco Gardens date back to this time. The islands appear in many Roman manuscripts although interestingly they are referred to as a single island which suggests that with the sea level much lower in those days, all today’s main islands were connected at this time.

It’s thought that the rising water flooded the central area in around 500AD, but it’s believed that as recently as the 11th century the islands were still connected at low tide with evidence now of submerged structures in some areas, notably Samson.

The next significant occupation or visit came in the form of the Vikings. It was no great invasion, but the incidents are mentioned in the famous Norse historical narrative the Orkneyinga saga. They referred to the islands as Syllingar.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French conquerors commissioned the Domesday Book, a land audit of the time. The Scilly Isles can be seen to have been included with Cornwall and the south west region. This formed the association that runs today with the islands being part of Cornwall, although they are self-governing in certain respects. The islands are part of the Duchy of Cornwall and this association goes back to 1539.

The sixteenth century was a period that saw much English maritime warfare with the great battle with the Spanish Armada in 1588 being of particular note. Having repelled the invading forces, it was realised that the islands would form an ideal base for an attacking fleet so it was decided to fortify the islands by building a castle and castle walls. The task was given to the then governor, Sir Francis Godolphin whose family were leasing the islands at the time. He constructed the Star Castle which was built in 1593 with the curtain wall being laid around the coastline. This was all done on the ‘garrison’ part of St Mary’s, a circular area about 10% of the size of the rest of St Mary’s and connected to the rest of St Mary’s by the Hugh Town strip of land.

The garrison saw its most active period around the time of the English Civil War. The Royalists initially held the islands, but surrendered to the Parliamentarians in 1646. They regained control following a garrison mutiny in 1648 and it became a base for 800 Royalists. In 1651 Admiral Blake retook Tresco and Bryher before finally taking St Mary’s (that included the garrison) for the Parliamentarians. To reinforce his base, he built Cromwell’s Castle, this near New Grimsby on the west coast of Tresco. It was built in part using stones from King Charles’ Castle and was built a few hundred yards away up the hill.

Around the 16th and 17th centuries the islands became an important strategic location in the defence of Britain, with much evidence of those island fortifications on show today. By far the biggest and most spectacular of these are the garrison walls on St Mary’s. These have been wonderfully preserved.

Whilst always an important and strategic part of the British Isles, the islands, from a maritime point of view, were most important in the 19th century when they were a centre for ship building, fishing and trading. Smuggler’s caves are also in evidence.

It was from this time that the islands were associated with the Duchy of Cornwall and the man who began the association was Augustus Smith. He governed for forty years, building Tresco Abbey and Gardens, and was responsible for much of the islands’ structural and economic development.

The shallow waters and rocky nature of the surrounding sea has led to a multitude of shipwrecks over the centuries. These days with modern navigation equipment, the problems aren’t as great, but without them it’s a highly dangerous place for shipping. The pilots of the local ferries would know every inch of the waters which makes inter-island travelling extremely safe.

Commercially today, the islands’ main economic source is tourism. Flowers are another huge source of revenue as the islands take advantage of their warm climate.

The museum on St Mary’s gives a wonderful display of island history.


Scilly Isles Visit

Perched out, 28 miles off Land’s End, the Scilly Isles provide a haven for both holidaymakers and wildlife. From most parts of the UK it’s a fair old trek to get to Cornwall, from where the majority of travellers make the crossing. But from there you’ll find a slick system that has been in operation for decades and will get you over as quickly as possible. Planes fly directly from a number of UK airports eg Manchester, so that may save a long drive.

But what do you find when you get there? Well, weather is always a big factor for holidays and in the Scilly Isles you’ll find yourself in an area that is warmer than mainland UK. This sees flowers growing in January whilst the rest of the UK is shivering in the middle of winter. Flowers and bulbs are thus a big industry for the island. There’s an abundance of foliage, which makes for some amazing scenery and the surrounding clear waters make a wonderful backdrop. With such stunning scenery it’s not surprising that you often see artists sitting in the countryside painting away. And it’s pretty dog friendly too and a great place for them to roam.

Surprisingly, for a group of islands, fishing doesn’t seem a big industry. It often is with island groups or coastline resorts, but maybe it’s to do with the shallow water or flow direction. That said, there’s obviously a degree of fishing and crab and lobster are well advertised.

Whilst the biggest industry is tourism, tourists will find a very laid back approach, unlike the situation at many resorts. Here, the locals seem to go about their daily business as normal, and as they usually rely on tourist revenue in one form or another, it’s an interesting approach. An example of this is that no passenger services to and from the UK mainland are available on Sundays, which ironically may have been one of the busiest days. The only paper shop on the islands sometimes don’t get daily papers until the afternoon (and also don’t get them on Sunday) and on those occasions, they open at 9.00am. The only chip shop opens 5-7pm, 6 days a week. And not surprisingly for such a small place, it’s a small community. The person you nod to on an evening stroll over on the other side of the island happens to be the guy that serves you in the ticket office the next morning, and then skippers your boat, the barman in the evening appears as the boatman the next morning, and on an early morning stroll you may bump into the museum curator that you’d met on a visit the previous day and then see the lady from the chemist’s shop drive past in the taxi. It’s all wonderfully close-knit.

For many, the main excitement of the holiday is travelling to the different islands. There are five inhabited islands and a number of uninhabited ones. The main one is St Mary’s, and this is the only one that has a high street. It has two banks, a national supermarket, about three public bars and a number of shops selling things like clothes, sports equipment, gifts etc. You’ll also find a number of restaurants and cafes.

If walking around the various islands, and if fit, with the odd stop, times would probably be in the region of St Mary’s 5 hrs, Tresco 4 hrs, St Martins 3.5 hrs, St Agnes and Gugh 3.5 hrs and Bryher 3 hrs. Depending on your time available, you may need to juggle with logistics. You may land in the Scillies at 12.00, and you could then take a boat to an island at 2.00pm or there’ll be an evening trip in the summer that you could take. You may only wish to visit one island and if you research, you could find the one that best suits your needs. The beauty of the islands is that they’re that small, you could plan a walk to suit the length of time you wish spend on it.

I’m sure most tourists here travel to islands. The ferries are run by the local Boatman’s Association and there are about ten boats in the group. They seem to have a tried and tested method of operation and this involves passengers going to St Mary’s quay (the main island quay) by about 9.45am and queuing at the small hut for tickets. The islands each take about 10-25 mins to get to and all journeys cost the same. An adult trip is about £10 return. The boats generally leave for the different islands at 10.00 or 10.15 and return to pick up at a number of times eg 2.15, 3.45 and 4.45. The boats each carry about 60 passengers and are crewed by one pilot and one crew member who collects tickets and deals with ropes etc when docking. The ferry service runs through the season, usually March to October. Approximate journey times are 10 mins to Tresco south quay, 20 mins to the main quay; St Martins is about 25-30mins, Bryher 20 mins and St Agnes 15 mins. Do remember to keep your ticket safe if you go.

One thing to be mindful of is that the boats are open to the elements apart from the captain’s cabin, so if it’s raining, you could be getting soaked for half an hour. Maybe something to consider before you set off or a reason to take a change of clothes. Another point to remember is that on certain days it could get pretty choppy out there and sea sickness could be a factor. The plus side is that the weather is usually good, so usually glorious to be in the boats with the sea air and brilliant sunshine, and the water is generally calm.

Apart from the basic trips from St Mary’s to the four inhabited islands, there are other trips available. These include a trip to Bishop’s Rock lighthouse, a trip around some of the smaller islands, fishing trips, wildlife watching trips and glass-bottomed boat trips. For wildlife, there are often seals and porpoises to be spotted near the shores, whilst through binoculars you can often see dozens of dolphins in the distance, and these up close if you sail out. Whales can occasionally be seen too. There’s a nature reserve with hides on St Mary’s with all manner of birds flocking to the lakes. For those with a deep love of nature, and knowledge to match, there are many small mammals and butterflies to be found, and some only found in these parts.

The four islands that boats visit from the main St Mary’s island are Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes. They are similar in that in most cases there doesn’t appear to be a huge amount to do on the islands. They all have paths going mainly around the perimeter, paths that have been trodden for hundreds of years. This means that if you like walking, you’re in heaven, but even if you’re not, there are pubs and cafes near the island quays to relax and enjoy the weather and scenery, as well as the adventure of the boat trip over.

Tresco has the most to do and the main attraction is the Abbey Gardens – a place that is wonderful to visit and would grace anywhere in the world. Other attractions include the two ruins on the north-west part of the island as well as the lakes. What’s very much in evidence on Tresco is bike hire. It costs about £10 per day and as there are hardly any vehicles, cyclists have the island pretty much to themselves. If you want to walk around the perimeter, it takes maybe four hours or so for a fit person. Depending on tides, the ferry may drop you off at one quay and pick you up at another. One is on the south tip and the other on the west side. Instructions are clearly given to you when you get off the ferry in the morning in addition to a choice of returning times. Make sure you write times down, although there are worse places to get stuck for the night!

Bryher is the island next to Tresco and close enough to be actually connected at low tide. This provides quite a spectacle as a procession of visitors walk over the sand, usually in the direction Tresco to Bryher. One word of warning, the time you have is about 90 minutes before the water comes in, so take good local advice before you cross, and take care. Once over you’ll find it a walking and nature paradise, but you won’t find a huge amount else. It gained notoriety a few years ago when Anneka Rice embarked on helping the islanders build a new quay/jetty. There is a public community hall with table tennis, board games and books, and this is handy if wet. There is actually a very nice hotel near Hell’s Bay with a pitch and putt golf course nearby. Another amenity is the boat yard on the south-east corner, and this is a place that hires out boats so could be a nice facility to take advantage of. An interesting point about Bryher is that whilst boats often use different quays during the day on most of the islands, depending on tides, the alternative ferry pick up point on Bryher is Rushy Bay at the south of the island. The trouble is that there’s no quay, so if you take the option of the pick-up from here (at least one other would be from the main quay), the boat has to moor about 100 yards off shore and a small rubber dinghy comes to about 30 yards offshore with all the passengers having to wade in knee deep to meet the dinghy. If able to do so, don’t miss this opportunity, it could be the best part of the crossings! From Rushy Bay, the boat is likely to go around Samson, a nearby island and this makes the trip back about 30 minutes.

St Martin’s has a similar one shop (mini supermarket) and the odd cafe as Bryher, but near the main quay is a pub and a lovely hotel. There’s also a vineyard and next to the emergency services station on the main road you’ll find an unmanned visitor centre giving displays of island features. There’s also a community hall, but the best feature of the island are the beaches and there are some wonderful stretches of white sand that you can have pretty much to yourselves if you want. The most striking part of the island is the large red and white ‘Daymark’, a huge lighthouse shaped structure that aids shipping. One point to note is that the perimeter walk is often through waist deep ferns and it’s sometimes hard to take a short-cut. You may find yourself back tracking, so take a map – or stick to the main road which is further inland. On the whole St Martin’s is very path orientated. It’s also another island that’s connected at low tide – on the north side you’ll find ‘White Island’, a hilly outcrop with lovely views and scenery. The journey time from St Mary’s to St Martin’s is about 25 minutes.

The most southerly island is St Agnes and this, at low tide, is connected to the nearby island of Gugh. St Agnes is another very natural setting and about as far from city life as you can get. It has a Caribbean look in places. Again, it’s a pub, a shop, a couple of cafes, a few houses and an old lighthouse. It’ll take 2-3 hours to walk round, if fit. There’s a lovely looking campsite on the north side and a football/cricket pitch also. The quay and boats on the east side make great viewing from the area outside the pub and from here you can also look over to Gugh. You can walk around Gugh in probably just over an hour, but there’s not much there apart from a lovely walk, a couple of monuments and a bit of seal spotting, but the views and setting there are as good as anything on the Scilly Isles. Much of this island is hills covered with purple heather and the main attraction is probably ‘the Old Man of Gugh’ a simple stone pillar near the centre. Like its neighbour, it’s not a place for attractions, you just marvel at the scenery.

This leaves St Mary’s. It’s the main island and gives, whether welcome or not, a taste of normal living. There’s the high street, a 9-hole golf course, an air strip, nature trails etc. On the west side is the old garrison which is an amazing sight from near or far. It was a military base in historic times and much has been preserved. You can see the garrison walls when arriving by boat or plane and when you walk around the walls, you can see the fine detail. There are gaps in the walls for cannons and there are many cannons on display. The actual castle has been converted into a luxury hotel, the Star Castle, and the garrison grounds on the summit are where the football and cricket pitches are as well as the campsite, children’s play area and tennis court. The garrison walk is a well-known route around the perimeter walls, with many notices on display that give details about various parts of the fortification. On display in the garrison is a detention cell and gunpowder room. In addition, on the  St Mary’s coastline there are a number of cairns and burial chambers from historic times as well as ancient village ruins on the bank near the golf course.

Over the centuries, being an outcrop of rock well off the mainland, it’s hardly surprising that the islands have been the location for countless shipwrecks. To gain an insight into this, there’s a fantastic museum that displays all manner of historic details and artefacts about the place. It’s in Hugh Town and should be near the top of your list of things to do. For the safety of shipping, there are a number of lighthouses around the islands and it’s fascinating to see them all flashing their lights at night.

Watersports enthusiasts are able to hire equipment, one outlet being near Town Beach on St Mary’s. Geographically, Hugh Town is the narrow strip of land that joins the garrison part to the main part of the island and there are two beaches on this narrow strip, one either side. To the north is Town Beach, and this is where the quay, boats, Atlantic Inn and the commercial side is. On the south side, only maybe 100 yards away is Porthcressa Beach. This is the beach for swimming, sunbathing etc and the commercial side is minimal. One point here is that between March and September, dogs aren’t allowed on Porthcressa or on the beach to the east of Town Beach, but they are allowed on Town Beach itself.

There’s also a horse riding centre, and it’s possible that the airfield may have lessons etc, but this is not definite. Whilst the place isn’t a hive of loud music, the Atlantic Inn has a quiz night once a week, and it’s so busy that it’s often hard to get a table in the summer. Gig racing is also a busy night in which spectators watch the local crews compete against each other.

The football field on the garrison has a hut on the side which is the changing room for the teams. On the side of the hut is a sign that says ‘Home to the smallest football league in the world’ – it consists of two teams!

One particular landmark can be found at St Mary’s Old Church. This is the grave of Harold Wilson, who was twice British Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1070s. It’s an idyllic site, near the water’s edge.

The Scilly Isles provide a great holiday location for all. And if you travel across from Cornwall, you also have the opportunity to visit other local Cornish attractions eg Land’s End, Newquay, Eden Project, Tintagel etc.

Kids would love the adventure of a Scillies trip with boats, sand, exploring and maybe camping. Singles can also have a great time. But I think the group that would get the most out of the holiday are couples and if they like walking, they’ll have found paradise.

There are the normal hotels, guest houses, B&B’s etc and there are campsites on four of the islands.

In normal resorts, there are a always a host of leaflets, advertising, promotions, posters etc, but the Scilly Isles are more of a place in which the attractions are there, but only if you look. It’s good to do homework before you go.