St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly – Island #23

The Isles of Scilly are an archipelago of 5 inhabited and 140 uninhabited islands situated 35 miles off the coast of Cornwall in South West England.  The inhabited islands are St Mary’s; Tresco; St Martin’s; Bryher and St Agnes.  Unfortunately – due to limited time and money (accommodation is expensive here) – I was only able to visit St Mary’s. It’s a long way to go for a day trip but it was worth it just to get a tiny taste of these beautiful little islands.

The Scillonian departs daily from Penzance and takes approximately 2 hours 45 minutes to St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly – it’s single destination.  It returns later the same day.  On a clear day (which we didn’t have) it must be an interesting voyage along the Cornish coast and past Land’s End and the offshore lighthouse. On arrival in St Mary’s, visitors heading for the other islands are met by smaller boats at The Quay in Hugh Town for onward transportation to their island of choice.  Luggage is efficiently sorted into containers on the quayside in Penzance which are then loaded onto the Scillonian and winched off in St Mary’s onto the waiting smaller boats – a very slick operation.

It was a dismal, dark, wet and miserable day in Penzance as we set off.  Following advice from the more experienced, I sat resolutely out on deck well wrapped up (and freezing), watching the horizon and nibbling on digestive biscuits to keep seasickness at bay. It worked for me – although others around me weren’t so fortunate! (You can fly there!) Grey seas met grey sky for most of the journey but, as we approached the islands, the colour of the water started to change from gunmetal grey to blue to a spectacular turquoise and the sun started to peek out! The transformation was astonishing!

The boat made its way past several inhabited and uninhabited low-lying islands until we arrived into the boat-filled natural harbour of St Mary’s. Just as we arrived the battery on my camera died! Disaster! So I spent all day finding places to re-charge my phone so I could take photos on that!

St Mary’s is the largest and busiest island (population 1,800) and serves as the gateway to the rest of the islands with its busy harbour and the only airport in the islands. Less than 2.5 square miles in size, St Mary’s is as close to bustling as it gets around these parts. The view from the Scillonian is of lots of small grey and white stone houses, pale yellow sandy beaches, a little fortress and boats, lots and lots of boats.  The islands, warmed by their proximity to the gulf stream, are famous for their micro-climate and the unusual and wonderful flowers that grow here. Many of the UK’s cut flowers are grow here.

As I only had 4 hours to explore, I headed to the Tourist information office where I bought a brilliant map for a £1 and was sent off by the helpful staff on a fabulous walk following the coastal path around the south-facing Peninnis peninsular to Old Town.  The walk took me across the beautiful sandy Porthcressa beach and around Peninnis Head. Walking on springy moss sprinkled with tiny wild flowers, the path snaked past ancient lichen-covered, dry-stone walls and I saw very few other people. The views from the path were stunning and the sea was crystal clear and a beautiful pale turquoise colour.  I passed the working Peninnis lighthouse, made of metal and first lit in 1911, and some stunning and enormous rock formations before arriving into Old Town Bay.  Sir Harold Wilson lies buried here in the graveyard of the tiny and beautiful church right next to the sea. (I didn’t know that until later so didn’t visit his grave!)

The miniscule airport is on the hill above Old Town and tiny planes ferry visitors to and from the mainland airports of Exeter, Newquay and Land’s End. Old Town is a tiny place with one pub, one lively café, an art gallery and a collection of houses and B&Bs clustered behind a pretty white sandy bay.  I stopped for a prawn sandwich, a glass of wine and to make use of the phone-charging facilities in the pub and continued my walk back across the island via the Lower Moors Nature Trail where carefully constructed boardwalks take you through marshland dotted with water irises and other aquatic plants and flowers. The walk brings you back to Porthmellon Beach to continue along the north coast back to Hugh Town. A fantastic walk!

The final part of my walk brought me full circle back to the white sandy crescent that is Hugh Town beach and a view of the Scillonian across the bay waiting to transport us back to Cornwall.  With half an hour to spare, I popped into the pub to have a last drink and re-charge my phone yet again and – the world being a very small place – stood at the bar right behind some friends of mine from the Cotswolds! The Wilkinsons had just arrived that day for a week’s holiday so I had a glass of wine with them out on the sunny terrace and they waved me off at quayside!

The Isles of Scilly are uniquely fascinating and visually stunning, full of history, flowers and natural beauty.  I completely understand why people return every year.  On the boat on the way back, I chatted to an elderly couple who lived on Bryher.  They told me about their life there and that their children had left to experience life on the mainland but were now grown up and in the process of coming back and starting businesses back in the Scillies. It must be an amazing place to grow up. I am delighted to have visited these beautiful and friendly islands but frustrated not to have seen more of them. I’ll be back with my tent and my walking boots – there’s so much more to see.  Don’t go for a day trip – it’s nowhere near long enough…..


NEXT ISLAND:  Off to Greece next for a visit to the Western Cyclades starting with Milos.

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