The summers of my childhood, in Seventies Cornwall, etched the notion of holiday into my conscience as if shaped by grains of sand blown in on the Atlantic wind. Bodyboarding, rock-pooling, sailing across the estuary in a dinghy in the days before celebrity fish and chips and bare-bulb coffee shops, when the roads to the beaches were not jammed from May to September and rental cottages were damp with candlewick bedspreads.
This time-warp Cornwall still exists, 25 miles and 100 years adrift off Land’s End, in the Isles of Scilly (you’ll be chastised for calling them the Scilly Isles, or even worse, the Scillies). Life is ruled by the tides; so is fashion. These drowsy little islands are often compared to more exotic ones: Mustique, Mahé, the Maldives. Yet their rugged beauty is the far more devastating sort that catches your breath and fills your heart.
Distilled here are all the elements of nostalgia. Salt-spun air. Light. Clarity. Days – like those I experienced one recent summer on Tresco – are spent seeking adventures in coves and caves, messing about on the water, lunches of crab sandwiches and gin and tonics. Narrow lanes are flanked by banks of purple rhododendrons growing wild. Coastal paths lead to beach after soul-stirring beach, finest, whitest sand shot through with silver and gold. The shorelines are rich pickings for beachcombers: drift-wood and marble, cowries and exoskeletons.
Within the atoll, a basin of swirls and eddies of the most astonishing turquoise water that inspires those tropical comparisons is dotted with uninhabited fragments of rock. St Mary’s is ‘the big island’. It has a cashpoint, a Co-op, shops selling waterproof clothing and even, in places, phone signal. Free spirits head to the four ‘off-islands’: Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes.
Here and there are small signs of change. Resourceful islanders have looked outwards, launching independent outfits championing local produce in new ways. But what remains is a strong sense of the archipelago’s character. Scilly’s appeal is precisely its go-slow timelessness. Its pristine beaches, its clear sea, its skies unpolluted, empty spaces for resetting.
One morning, on a boat off Appletree Bay, I dropped my phone overboard, lost immediately to the absurdly bright waters. It was a final farewell to the trappings of modern life – things you think you can’t live without, until you do, and remember that holidays are about what is happening right here, right now, on a boat cutting through the blue.
LONG-ESTABLISHED LOCALS TELL THEIR OFFSHORE STORIES
Richard Pearce moved to Bryher when St Mary’s, where he was born, became too busy. ‘Island rivalry goes back generations. The Pearces have lived on Scilly since the 1830s. Growing up, sports day was a big competition; the St Martin’s boys out-pegged us St Mary’s lads – most of them were working the land by the time they were 10 and we were soft in comparison. All the island children were taken by boat to the uninhabited island of Samson where we would race on the long spit of sand – the wind got to the sandwiches laid out on trestle tables before we did.
As a boy I would stand on St Mary’s strand and watch the flicker of off-island lights at night. Years later, my wife Caroline and I left for Bryher – the distance was short but the change was immense. Everyone here has their role: the crab picker, the fisherman, the blacksmith-builder-fireman. I am the artist working in the old gig-boat shed on the beach. The ocean surrounds us – tales are told of piracy and wrecking, of false lights and looting – vast reaches of indigo, cobalt, cerulean, turquoise, deepest marine, palest sapphire, endless blue. The back wall of the studio is floor-to-ceiling glass, so I can watch the day as it moves through changes of colour.’
Aiden Hicks’s family has tended to their 14 acres on tiny St Agnes, the British Isles’ most south-westerly point, for centuries. ‘In a way, St Agnes is closer to the past than the other islands; it’s raw and rugged. There’s a freedom to explore here that you don’t get on the mainland. I’ve never felt bored, and you have to be much more self-reliant. You grow up as a community; there’s not a sense of “this is what the adults do” and “this is what the kids do”. I’m at least the seventh youngest son of the youngest son in a row to take on Westward Farms. My eldest brother runs the post-office shop and another moved to New Zealand (a lot of islanders end up there – it has a similar feel to Scilly).
Historically we were flower growers, but had to diversify when we were priced out by the Dutch. My mother started producing essential oils – camomile, lavender, rosemary – from which we make soaps for our brand 28. When I was recovering from a brain haemorrhage in 2016 I set about creating a gin distillery too. Each island has its own businesses – I love looking at my plate and knowing that everything I’m eating is local, right down to the salt from St Martin’s.’
Val Thomas, who sold Scilly’s first vineyard last year, is the chair of COSMOS, which opened an observatory on St Martin’s in 2019. ‘I’ve always looked up rather than down. On St Martin’s we have such clear skies, but it’s not only the lack of light pollution that makes stargazing so good here – the fact that we are surrounded by sea, which heats up and cools down more slowly than the land, means there’s less atmospheric interference for viewing deep space. Our amateur astronomical society started at the pub; we now have two domes kitted out with powerful telescopes and are hosting the first Scilly Dark Skies Week in October.
My husband Graham and I launched the vineyard on my family’s farm in 1996. The couple who recently took over discovered it was for sale by chance on a tasting tour in 2018 and upped sticks from Brighton. People like the tranquillity of St Martin’s, but it’s very much a working island too, unlike neighbouring Tresco. There’s one road – we call it the motorway. My many-great grandfather Gibson arrived here from Scotland in the 1600s; he was on a boat bound for America but got so seasick that he begged to get off – and we never left.’
St Mary’s native Nikki Banfield works with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust to safeguard the archipelago’s unique habitats. ‘Off-islanders might look down on St Mary’s – it’s like London to them – but in countryside such as Holy Vale it is very different. Head left from my house and there are massive elms that are centuries old. Beyond are wetland sites with irises everywhere. Further on is a beautiful gravel beach, coastal heaths – the heather a carpet of purple and pink – and the heartland sculpted by wind and sea. It’s an ecosystem rarer than rainforest. Last year a humpback whale spent Christmas mooching around the islands. My mother’s family were the last to leave nearby Samson in the late 1800s, and we’ve been mostly on St Mary’s since then. Everywhere you go, you know what your ancestors were doing there; the archaeology is fascinating. But we also notice the effects of climate change first. St Mary’s is already on a sandbar that floods, so if sea levels rise…. Atlantic grey seals are in danger of more severe winter storms that wash away their young, while seabirds struggle to find food. It’s such an important place to protect.’
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