It’s a question that seems to follow me down the narrow lanes of St. Mary’s, the main island in the impossibly scenic Isles of Scilly. Here the slender roads seem to wander at random, encouraging visitors to wander beside fields where flowers bloom, sheep graze and rabbits skitter between the hedgerows. Fringed by brambles and rambling berries, the maze of footpaths and country lanes is heaven for eco-conscious travellers who’d rather strap on their walking shoes than climb into a tour bus.
But perhaps I’d better sit down on this dry-stone wall and backtrack a few steps.
The ‘Isles of Scilly’ I hear you ask? Yes, yes, the silly puns have all been made before, but I’m dead serious when I say that these idyllic isles are one of the most beautiful corners of the United Kingdom and one that few South Africans tend to visit.
Cast away in the Atlantic Ocean some 45 kilometres from the British mainland, the Isles are a sub-tropical slice of England that’s a world away from the smoggy skies of London, enjoying mild temperatures and more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK.
As any South African who’s worked in London will know, sun is in short supply in England, which is why in the mid-1900s Scilly boomed as the country’s most important flower grower. Today, with flowers jetting in overnight from Kenya, the flower farms lie fallow and just a few small-scale operations dot the roadside, selling cut flowers and the famous narcissus bulbs of Scilly.
Nowadays tourism is the mainstay of the islands and although over 200 chunks of rock make up the Isles, just five of them are inhabited: St. Mary’s, St. Martin’s, Tresco, Bryher and St. Agnes. The rest are left to the elements, under the stewardship of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.
Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1975, almost all of Scilly belongs to Prince Charles – under the Duchy of Cornwall – who rents the uninhabited areas to the Trust for the princely sum of one daffodil per annum. Delightful.
St. Mary’s is the hub of the Scillies; home to the airport, heliport and ferry harbour. The scheduled plane and chopper services will fly you to the mainland in just 20 minutes, while the ferry will take a little longer. Once you arrive, the pace slows down considerably. There are no hire cars available on the islands, so the tinkle of bicycle bells is about all that will disturb walkers in the country lanes.
Well, that and the chatter of bird-song.
“We get some good old gales blowing through here,” smiles Will Wagstaff, local ornithologist and tour guide. “With the wind, we get migratory birds blown off course from as far afield as America, 3000 miles away!”
When he’s not ‘twitching’ further afield Wagstaff leads meandering nature walks across St. Mary’s, introducing visitors to the unique flora and fauna of the island. Edible flowers, arcane insects and – especially – the islands’ rich birdlife are unearthed and explained.
“We even get the Arctic Skua here,” says Will. “They’re always chasing after a share of whatever the other birds have caught. A bit like nature’s taxmen!”
I leave the rambling birders to their lunch break and take a wander down towards Hugh town, the life and soul of St. Mary’s. It’s boatmen, not taxmen I’m interested in.
With so many islands scattered across the unpredictable Atlantic, the islands have a strong sea-faring tradition; a history best explored amongst the ‘gigs’ at The Boatshed on the beachfront.
The 32-foot rowing gigs restored here have been a part of the Isles since the 18th century; a time when ‘ships were made of wood, and men were made of iron!’ Teams of islanders would race the gigs out to passing ships, and the first to reach it won the job of piloting the ship safely into harbour. These fast agile boats were also popular with tobacco and alcohol smugglers, and eventually gigs were banned from having eight oars as the Customs and Excise officers couldn’t catch them!
Wandering along the seafront into town you’ll also pass the bus stop, where ‘Katie’ – a classic touring bus – departs every few hours for tours of the island. St. Mary’s is an island made for walking, but if your dogs are tired you could be forgiven for a few hours of four-wheeled sightseeing.
Hugh Town itself is just a few streets across, but is home to everything a small village needs to look after locals and visitors alike. The bakery in Garrison Lane makes some of the best Cornish pasties you’ll ever taste, while the Mermaid Inn is usually well stocked with a few kegs of ‘Scuppered’ and ‘Firebrand’, brewed locally by the cheekily named Ales of Scilly.
From The Mermaid’s restaurant you can watch the comings and goings of the harbour, where there’s a buzz throughout the day.
The local Boatmen’s Association runs daily scheduled services to the ‘off-islands’, as well as sightseeing tours to uninhabited islands further afield. With your boat schedule in hand and a few quid in your pocket it’s the best spot to start your island-hopping, and you can easily spend the morning wandering across St. Agnes, hop over for lunch on St. Martin’s before ending up back on St. Mary’s for a dinner of fresh local crab at ‘The Galley’.
My destination is the pint-sized island of Tresco though. I throw my bag into the open-top boat and the engines rumble us across the bay. The aquamarine water is what I’d expect to find in the Maldives, and glistening sandbanks betray the tidal races that make these waters so treacherous.
Tresco has all the natural beauty and tranquillity of the other isles, but with one trump card up its sleeve: the Tresco Abbey Gardens.
Hailed as ‘Kew Gardens with the roof off’ the Abbey Gardens were laid out in the early-1800s by Augustus Smith, who would cajole passing ships to give him plants from the four corners of the globe.
By fashioning tall windbreaks he funnelled the howling Atlantic gales up and over his fledgling garden, and built terraces to provide the right conditions for plants from across the planet. Today, over 20 000 species from 80 countries – including South Africa – thrive in this magical mystery garden.
Statues hide around corners, quiet benches beckon you to stay awhile, and Neptune gazes over the garden towards the distant sea. Yes, even in this earthy garden the sea plays its part. The Valhalla Museum is home to a fascinating collection of intricately carved figureheads and historic artefacts from over 60 ships wrecked on the Isles of Scilly in the last 200 years.
The sailors tossed ashore here over the centuries may have found it a windswept, forbidding place, but in the bright autumn sunshine it’s hard to think of a prettier corner of the British Isles. I leave the gardens behind and wander up the western edge of Tresco, hoping for a pint of ‘Scuppered’ in the local pub. With the lights of my hotel twinkling across the channel I can think of few better places to be shipwrecked.