Harbor at St. Mary'sLow Key Entertainment
Most entertainment on the Scillies is home-grown. It includes musical performances by the local choral society, family quiz night at the local pub--a sort of do-it-yourself Jeopardy game with prizes awarded at the end of the evening to the table that answers the most questions correctly–as well as slide shows and boat races. One evening we went to a shipwreck slide show at the Methodist Church hall where we sat on folding chairs and were regaled with witty stories of ships that have gone afoul in Scilly waters. The program featured the 1998 wreck of the German container ship, the Cita, whose captain had apparently gone to sleep at the wheel, only to wake up and find his ship stuck on a reef. The ship quickly broke up, littering the shore of St. Mary’s for weeks with designer shirts, baby clothes and sneakers (or trainers as they call them in Britain), tires, Toyota parts, plastic Irish fridge magnets and more. Photos and samples are on display in the museum.
Ships traveling through the Scilly Isles usually depend on local pilots to guide them safely through the channel or to bring them into harbor. In the nineteenth century, pilots competed to guide ships through the area. As soon as a ship was spotted, each pilot and his six man rowing crew jumped into their wooden boat, or gig, and raced out to meet it. The first to arrive got the job and the fee, so the pilots with the strongest, fastest crews were the most successful. Today, piloting is mechanized, but gig racing has become a professional sport, with races held throughout the summer. On the Friday evening we were there, it seemed as if the entire population of St. Mary’s had assembled on the quay to cheer on their favorite team. We watched from the opposite shore, in the garden of Juliet’s restaurant, using our binoculars to spot the boats as they approached the finish line. Later we enjoyed a spectacular sunset.
Playing Golf on St. Mary'sOne day we played golf, primarily to enjoy the beautiful location of the golf course. Perched high on the moor, it provides views of the islands all the way to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, Britain’s most westerly beacon, and the marker for the entrance to the English Channel. Our main challenge was keeping the ball on the fairway and not in the surrounding rocks, bracken, heather, or cow pasture. As it happened, we were almost alone on the course. The Scillies are sufficiently north to provide long summer days, and with twilight lingering late into the evening, one can begin a round of golf as late as 5:00 in the afternoon. We, however, started in the morning, and stopped halfway through for lunch at the clubhouse, where I ordered a sausage bap. Baps (buns) and other delicious fresh bread are available daily from a bakery on St. Mary’s. Another favorite lunch was Cornish pasties, the meat filled pies typical of the region, available at the butcher shop.
Cornish Cream Teas, Pasties and More
During the summer tourist season accommodations fill up quickly; most bed and breakfast establishments will only take a reservation for a week at a time. (Hotels book on a daily basis, but are more expensive.) We felt lucky to get a reservation at Eastbank–probably because it hasn’t yet been discovered. The owners were welcoming and provided us with more than enough breakfast food, which we served ourselves in a separate kitchen/living room that we shared with two other guests. They also gave us advice on restaurants and warned us that we should make dinner reservations a day or more in advance unless we wanted to eat at one of the pubs, which don’t require reservations, but where the food is typically English–hearty and served with lots of fries. The top of their restaurant list, and our favorite, was Chez Michel, housed in a tiny stone cottage in Hugh Town and specializing in Continental style food. On our first visit we arrived at a particularly chaotic moment and the waitress joked that we had come to Fawlty Towers, but after a glass of sherry, things settled down and we enjoyed a delicious meal. That night we ordered noisettes of lamb--tender pieces of meat served with a rich brown sauce and spinach souffle; another night we had duck with cranberries and fresh garden vegetables.
The best foods in the Scillies are the local specialties. Fish is always fresh and in summer so are the local vegetables. Tomatoes were in season and we enjoyed them on sandwiches, in salads and soups, and roasted. On several afternoons we treated ourselves to a Cornish cream tea. Small scones are served warm with fresh clotted cream, a heavenly product halfway between butter and whipped cream, and strawberry jam. With a cup of hot English tea, it is the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.
Bulbs and Produce for sale at side of road
Fresh Spring Flowers
Popular souvenirs from the Scillies are the locally grown flower bulbs. The mild climate of the Scillies makes it ideal for growing daffodils and other flowers, which mature earlier in the season than elsewhere in the British Isles, giving the Scilly growers a jump start on the market each spring. Fall is planting season, and we saw huge sacks in the fields, full of bulbs waiting to be put in the ground. I wished I could bring some bulbs home but knew that we would never get them past U.S. customs officers. Instead we bought some scenic watercolor prints at the Nan Heath gallery, one of the several art and craft studios on the islands. Watercolor is the ideal medium for capturing the brilliant light and clear waters that bathe the Scillies, and the deftly painted pictures will continue to remind us of some of our favorite spots.
Locked in Time
Although the Scilly Isles are a popular holiday spot for Brits and some French vacationers who sail across the channel in their private yachts, they off the radar screen for most Americans. During our week in the islands we encountered only one other American, a woman we met on the path in front of the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. She had flown over for the afternoon from the mainland and stopped us to ask if we knew where she could go shopping! We had to tell her that besides the garden gift shop, there was no place to shop on Tresco. If she had come for a longer visit she would have found a number of souvenir shops along the main street in Hugh Town on St. Mary’s.
Even though tourism is now the primary industry in the Scillies, the local residents are working hard to prevent the kind of large scale development and commercialism that would ruin the small town and rural charm of the islands. We were told that building permits are impossible to get except to replace an already existing building. And since most buildings are constructed of sturdy stone and old enough to be protected as historical structures, the town hasn’t changed much since the end of the last century. Our bed and breakfast was unusual in that it was entirely new construction. The owners had been able to build a new house only because the previous one had been filled with asbestos and had to be destroyed. We were among their first season’s guests.
Back to the Mainland
Flying Back to Land's EndFerry service from Penzance to St. Mary’s runs Monday through Saturday, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon. (Sunday is a blessedly quiet day with no air or ferry service, and therefore no influx of day trippers. ) For our return trip to the mainland we took a small plane so that we would get there early enough to catch the train that day back to London. When we arrived at the tiny airport, we not only had to weigh our luggage, but step on the scales ourselves! We realized as we climbed into the plane behind the pilot that every pound had to be accounted for in arranging passengers and luggage in our ten seat fixed wing aircraft. As we roared down the short runway toward the ocean it seemed as if we would plunge into the sea, but as we crested the hill the plane lifted into the air. Ten minutes later we touched down at Land’s End in Cornwall, where a bus was waiting to take us into Penzance and the train station.
Before our trip to the Scillies we had been advised to get travel insurance on the off chance that the boat or plane might be cancelled. Storms and fog have been known to cut off the Scillies from the mainland for days, although usually not in summer. We never needed the insurance and had the good luck to enjoy a week of perfect weather–not too hot or cold and no wind or rain. We had chosen the Scilly Isles as the place for our summer holiday without knowing much about it. Now that we’ve been there, we can see why people go back again and again.
Our trip to the Isles of Scilly was in August 2003.
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