In June we took the 20 minute flight from Land’s End to the Isles of Scilly. Ever since visiting as a 13-year old, Jane has seen the islands as a little slice of paradise, just 28 miles from mainland Britain.
Some years ago we took a daytrip by plane to St Mary’s to look at prehistoric tombs, but since then had still not got around to going back and exploring the Isles properly. Then last year, one of our friends mentioned swimming with wild seals there. From that moment on, I knew we’d be going before long – Jane wouldn’t be able to resist…. More about seals later!
And Jane wasn’t wrong about paradise! Even with tourists, few places are at all busy and it’s easy to find superbly quiet places where you hardly see anyone.
I’d found St Mary’s beautiful on our daytrip, but getting out amongst the islands adds a whole new dimension. Exploring is easy as the boats to different islands are almost like buses. I find boat trips nearly always make places feel special, and each trip we made to another island offered us a new special place. Once on your chosen island, there are few roads but numerous foot and bridlepaths. Jane found plenty of places ripe for sketching and painting – below is a spread from her sketchbook showing a view from Tresco island.
None of the islands are big and some are tiny – St Mary’s is the largest and even Jane, who hates walking, once managed to walk round the coast of St Mary’s in a day. The circular bus round the (only) tiny ‘main’ road on St Mary’s takes 17 minutes to complete its route, and lots of gorgeous places are a short walk from one bus stop or another. We took a busride to Porth Hellick on the east coast of St Mary’s, where Jane completed a lovely watercolour sketch (below) and I found lovely birdlife.
Exploring the islands
Most of the islands are green with rocky bits, but that’s about all they have in common. On the greenest islands, like St Mary’s and Tresco, the botany is varied and fascinating – thanks to the climate and the rarity of frost, while other islands are really craggy, feeling exposed and wild. Some have gorgeous sandy beaches, others have rocky coastlines – and some have both. Hughtown on St Mary’s is the only place you could call even a small town, and some islands are uninhabited. Meanwhile, St Martin’s (below, photographed from the boat) seems to have a bit of everything!
The natural world
If botany or gardening lights your candle, then a visit to Tresco Abbey Garden is a must (see Jane’s watercolour sketch, left). A sub-tropical garden gem with thousands of exotic plants, described as “a perennial Kew without the glass”. A wonderful surprise here was that a few years ago, red squirrels were introduced to the island and are now thriving!
Wildlife is another popular attraction, especially for us! The coastlines attract a variety of seabirds, including rare breeding Manx shearwaters. The position of the islands in the Atlantic also means that they are often the first ‘landfall’, both for migrant birds and even for birds blown off course from the Americas. Even if you’re not lucky enough to spot an unusual visitor, wildlife thrives in the varied and unspoilt habitats. We weren’t lucky with very rare wildlife, but got brilliant views of a lot of birds we don’t see that often (like the male stonechat below) and the red squirrels in the Tresco Abbey Garden were thrilling!
Despite our holiday home being right in the centre of Hughtown, we also found that garden birds are common and friendly. It took us back to the days when house sparrows and songthrushes were ever present in most gardens. In fact, we found that both these birds were common and confiding all over the islands.
Swimming with seals at last!
Some years ago, Jane narrowly missed out on swimming with wild sea lions in New Zealand due to rough weather. So one of the highlights of the holiday was always going to be swimming with the wild grey seals!
The lovely and incredibly helpful Anna and Lewis of Scilly Seal Snorkeling came to St Mary’s harbour to pick us up early, and at their base on St Martin’s Jane was kitted out with wetsuit and snorkeling gear. Soon we were aboard their little ‘rib’ style boat with another family to head into the Eastern Isles to find the seals. I don’t do water but I do do photographs, so I was nearly as excited as Jane. Before long we found the seals on rocks off Menawethan island. As ever, Jane didn’t waste any time at all and equipped with her trusty GoPro camera in its waterproof case, she hit the water.
The seals are delightfully inquisitive and more-or-less guaranteed to check out people in the water, coming spectacularly close and sometimes even nibbling swimmers’ fins. Jane got some great shots and found the experience really moving, as well as exciting (despite being seasick)! It was a totally fantastic experience for both of us, thanks to Anna and Lewis. More photos of Jane and the seals.
A marvellous, relaxing week, and all at the slower pace of life you often find when you’re on islands!
Photos by Moth Clark, except Hughtown from the air and underwater grey seal by Jane.
For more information about the Isles of Scilly, visit https://www.visitislesofscilly.com/