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Truly, these are 'The Fortunate Isles'...
Isles of Scilly in General
Member Name: islander13957
Isles of Scilly in General
Date: 04/01/01, updated on 24/03/03 (802 review reads)
Advantages: Heaven on earth!
Disadvantages: Much more expensive than a package holiday...
The Isles of Scilly are a small group of islands lying in the deep waters of the Atlantic about twenty eight miles from the dramatic granite cliffs of Lands End in Cornwall. They lie at latitude 49 degrees 55 minutes north, longitude 6 degrees 19 minutes west and their position gives them an enviably mild and pleasant climate. This means that frost is very rare, snow is probably only experienced once or twice in a decade, and narcissi are picked for market in the tiny flower fields from October to March.
Forming a loose loop around a sheltered channel called the Roadstead, the Isles of Scilly consist of five main inhabited islands together with a huge collection of small rocky outcrops of granite varying from over a hundred yards across to mere pinnacles jutting from the sea. Taken together, the five largest islands cover a total of 3,573 square acres and have a total population of around two thousand people. The archipelago covers forty five square sea miles in all and even the smallest granite rock that sticks its nose above the sea is honoured with a name. Some are quite amusing, such as 'Dry Splat' and others indicate a fearsome danger such as 'Hellweathers Brow'.
Ancient Greek and Latin mythology makes frequent mention of islands situated beyond the Pillars of Hercules (taken to refer to the Straits of Gibraltar) which were known by various names including The Isles of the Blest, the Hesperides or, simply, The Fortunate Islands. To these islands in legend, dead heroes were brought and they lived forever in peace and abundance, rendered immortal and kept safe, far beyond the knowledge of the world. Celtic legends and folklore, speak of Avalon, fabled last resting place of King Arthur, whose body was carried across the sea aboard an enchanted boat.
Whether these fabled places are references to the Isles of Scilly is unknown but, from archaeological evidence unearthed over many centuries, it is clear that the islands h
ave been inhabited for over four thousand years. To support this view, you need only to consider the extraordinary number of chambered megalithic barrows that have been identified on Scilly. These ancient burial mounds are so plentiful as to indicate a large, rich and powerful population - unlikely given its area. However, it would have been quite feasible for people to bury their dead princes and leaders on remote, inaccessible islands to keep them and their treasures safe from harm. Furthermore, it was believed that the spirit of the dead could not cross water. What better way to make sure that a powerful chief, once dead, was unable to return to make mischief for those who succeeded him?
The Isles of Scilly have sometimes tentatively been identified with The Cassiterides (the Tin Islands) visited by Phoenician traders about a thousand years before Christ. From 400 to 1100 A.D., there were Christian hermits living on the Scillies, including St. Elid, the most famous, who lived on St. Helen's. In his memory, boatloads of locals and visitors make a pilgrimage to the island every summer to hold an open-air service. There is even an ancient saga telling the story of Olaf Tryggvesson, King of Norway, who came to the Scillies around 990 A.D. and was converted to Christianity during his stay. He returned to his kingdom with 'learned men and priests' from Scilly and introduced Christianity to Norway and Iceland.
In 1114, Tresco was granted to the Abbey of Tavistock by King Henry I and a Benedictine Priory dedicated to St. Nicholas was built. In 1337, the islands were included in the Duchy of Cornwall and were bestowed upon Edward, the Black Prince. In 1593 Queen Elizabeth I built a star-shaped granite castle high on the fortified Garrison of St. Marys to prevent the islands being captured by the Spanish and used as a base to attack England (it is now a hotel and known, oddly enough, as Star Castle Hotel!). Here, in 1646, Prince Charles
er to be Charles II, took refuge from for six weeks during the English Civil War, before he and his entourage escaped to the Channel Islands and thence to France.
Between 1646 and 1651, the islands were controlled by Sir John Grenville, a Royalist, and became a centre for pirates, plundering ships as they sailed past, regardless of their nationality. This led to Holland declaring war on Scilly! Admiral Van Tromp sailed to the islands with twelve powerful Dutch men-of-war, intending to punish the pirates. He was forestalled and persuaded to leave the troublemakers to British justice by Admiral Blake who arrived in the nick of time with a Parliamentary fleet. Blake managed to capture Tresco with its gun batteries commanding the routes into safe waters, and forced Grenville and his rebels to surrender. An interesting footnote to this story is that, although Holland formally declared war on Scilly, a peace was never concluded - until a few years ago, when someone read about it and thought it would be excellent publicity for the islands. So the Dutch Ambassador and the Chairman of the Islands Council met to sign a peace treaty - after over three hundred years of formally being at war!
On October 22nd 1707, Scilly was the location of the worst peace-time disaster in British naval history when the twenty one ship fleet commanded by Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was returning home after the siege of Toulon in the south of France. A great storm struck and five ships came to grief on the treacherous Western Rocks of Scilly. The most famous of the five was the Association, mighty flagship of Sir Cloudesley himself, which was rediscovered by divers in the late 1960s and has yielded many fascinating artifacts - including the Admiral's chamber pot complete with crest! The other ships were the seventy gun Eagle, the fifty gun Romney, and the fireships Phoenix and Firebrand. In all, nearly 2000 men lost their lives during that terrible night.
5, the celebrated steamship 'Schiller', one of the largest passenger vessels of her day, was on route from New York to Plymouth when she struck the Retarrier Ledges (part of the western reefs) in dense fog and sank. Although the 'Schiller' was a German vessel and carried few British passengers, there was a full complement of German and American passengers on board. Furthermore, a dance was in progress which meant that many of the female passengers were resplendent in full evening dress and jewels. More than 300 crewmembers and passengers lost their lives. Today, in Old Town churchyard on St. Marys, the great granite obelisk dedicated to Louise Holzmeister, one of the victims of the disaster, stands overlooking the little church down below. In fact, during the First World War, the Kaiser was so grateful for the courageous rescue attempts made by the islanders and their care for survivors of the Schiller disaster, that he forbade any German U-boat to attack the steamers that sailed between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly.
In 1834, a member of an old Hertfordshire family, Augustus John Smith, leased the islands from the Crown. In effect, he ruled the Scillies as Lord Proprietor for thirty nine years. His rule is generally said to have been benevolent but autocratic. In fact, he took some very tough decisions including land reform, removing families from Samson due to untenable poverty, deportation of paupers and eviction from the islands of those who disagreed with him. He enforced schooling for island children in the 1850s, (about thirty years before the Foster Act made education compulsory on the mainland). Attendance was ensured by charging tenants one penny per week for each child.... and fining them two pence if the child failed to attend! Boatbuilding also gained importance on Scilly and well-educated Scillonians, with their seafaring heritage, were ideally suited as officers. In fact, it was said that Scillonians 'b
efore the mast&
#39; were a rarity! Today, Prince Charles, as the present Duke of Cornwall, maintains a Land Steward to oversee this small corner of his domain and Tresco is still leased directly by the descendants of Augustus.
The largest island is St. Marys at three miles long and a mile and a half wide, covering about 1,611 square acres. If you imagine a figure 8 with a very small fortified top loop and a much larger bottom loop, you will have a good idea of its shape. The narrow isthmus in the middle joining the two loops is only 150 yards wide. The 'capital' of the Isles of Scilly, known as Hugh Town, is packed into this space, spilling out onto the shoulders of the loops on either side. Hugh Town is the administrative centre of the Isles of Scilly and its Council has full county council status (which leads to some interesting and often frustrating anomalies when compared to big councils on the mainland!) About three quarters of the Islands' population lives on St. Marys and, amusingly enough, the majority live 'in town' while the rest are scattered out 'in the country'! St. Marys is the only island with proper metalled roads - no more than ten miles... and island motorists have the unenviable privilege of paying a full UK road tax to drive on them....
To the north-east of St. Marys, lies St. Martins which is the nearest of the islands to the mainland. Quite a long thin island covering about 552 acres in all, it boasts some of the most wonderful white sand beaches imaginable, including the graceful arc of Great Bay. On the most easterly headland of St. Martins, at a land height of 160 feet, stands the majestic tall conical tower of the Daymark which is painted in broad red and white stripes for obvious reasons. St. Martins has three settlements which are just clusters of houses, inventively named Higher Town, Middle Town and.. yes.. Lower Town.
Moving anti-clockwise, the next island is Tresco, the s
econd largest island
in the group at about 735 square acres. It is about a mile from St. Marys and a mile from St. Martins. This is the seat of the Dorrien-Smith family, descendants of Augustus John Smith, who lease Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall still. Here you will find what is probably the most well-known facet of Scilly, the world famous sub-tropical Tresco Abbey Gardens. It is the only place in the UK where you will find rare and beautiful plants from all over the world growing out in the open. A tall puya plant from Tresco, its flowerspike nearly ten feet tall and smothered in brilliant green hooded flowers, caused quite a stir at Chelsea Flower Show a few years back. Heavily-perfumed auratum lilies from Japan, scarlet-flowered New Zealand Christmas trees, succulent spiky agaves, exotic proteas, stunning 'silver trees', broad mounds of purple and red geraniums and towering blue echium spires are only a few of the breathtaking species on view at various times of the year. The three grouped clusters of houses on Tresco bear the unusual names of New Grimsby (the 'capital'), Old Grimsby and, quaintest of all, Dolphin Town.
Nestled against the flank of Tresco, with only quarter of a mile of sand flats separating the two, lies Bryher which is the smallest inhabited island of the Scillies at only 317 square acres. Despite its small size, it has its own quite distinct character with towering Shipman Head and Hell Bay at the bleak northern end of the island and the pink thrift-cloaked dunes encircling the sheltered sandy retreat of Rushy Bay in the south. South of Bryher lies Samson which is simply two hills (yes, North Hill and South Hill!) joined by a low girdle of land. This is the legendary setting for Sir Walter Besant's novel 'Armorel of Lyonesse' and there is a ruined cottage where she is reputed to have lived. More recently, "Why the Whales came", a 1989 film version of Michael Morpurgo's book of the
same name set in 1914, wa
s made on Bryher using a cast of local people. Two island children took major parts alongside such British luminaries as Paul Scofield, Helen Mirren, Helen Pearce, Max Rennie, David Suchet, David Threlfall, Barbara Jefford and Jeremy Kemp. The slow opening sunrise sequence is just breathtaking....
Last, but by no means least, is the most south-westerly inhabited island of the British Isles, St. Agnes and its sibling island of Gugh (pronounced to rhyme with 'hugh'). When combined, their acreage is 358 but they are joined by a sand bar which is exposed at low tide and covered when the tide comes in. This makes it (along with the sandbar connecting St. Marys and the much smaller uninhabited Tolls Island) one of the most dangerous places for bathing on Scilly due to undertows and currents. St. Agnes is usually referred to as plain 'Agnes' on Scilly and is only three quarters of a mile long by half a mile wide. It is separated from the rest of the islands by a deep water channel known as St. Marys Sound. Further out from St. Agnes/Gugh is the bird sanctuary of Annet and, further out still, the famous 168ft pinnacle of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse - next stop America! This is the finish line for the transatlantic speed crossing. Richard Branson broke the record back in the summer of 1986 in Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, a huge powerboat, and got chucked into the harbour as part of the victory celebrations!
Today, the Isles of Scilly are involved mainly in tourism. During the season, visitors can travel to the islands aboard the modern steamship R.M.V. Scillonian III which takes about three hours to cross from Penzance to St. Marys. There are small fixed-wing planes taking between six and nine passengers which leave St. Just Airport at Lands End and arrive at the airport on St. Marys about fifteen minutes later. But, most exciting of all, is the only scheduled passenger helicopter service in the UK. (The Sikor
sky helicopters used are the s
ame model as the Royal Navy uses for its Sea King rescue squadrons). They take about thirty passengers and it is a thrilling twenty minute flight from Penzance to Scilly, passing the famous St. Michael's Mount and Lands End on the way.
Once on the Scillies, you can take daily boat trips from St. Marys and visit all the other islands There is accommodation on all five of the inhabited islands - luxury hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfasts, self-catering cottages and apartments, and campsites. Bikes can be hired by the day or the week but you can't access all the delightful coastal footpaths by any means except foot! There are slide shows, choral concerts, variety shows on most evening. Most exciting of all are the Gig races held for ladies on Wednesday evenings and men on Friday evening. Gigs are narrow six oared racing boats painted in brilliant colours once used as all-purpose vessels between the islands. With names like 'Golden Eagle', 'Serica', 'Bonnet', 'Dolphin', Men-a-Vaur' and 'Nornour', they are very fast and the sight of a dozen or more flying across the waves, oarsmen (or women!) bent to their work, is a sight to see. The passenger boats leave St. Marys and follow the gig races from start to finish to the accompaniment of chants and racous yells of encouragement from the onlookers. There are only three pubs on St. Marys and several hotels, together with various cafes and restaurants where the food is generally excellent though quite expensive. You can take bus tours round St.Marys with humourous commentaries from the driver. There are, not surprisingly, quite a few artists offering paintings for sale, along with two hand crafted pottery workshops, a jewellery workshop, a perfumery, an excellent Museum, a stained glass centre and a Golf Course. All in all, there is plenty to do!
As you have probably guessed from my ID, I live on the Isles of Scilly a
nd it is exactly twenty years ago t
his month that I set foot on this enchanted archipelago. Personally, I feel that spring and autumn are by far the nicest times to visit the islands. Accommodation, especially self-catering, is almost impossible to find during the summer holidays (which is hardly surprising as it is a wonderful place for children!). If you want night clubs, shopping, self-contained hotel complexes with entertainment provided and 'experts' to keep your kids amused, please don't come to Scilly. If you love the open air, beautiful scenery, peace and quiet, walking, photography, painting, boating, bird watching, and village-style entertainment, then you may find that Scilly is that well-kept secret you've been just waiting to discover!
If you want to read more about the Isles of Scilly, look out for 'Portrait of the Isles of Scilly' by Clive Mumford, first published by Robert Hale of London in 1967 but revised several times since then. Another book is 'The Fortunate Islands' subtitled 'A history of the Isles of Scilly' by R. L. Bowley.
Online, you can find fascinating websites at www..scillyonline.co.uk and www.rosevear.demon.co.uk
For any further information, contact the Tourist Information Centre on St. Marys (telephone 01720 422536)