Isles of Scilly
The Isles of Scilly (Cornish: Ynysek Syllan) is a small archipelago of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cornwall at the south-west tip of the United Kingdom. The main island, and obvious base for visitors, is St Mary's. Four of the other islands (known as "Off Islands") are inhabited: best known is Tresco for its Abbey Gardens. All the islands are scenic, and collectively they've been designated an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty".
Look at a map of the islands or a satellite photo, and it's as if a single large island has drowned. And that is indeed what happened, possibly as recently as 500 AD, as "Ennor" sank to become a source for legends of Atlantis and Lyonesse. These islands are the last redoubt of land as Britain pokes its toe into the Atlantic, so they came to signify first & last sight of the homeland, or terrible shipwreck, or a nest of rebels and pirates, or first point of attack from overseas powers.
The islands bask in the Gulf Stream and are very mild and sunny. They're cooler than mainland England at the height of summer, but considerably warmer in winter, and frost is rare. This balmy climate fosters sub-tropical flora and a flower industry, plus tourism. St Mary's is the largest island with a population of around 1750, with Hugh Town the main settlement. The other four inhabited Off Islands are each home to a hundred or so. There's limited visitor accommodation and limited transport capacity, so book them simultaneously. The islands are frankly expensive (it's cheaper to holiday in the Med), so even with day-trippers they're not mobbed by tourist hordes - until a cruise ship appears, as they regularly do.
There are no slabby office blocks, high-rise flats or chain hotels here. Much of the land is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (ie Prince of Wales), who together with the islands' Council are determined to preserve its character and wildlife. Minor royalty take holidays here, and you'll frequently spot the Duchy's coat of arms. It looks like a bunch of grapes but in heraldry it's "Sable, 15 bezants" plus other flummery. (Translation: black, with 15 gold coins of Byzantium, looted by Crusaders.)
Always, if a local is within earshot, refer to the place as "The Isles of Scilly", and don't be caught saying "The Scilly Isles" or "The Scillies". It's just one of those shibboleths, though you'll find plenty of counter-examples. An islander is called a "Scillonian", same as the ferry.
The official Tourist Information Centre is on Portcressa Rd in Hugh Town. There's also an independent travel agent Isles of Scilly Travel on Hugh Street.
And a large number of smaller uninhabited islands and islets:
Scillonian has outdoor and indoor seating, two cafes and a bar. No vehicles are carried. Watch for marine life on the way over, dolphins may follow the boat. At high tide the ship takes a short-cut north of St Mary's, at low tide it's a slightly longer route south of the island. In Hugh Town harbour, local boatmen will be offering day-trips to the Off Islands - you can easily tour Tresco Abbey Gardens in time for the afternoon return ferry.
By planeThere are flights year-round to the Isles of Scilly from Land's End and Newquay, Monday to Saturday. In winter when the ferry doesn't sail, this is your only way in. March to October there are also flights from Exeter. These "Skybus" flights are in small fixed-wing twin-props (e.g. Twin Otter or BNF Islander) so your checked baggage limit is only 15 kg, and flights can be grounded by weather that wouldn't bother an Airbus or 737. There is also a helicopter service from Land's End, in a 10-seater AW169, same baggage limit. Day-trips (with no checked baggage) can be made from Land's End or Newquay but not Exeter.
The islands' airport is
St Mary's AirportNo public transport; your hotel may pick up, else take a taxi.
By helicopterConstruction is underway on a new heliport just outside Penzance, to run helicopters daily, year-round, to St Mary's and Tresco. This is intended to start service in spring 2020 and will operate using AgustaWestland AW139 aircraft. The heliport is being built adjacent to the previous heliport site, just off the A30 at Jelbert Way, Penzance. The heliport will be connected to Penzance Railway Station, one mile away, by an electric shuttle bus. The new Penzance Heliport is being built by Tresco owner Robert Dorrien-Smith and the helicopter service will be operated by Sloane Helicopters. The flight time will be around 15 minutes and passengers will have a 20-kg luggage allowance.
Around St Mary's
Walking is ideal for the area around Hugh Town, from the Garrison to the west to Old Town to the east. A hiking trail circles the coast, and all of St Mary's is within walking range of fit young adults (which most visitors no longer are.) The roads are good but very narrow, with no sidewalk beyond Old Town, so even with light traffic you won't enjoy walking them.
Bike hire is widely available. Electric carts can be hired from Scilly Cart Co - bright yellow golf-buggies, but they're road-legal and you will be on the public highway, so you need your driving licence.
April to October M-Sa an elderly bus chugs around St Mary's, visiting or passing close to all points of interest, but not calling at the airport. It starts from the Strand near town hall in Hugh Town. Every two or three hours it runs as a standard bus, 30 min circuit, single trip adult £2, concessions available. Between times it runs as a sight-seeing bus, stopping for photos at the main viewpoints, £10 for a one-hour circuit. Bus times are posted at various locations in town, or ask at the TIC. Mainland bus drivers often don't like giving change but this one, uniquely, resents getting too much, and turns puce at the sight of euros.
Taxis are usually waiting in the centre of Hugh Town, or touting at the pier when the ferry comes in.
Between the islands
Small boats run from the quay at Hugh town on St Mary's to each of the inhabited islands. See St Mary's Boatmen's Association for times and fares, but the standard direct sailings are April-Oct daily, 4 to Tresco, 3 to St Agnes, 2 to St Martin's and 2 to Bryher. The boats carry bikes and luggage (including bags checked through from the mainland) but not electric carts or freight. Return fares are adult £9.50, child £4.75, with crossings taking 20 mins. No advance booking, pay at the kiosk on the pier or on the boat.
In summer the direct boat times suit visitors going out from St Mary's in the morning to visit one island and return in the afternoon. They don't enable hops between Off Islands, even between Tresco and Bryher a few hundred yards apart, and they don't circle the islands for sightseeing and bird-watching. For those, take a tour trip, usually adult £15, child £7.50. For instance the Three Islands tour visits Bryher, Tresco and St Agnes, with an hour or two ashore on each. Other offerings are for evening tours, seasonal bird-watching (eg the Manx Shearwaters and puffins), fishing, watching the gig-racing, and out into deep water as far as lonely Bishop lighthouse. In winter most boats are laid up and there are very few sailings. Times then are more suited to bringing Off Islanders in to St Mary's for life's essentials then getting them home.
Posted timetables are only approximate, and you always need to enquire on the pier about weather, boat times, tides and sea conditions, and what's going on for the next few days. (Is a cruise ship due in? If so, "££!" signs will light up in local eyes, boat trips will sell out, and the main tourist sights will be busy.) Then once on your boat, be sure to check the return sailing time and pick-up point, which may well differ from where you land.
Around the Off Islands
Walk. The Off Islands are small and have good lanes so cycling is easy; bike hire is available on all islands. For getting in and away with luggage, your accommodation will usually provide transport to the quay. There are very few vehicles, and islanders potter around on a fleet of tractors, buggies (hire may be possible), and antediluvian Land Rover Defenders.
phone: +44 1720 422337address: Church Street, St Mary's TR21 0JTIt's an ill wind: the gales of winter 1962 unearthed Romano-British remains, so where to house them? This museum, opened in 1967, displays the history of the islands. Pirates, longitude, wildlife, it's all here.
address: St Mary'sThese are the walls of an unfinished artillery fort built to the east of the harbour in 1552-53. Building was abandoned when they decided instead to fortify the headland to the west, which became The Garrison.
The GarrisonThe Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, but they might come back for revenge, so fortification began here (abandoning the less-well-sited Harry's Walls). Enter the curtain wall via the Gatehouse; the powder magazine here has a free exhibition on the history. A circuit along the walls is a pleasant one hour walk, past artillery emplacements and redoubts; mostly firm easy going but some rough spots. Imposing Hugh House was the officers' quarters. The core of the Garrison, a stout Vauban-style bastion, is now the Star Castle Hotel.
Bant's CairnBurial Chamber dates from the Bronze Age, as the gradual flooding of Ennor forced inhabitants onto higher ground. It was empty when first excavated in 1900. St Mary's has some 80 similar "entrance graves", e.g. at nearby Innisidgen and at Porth Hellick Down on the east tip, but Bant's Cairn is the finest. A little lower down the hill is Halangy Down Ancient Village, occupied from the Iron Age into Roman times, with a prehistoric terraced field system. The cairn and ancient village are at the north end of St Mary's, the bus runs to the top of Telegraph Rd. They're always open, free.
Remember that your boat pick-up point may not be the same as your landing! Depending on tides it will be either Cairn Near Point on the south tip of the island, or New Grimsby on the west coast looking across at Bryher. They're a 20-min walk apart.
phone: +44 1720 424108address: Tresco TR24 0QQImpressive botanical garden with a range of Mediterranean and sub-tropical plants growing healthily outdoors. Created in the 19th century in the ruins of a Benedictine Abbey, with tall hedges and landscaping as windbreaks. Includes "Valhalla", a collection of sailing ship figureheads.
address: TrescoThis coastal gun tower was built by Oliver Cromwell in 1651-1652 on a promontory to guard the anchorage between Bryher and Tresco. It is administered by English Heritage.
King Charles's CastleA ruined artillery fort, probably built circa 1550 in the reign of King Edward VI, but named for King Charles by the Royalists who held out against Cromwell in these islands (with a spot of piracy on the side). It was badly sited and not much use, so its masonry was used to build Cromwell's Castle nearby.
- The "Great Pool" just north of Abbey Gardens has bird hides.
A small island, mostly farmland, and the most westerly settlement in England (not Britain, as Scotland and Ulster reach further west). The usual landing quay is on the east side just below All Saints Church, but it gets very shallow at low tide. On the west coast the Atlantic waves crash onto Hell Bay, and the Great Pool is a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a storm beach. There are a couple of cafes and B&Bs plus a campsite. Seen north of the quay, Fraggle Rock is also known as Hangman Island. The bodies of rebels and pirates were often hung up in cages, and Isles of Scilly had plenty of both, but there's no evidence that Fraggle Rock was used for this. At spring low tide it's possible to walk to the southern uninhabited island of Samson, and even to Tresco, but seek local advice before attempting this. There's no transport to other islets such as Gweal.
This is the most northerly of the Isles of Scilly. The usual landing quay is at Higher Town on its south side. This tiny "town" straggles west through Middle Town to, guess where, Lower Town, where the Hotel Quay is the landing point at low tide. St Martin's is surrounded by rugged coastline and unspoilt beaches, and crisscrossed by paths. It has a bakery, a cafe, a couple of pubs, a few B&Bs, and a vineyard (open Tu-Th 11AM-4PM). The bright red & white tower at the north-east corner of the island is a navigational day-mark, erected 1683, and visible from mainland Cornwall - it's not a lighthouse as it never had a light. At the north tip, a rocky causeway passable at low tide connects to White Island, which has Neolithic remains and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Seek local advice on safe crossing times, as the waves and tides can really rip over the causeway. There's no transport to other nearby islets such as Tean.
This is most southerly populated spot in Britain, with Troy Town Farm being the most southerly habitation in the UK. The quay is on the east of the island, and just next to it is a pub & cafe, the Turk's Head. This, and another couple of small cafes further west, are only open in summer. There's no hotel, but a couple of places do B&B. In the centre of the island is the main settlement and a lighthouse built in 1680; it's no longer lit but serves as a day-mark for shipping. Close to the quay is the tidal island of Gugh, connected to St Agnes by a tombolo of shingle and sand. Check times with the boatman, but you can usually walk across and stroll for a couple of hours either side of low tide. At these times St Agnes has a slightly larger area and population than Bryher; then the tide isolates Gugh and its three residents, and St Agnes again becomes the smallest of the Isles of Scilly.
- Boat trips: check the notice boards at Hugh Town quay or the St Mary's Boatmen's Association for what's available. On the Off Islands, check with the local boat company. See also "Get around" above for other options & practicalities.
- Pilot gigs are traditional Cornish six-oar rowing boats, slim and fast - the first boat to get a pilot out to a struggling ship won the job. They also acted as the first shore-based lifeboats, but since the 19th century have mostly been used for sport racing. Racing gigs must strictly adhere to the "Treffy" pattern of 1838; non-racing gigs may vary. The World Pilot Gig Championships are held here annually in May, with over 100 crews competing, and heroic partying afterwards. The next event is 3-5 May 2019, and there are practices and beer-races at other times. Boat trips follow them from St Mary's.
- Bird watching: the islands are important both for birds of passage - their first & last landfall, especially in spring and autumn - and for resident colonies, most active in early summer.
- Report a rat! St Agnes & Gugh and Annet are rat-free, the other islands are aiming to be. Ground-nesting birds such as the Manx Shearwater depend upon this. So report it if you think you see a rat, but don't try to whack it yourself. You'd only succeed if it was something else, like the Scillies Shrew, a protected species.
address: Carn Morrvalis open all year and welcomes non-members. It's a nine-hole course, so 18-hole matches go round twice (5942 yards, par 73, record 66). The clubhouse serves food, drink and fine views; evening meals only summer Fri & Sat.
There is a Co-op food store on St Mary's and some Off Islands have a well stocked shop.
The only two banks are in Hugh Town on St Mary's. Lloyds (M-F 9AM-4PM) has an ATM. At Barclays you need to go into the branch, open M Tu & Th 10AM-4PM, W 9AM-1PM. Many shops, pubs and post offices will do cash back.
Eat and drink
For picnic supplies, stock up at the Co-op on St Mary's, or Off Island local shop. All the inhabited islands have decent pub and cafe food, and cream teas. Hours are geared to tourists and they have limited opening out of season.
- Cafe Kavorna (on Hugh Street beside Lloyd's Bank, +44 1720 422660) does good breakfasts, lunches and cream teas until 5 pm. Gluten-free and vegan options.
Atlantic Innphone: +44 1720 422323address: Hugh Town, St Mary'sGood pub serving notably decent food.
Bishop and Wolfphone: +44 1720 422790address: Hugh Town, St Mary's TR21 0LLGood popular pub and eating place, serves St Austell Ales. It's named for the two infamous nearby rocks with lighthouses. The Wolf is midway between Cornwall and IOS - there's a fissure in it where strong winds make a howling noise. The Bishop way out to the west is the very last scrap of land of the UK; it may once have looked like a bishop's mitre but no-one really knows.
Mermaidphone: +44 1720 422701address: Hugh Town, St Mary'sEvery traditional British coastal town has a pub which looks fit to be the haunt of crusty old sea dogs, with nautical decorations that look unchanged for the past 50 years. This is the one on Scilly. Do not expect any frills! The Ales of Scilly brands are very popular.
Scillonian Clubphone: +44 1720 422720address: The Parade, Hugh Town, St Mary'sNice view over the bay, Skinner's Ale on tap, and a popular Sunday carvery (Su noon-2PM & 6-8:30PM, booking advised).
phone: +44 1720 422301address: Old Town, St Mary'sThe only pub on St Mary's away from Hugh Town.
phone: +44 1720 422844address: New Grimsby, Tresco TR24 0QQAlways stock a good range of real ales. In 19th-century row of cottages, with rooms B&B.
phone: +44 1720 422222address: Bryher TR23 0PRClose to the campsite and noted for the Friday night fish and chips (plus Monday in summer) and double-decker crab sandwiches. Serves Proper Job and Doom Bar Bitter. 3 self-catering units available here. Fraggle Rock is the islet in the channel here, looking north to Cromwell's Castle on Tresco.
phone: +44 1720 423560address: Lower Town, St Martin's TR25 0QWGood range of real ales.
Turk's Headphone: +44 1720 422434address: St AgnesFamous for its home-made Cornish pasties - they soon sell out.
phone: +44 1720 422670address: The Garrison, St. Mary'sA 9-acre camp site with facilities which include toilet blocks, hot showers, washing up facilities, laundry, supplies shop and a few electrical hookups (must be reserved in advance). Plus self-catering cottages.
- Lots of B&Bs, mostly in and around Hugh town, reckon from £40-70 ppn. If you need to ask directions from a local, knowing the name of your host is more helpful than knowing the name of the B&B.
- Splurge at phone: +44 1720 422317address: St Marys TR21 0JA38 luxurious bedrooms in 16th-century castle - the "star" refers to the Vauban-style fortifications. Also cottage accommodation within 4 acres of gardens. Two restaurants (non-residents welcome, reservations essential): the conservatory majors on fish, the main castle dining room has a wider selection and is better designed for defensive musket-fire against invaders. Excellent cuisine so half-board is pricey but worth it. Other facilities include an indoor heated swimming pool, tennis court and golf. A courtesy minibus runs between hotel, harbour, town and airport. Check-in your luggage at Penzance ferry terminal or the airport and it will go straight to your room.
TrescoTresco is a private estate which runs all the accommodation on the island. There is no camping here. Choices are:
- Sea Garden cottages: one-bedroom cottages are available to book per night, larger cottages by the week
- Flying Boat cottages are houses, booked per week.
- The New Inn, rooms for around £55-120 per person B&B.
- Traditional cottages sleep from two to ten, and are booked by the week. They're also available as time-shares: you get the same week every year for 25 years.
phone: +44 720 422886address: BryherGreat views over Tresco channel. Showers, washer/dryer, dish-washing facilities, phone charging and gas cylinder exchange. Sleeps around a hundred, spread over 5 fields. Open April-Sept, booking essential July & Aug. Camping with own tent £11 ppn, hire of set-up bell tent (sleeps 4) £500 per week.
- Four small B&Bs on the island.
- Splurge at phone: +44 1720 422947Chic 3-star hotel with 25 suites looking onto the wild ocean. Fine dining, B&B tariff also available. The art collection includes Newlyn & St Ives great names such as Hepworth. Owned by the Dorrien Smith family, who also own Tresco.
phone: +44 1720 422888Four-star rated campsite, right by the beach. Facilities include toilets, hot and cold water basins, coin-operated showers and hair-dryers, baby-changing facilities and washing-up sinks. Capacity 50 pitches for 100 campers, spread over the small fields of an old flower farm. Dogs only by prior arrangement, and never in school holidays. Open April-Sept, booking essential Whitsun and mid-June-Aug. Camping £12 ppn. There's also a small chalet, sleeps two, no running water but it's near the camp block, £250 per week.
- Four self-catering places, one B&B, and (just as you'd despaired of finding one in these islands) a yurt sleeping 2+2.
- The two small hotels are Karma St Martin's in Lower Town by the west quay, and The Stables in Higher Town.
phone: +44 720 422360address: Troytown Farm, St Agnes TR22 0PLFacilities include showers and a drying room. Fresh produce is available from the farm. Also has 3 self-catering cottages.
phone: +44 1720 422620The only B&B on St Agnes, with just three rooms. Has a little cafe attached which uses as much locally grown produce as possible. Pizza night is Saturday, takeaway available if pre-ordered.
phone: +44 1720 422370address: Old Lane St Agnes TR22 0PLSelf-catering in the Glebe Barn (sleeps 4) and the Crow's Nest and Orchard Flats (both sleep two, adults only). The Parsonage no longer does B&B.
- St Agnes doesn't have a hotel.
If walking along the more rugged coastal paths, or exploring remote parts, especially the smaller uninhabited islands, take with you a charged mobile phone or other means of communication. There is generally good mobile coverage.
As with the rest of the UK, in any emergency call 999 or 112 and ask for Ambulance, Fire or Police when connected.