The Isles of Scilly, about 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall, are about the same distance from the English mainland as Nantucket is from Cape Cod. They also share an underlying Atlantic ambiance—from the color of the light and the gritty white sand beaches to the local flora—waves of salt grasses, ripening rose hips, and blackberry bushes heavy with fruit.
But there the similarity ends. This remote, low-lying archipelago—the southwesternmost outpost of the United Kingdom—seems a world apart. High granite towers, probably dropped by the receding ice at the end of the last Ice Age, give the island silhouettes wild magic that belies the gentle realities. Shallow waters turn seas as clear and turquoise as the Caribbean. And the Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild enough to support palm trees and subtropical plants year-round.
The population is only about 2,000, with 1,600 residing on the main island of St. Mary's and 400 scattered across the four remaining populated islands: Tresco, St Martin's, Bryher and St. Agnes. They're engaged in fishing, farming, and the tourism industry; they grow narcissus and daffodil bulbs; they're artists, artisans and entrepreneurs, and often a combination of all of these.
A Brief History of the Isles of Scilly
This little group of islands is part of the Duchy of Cornwall, the estates that produce a Royal income for Prince Charles, who, in addition to being the Prince of Wales is also the Duke of Cornwall.
It's likely that as long as 4,000 years ago, the islands were one landmass populated by the tribes of Britons (ancient Brythonic people) who also settled across Cornwall and Brittany. Various Bronze Age monuments that these people left behind are scattered across the islands.
The next group who left traces were the Tudors. The Isles of Scilly were considered the gateway to the English Channel and vulnerable to invasion from France and Spain as well as havens for continental pirates, privateers and smugglers. Some Tudor fortifications were built as well as Star Castle (now a luxury hotel) and the Garrison wall surrounding it. The Spaniard's never invaded. But there were some skirmishes between Royalists and Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, which left military ruins to explore.
The Inhabited Islands of Scilly
Each of the five inhabited islands has its own personality. It's easy and quick to go from one to the other (between 10 to 20 minutes) on the small boats that ply the channels between them—though that inter-island travel is influenced by tides (see more about that below). Island hopping is a big part of any visit to the Isles of Scilly.
St. Mary's is the commercial hub of the islands and the main access, by boat, to the other four. It has Scilly's main airport receiving flights from the mainland (heliports on St. Mary's and Tresco will open in 2020), and it is the port for the ferry from Penzance.
Hugh Town, the capital of the Scillies, is little more than a tiny village by mainland standards, but this is where you'll find the islands' supermarket, clinic, a small selection of shops, several art galleries, and a good selection of pubs and restaurants. It's connected to the rest of St. Mary's by a narrow neck of land with white sand beaches on both sides.
The entire island is about two and a half miles long and three miles wide, covering an area of about six square miles. It has relatively level though rugged coastal walking, 30 miles of nature trails and just a few paved roads, clustered around Hugh Town.
St. Mary's and St. Agnes are noted for their flower farms—there are nine of them, producing the earliest scented narcissi available in the United Kingdom. If you take a guided tour of St. Mary's, a service provided by Toots Taxi, among others, ask to be shown the flower fields. They are long and narrow, protected all around by tall, robust hedgerows and a rare sight. St. Mary's also has the largest selection and variety of accommodations in the islands. They range from self-catering and B&B accommodations to four-star luxury at the Star Castle Hotel in a star-shaped, Elizabethan fortress within the island's Garrison.
St. Agnes is the southernmost community in the United Kingdom. It is a tiny, peaceful island with a population of only 72. It has a watersports center, St. Agnes Watersports, offering kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkeling; a handful of artists, an island hall, a small church with beautiful contemporary stained glass windows by local glass artist Oriel Hicks, and the Scillies' only dairy farm.
If you are collecting Guinness World Records, St. Agnes has, in the Turk's Head, the southernmost pub in the UK and, at Troytown Farm, the smallest dairy farm. Their nine cows produce yogurt, milk, and incredibly rich ice cream that you can buy direct from the farm. The farm also has holiday cottages and tent camping. The island is encircled with a (mostly) paved path, suitable for electric golf buggies or farm wagons, and not much more. One of the most pleasant things to do there is to circumnavigate the place, picking wild blackberries, looking out for the enormous range of wildflowers and succulents, and spotting the rare wild seabirds.
Gugh (pronounced "goo") is an island connected to St Agnes by a sandbar at low tide. Like a lot of the Isles of Scilly, it is littered with mysterious Stone Age ruins and has been populated for thousands of years. At the moment, it has a population of three. If you do decide to walk over, stay aware of the tides because there is no boat service to Gugh, and once the tide floods the sandbar, you could be there for 12 hours. The nearest landfall in the opposite direction is North America, some 3,000 miles away.
Tresco is the second largest of the Isles of Scilly but, at about 2.5 miles long, you could still circumnavigate it on a brisk morning walk. It is home to some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the group and the internationally famous Tresco Abbey Garden.
Of all the islands, Tresco probably has the most exciting history. It has been managed by the Dorrien Smith family, under lease from the Duchy of Cornwall, since 1834. Tresco Abbey, a 19th-century baronial mansion, is named for a monastery that had existed on the island for about 1,000 years until Henry VIII dissolved it. Augustus Smith, the founder of the family dynasty, was a follower of Jeremy Bentham and attempted to put Bentham's Utopian ideas into practice in the Isles of Scilly (at one time he managed all of the inhabited islands of the group). That included free compulsory public education decades before it was required elsewhere in England. Islanders had to pay a weekly fee to keep their children out of school. Smith's most significant legacy for visitors is Tresco Abbey Garden, an enormous, sub-tropical paradise in a sheltered valley and part of the ancient abbey grounds. If you do nothing else in the Scillies, a day trip to these gardens with their collection of exotic South African, Australian and New Zealand plants and flowers is a must.
Bryher is the smallest of the inhabited islands at only 330 acres. It's about a mile long and half a mile wide, so it's surprising how much variety you'll find there. The west-facing side has a rugged shoreline with rocky bluffs facing the Atlantic at Hell Bay (which should give you some idea of the possible waves and currents. The island's east side is just a few hundred yards across from Tresco, and on some extreme spring tides, it's possible to walk across the sand (along with several hundred others) between the two islands. As the water (regularly as much as 16 feet deep) recedes, it reveals the outline of Bronze Age settlements and field patterns.
More sandy beaches, a luxury spa hotel, a vineyard, a pub, a tea shop, and a flower farm are pretty much all you'll find on St Martin's. It's the place to go for a quiet spot of relaxation. But it's also an excellent place for wildlife experiences, like snorkeling with seals and watersports. And a new, community-organized, two-domed observatory. COSMOS, paid for by the EU and local fundraising, is the most southwesterly observatory in the UK. It gives locals and visitors a chance to experience this island's natural dark skies stargazing environment.
More Things to Do in the Isles of Scilly
- Take to the water. By North Atlantic standards, the beaches that face the "pool" of water between the islands are shallow and usually warm enough for what the British refer to as "wild swimming," and the rest of us call swimming in the sea. You may need to wear a wet suit for warmth, though. The calm, inter-island waters are also famous for scuba diving. Scilly Diving, on St. Martin's, offers divers access to at least 155 identified dive sites.
- Get on the water. All kinds of boat hire, from kayaks, rowboats, small powerboats, and sailboats are available from suppliers on several of the islands. There are wildlife safaris from St. Agnes and St. Mary's and boat hire available on Bryher. Chalkboards on the dock of St. Mary's Pool Harbour list the times for a variety of boat excursions. Or check the Tourist Information Center near Porthcressa Beach on St Mary's for information about boating, accommodations, and events.
- Explore the ruins. Every inhabited island in the archipelago has the remains of past civilizations and cultures, from Bronze Age burial sites to Tudor fortifications. Visiting any of them usually involves an interesting walk with glorious views. The English Heritage book, Defending Scilly, downloadable free, online, is packed with information about Tudor, Civil War, and later fortifications for intrepid island explorers. Visit the English Heritage page for Bant's Carn Burial Chamber and Halangy Down Ancient Village, and you'll find further links to seven more prehistoric sites on St Mary's and Tresco.
- Visit an artist. For such a small place, the Isles of Scilly attract and keep a remarkable number of practicing artists. Many of them are happy to welcome you to their galleries or studios and talk to you about their work. Phoenix Crafts in Porthmellon Business Park, just east of Hugh Town on St Mary's hosts many artists and craftspeople, including stained glass artist Oriel Hicks. Also on St Mary's, Peter Macdonald Smith shows his seascapes and abstracts at Porthloo Studios, and Steve Sherris can often be found painting outdoors around St. Mary's. Ceramicist Lou Simmonds makes some of her pots from clay she digs on St. Agnes itself. She often welcomes visitors to her studio in St. Agnes' Island Hall. There are artists and galleries on every one of the islands. Ask at the Tourist Information Office for the Arts Guide, produced with help from the Arts Council. It's a comprehensive list.
- Watch the gig races. Pilot gigs are traditional boats, crewed by six, and a coxswain. They were once used to guide ships into Scilly's ports around treacherous sandbanks and reefs. Today, local men and women race them between the islands. From April to September, visitors and islanders gather along the shores to watch colorful gig races twice a week from about 8 p.m. Women race on Wednesdays, men on Fridays.
- Eat plenty of seafood. Being adrift in the Atlantic, it's a good bet that there's lots of good seafood on offer. Lobster, local crab, mussels, scallops, and all sorts of sea fish are easy to come by. We particularly liked The Beach, a relaxed, rustic restaurant on, you guessed it, the beach at Porthmellon on St Mary's.
How to Get to the Isles of Scilly
Depending upon where you start from, getting to the Isles of Scilly can be something of an adventure. You can arrive on the islands by plane, ferry, or (after March 2020) by helicopter, but first, you have to get to one of several departure points in Cornwall or Devon. If you are traveling from London by train, that can take between three and a half hours (to Exeter in Devon, the closest ) and five and a half hours to Penzance. You can also fly from London to Exeter or Newquay (an hour and ten minutes for either)
Whatever you do, don't plan a travel schedule that depends upon precise timing and tight connections. Weather in this part of the world can cause delays or cancellations from wind, fog, or rough seas. If you're heading back to London for a flight home, invest in a cushion of a day or two extra, just in case you are delayed getting off the islands. We were warned by other travelers that flights between St. Mary's Airport and Lands End, while short, were notorious for fog cancellations. Sure enough, a canceled return flight meant we were transferred to a ferry and arrived two hours too late for the last train back to London.
Isles of Scilly Travel operate Skybus fixed-wing flights to St Mary's Airport from Exeter, Newquay, or Lands End. The fastest, cheapest flights are from Land's End, costing 90 pounds (around $115) each way for a 20-minute flight, with up to 21 flights a day in peak season. The standard one-way fare from Newquay is 116 pounds and 75 pence and takes 30 minutes, five flights a day in peak season. Flights from Land's End and Newquay are scheduled year-round. Skybus flies from Exeter from March through October. It takes 60 minutes and costs 170 pounds and 75 pence each way. These are tiny planes so do plan to travel light. You can take two pieces of hold luggage with a combined weight of not more than 33 pounds. Carry-on is limited to one piece—a handbag or a camera, for example, but not both.
If you need to carry more, consider taking the ferry. The Scillonian, also operated by Isles of Scilly Travel, sails between Penzance and St Mary's from late March to the end of October. Standard one-way adult fare is 55 pounds (around $70), and the voyage takes two hours and 45 minutes.
Penzance Helicopters are scheduled to start flying from Penzance to St. Mary's and Tresco on March 17, 2020. The heliport is near Penzance train station with an electric shuttle bus service between the station and the helipad. The year-round flights will take 15 minutes, and costs start at 122 pounds ($159) each way. Passengers can check one item of luggage in the hold, but it can weigh up to 44 pounds. Carry on is limited to one small piece—a coat or a handbag, for example.
Visitors are not allowed to bring cars to the islands, and most people get around on foot, by bicycle or on electric golf carts that can be rented on St. Mary's, the biggest island. There are taxi services, airport, and hotel shuttle buses, as well as cars owned by locals on St. Mary's. And on Tresco, you'll occasionally see little green electric Tresco Estate service vehicles whizzing around.
All of the islands are connected by boat services, with small motorboats traveling between them several times a day. Boatmen's associations run the boats on the different islands and, because travel between the islands is so dependent on the tides, their schedules are usually only posted the day before. Look for them on chalkboards on the docks and published in the Tourist Information Office. The St. Mary's Boatmen's Association posts a seasonal schedule online, but it is subject to change, so its best to ask your hotel to check for you the day before. The Tresco Boatmen's association posts its next day schedule online. Tresco Boat Services and St. Agnes Boating coordinate with St. Mary's to provide services to the off islands. Trips are short, just 15 to 20 minutes, and relatively inexpensive. For the most part, the inter-island waters are calm. Sailing to St. Agnes, the southernmost island, involves crossing the main deep water channel to the sea, and some may find the swells unnerving in the small open boats. Tides wait for no one, and neither do the Isles of Scilly inter-island boats. Be at the dock at the appointed time, or you could find yourself left behind until the next high tide.