Scilly Isles: Heavenly paradise at Hell Bay

By Annabelle Thorpe

St Mary's Island is the largest of the Isles of  Scilly and serves as a transport hub to the others. Photo / Britain on View
St Mary's Island is the largest of the Isles of Scilly and serves as a transport hub to the others. Photo / Britain on View

It is on the ferry from St Mary's to Bryher that I realise life on the Scilly Isles requires a different state of mind. The ferry captain, clearly bemused by the presence of a lone blonde on his boat, asks the reason for my trip.

"To write a travel article," I tell him, adding my customary apology for being a journalist.

He seems bemused by this, and when I explain that journalists are usually met with the same warmth as estate agents, he fixes me with what my mum would call an old-fashioned look.

"Well," he says, slowly, "seeing as I don't own a house and I don't read newspapers, it don't really matter to me."

Just getting to this westernmost outpost of the British Isles requires a shift in mindset. The plane from Bristol on the mainland boasts just 12 seats. The safety briefing consists of the pilot squatting on the first aid box, beaming, and telling us to "buckle up and enjoy the ride".

All flights arrive on the biggest island, St Mary's, and ferries transport visitors to the other inhabited islands. There is no timetable: the water is so shallow that boats have to wait until the tide has come in far enough.

When I arrive at the harbour it transpires my ferry to Bryher won't leave for three hours; the tide is so far out I could almost walk there. I leave my bag with dozens of others in the unlocked waiting room ("Safe," asks the woman serving tea. "Why wouldn't it be safe?") and stroll into Hugh Town, the capital of St Mary's.

It reminds me forcibly of other island towns where the sea dominates. There are low-beamed shops with names like Outrigger and The Foredeck, selling fleeces and deck shoes. The streets throng with a mix of families with buckets and spades, grey-haired locals in chunky-knit sweaters and faces sculpted by decades of sun and wind.

When I finally arrive at the sleek Hell Bay hotel on Bryher I have been travelling for eight hours. I could have reached New York in that time. I feel a little fractious, but the feeling lasts only as long as it takes to be shown to my room, throw open the windows and collapse into a comfy armchair that looks out over a sea studded with prehistoric-looking outcrops of rock.

The lure of the view proves too strong and within minutes I am back outside, walking over a small stretch of common land that falls away to reveal an arc of soft, white sand: empty, silent, perfect. It seems hard to believe that Hell Bay earned its name because of the furious, crashing rollers that hurtle in from the Atlantic.

As I stare out across the gleaming rocks the sun is just starting to set, firing gold streaks across a sky fading from cobalt blue to a hazy, sweet-pea pink. The sea has that translucent end-of-the-day glow as it lazily folds back and forth across the sand. I perch on a rock, close my eyes and revel in the sense of having stopped, of having reached the end of my journey - the end of the world.

The sense of isolation on car-free Bryher is absolute. There are just a couple of dozen houses, a cafe, a shop and the vast, overwhelming blue of the Atlantic, sprawling all the way to the eastern seaboard of the US.

After a supper of succulent mussels and perfectly cooked cod, I retreat to my bedroom, turn off the lights, open the window and gaze up at the glittering night sky. When I finally climb into bed a thick wall of silence wraps itself around me, broken only by the occasional whisper of the waves on the nearby shore.

In the morning, I decide to walk round the island. If this sounds impressive, it isn't: the island is just over half a square mile in size; a windswept jumble of shell-strewn beaches and grassy hills, crisscrossed with paths. When I come upon Bryher village, with its shop and Fraggle Rock cafe, it feels oddly urban and I hurry back to the remote beauty of Hell Bay.

I could have stayed on Bryher for days, but in the afternoon I have to take the ferry to Tresco, the best known of the Scillies and home to the world famous Abbey Gardens.

I am stunned by the difference; Tresco is manicured, with neat lawns, sealed roads (although apart from the hotel's 4x4 there are only bicycles) and a village area with grocery store, restaurant and bar to serve all the self-catering cottages on the island. It feels rather like a set for a saccharine Sunday-night TV drama.

I discover later that I'm not far wrong; Tresco is a created world, the entire island leased from the Duchy of Cornwall by Robert Dorrien-Smith, whose family began leasing the islands in the 19th century.

It is a perfect island getaway for well-to-do families, with unspoilt beaches, a shop selling upmarket potato crisps, organic veg and home-made chutney and a new eaterie, the Flying Boat Club.

But there is another side to Tresco: in the morning I cycle across to the less populated side of the island, bumping past farmland, under pine trees and palms and a blustery blue sky. I freewheel giddily downhill and end up at the Abbey Gardens just as it opens.

For the first half hour I have it almost to myself and I soak up the colours and the scents; shocking-pink pelargoniums, cobalt and tangerine-flamed bird-of-paradise flowers, lime-green aeoniums, date palms and proteas and thousands of other plants from Africa and Asia that thrive in this windswept corner of Britain thanks to the Gulf Stream warming the island air.

I wander up the steps and sit for a while at the very top of the gardens, gazing across the lush greenery to the sparkling sea beyond and think that I have never been anywhere so beautiful.


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