The Scilly Isles is one of those destinations that is either on your must do list or somewhere you’ve never heard of; for me it was very much the former. Islands and island life have always fascinated me so when discussion at the Marlow CC Christmas Dinner moved on to where to go for next year’s summer trip the Scillies came immediately to mind.
Lying some 28 miles off Land’s End, the Scillies are a magical place, reputedly the last remnants of the drowned Kingdom of Lyonesse. For kayakers they offer a marvellous experience whether looking for sheltered coastal exploration or high seas adventure and proved ideal for a club trip, suiting a range of abilities and interests.
The magic had started at Penzance where we’d unloaded kayaks, paddling and camping equipment on the quayside. Bags were labelled for our destination, red for St Martin’s and light blue for collection at St Mary’s, the main island, where our boat, the Scillonian III, would land. Our kayaks were whisked onto the foredeck for the journey. The two and three quarter hour crossing was smooth and soon passed. At St Mary’s we retrieved our kayaks, changed into our paddling gear and set off into ‘The Road’, the main body of water at the centre of the islands. We made our way across to Tresco and then onto St Martin’s, the second largest of the five inhabited islands, where we were to base ourselves for the week. We’d been told to head for the track coming down to the beach but found the one at the opposite end of the bay. A short paddle soon had us in the right place and, leaving our boats on the clean white sand, we made our way through the dunes to our campsite. “Where’s reception?” I asked a camper, only to hear a voice behind me say “Here!”; Ben and Caroline the campsite owners were stood there beside the massive pile of our luggage which we had last seen going into a container at Penzance.
Unloading Scillonian at St Mary’s
We awoke on Sunday morning to warm but overcast conditions. Containing our excitement we breakfasted and then began what was to become a daily routine, a team meeting to finalise plans for the day. We were nine in total, seven of us had travelled out together – myself and Liz, Penny and Ceri, Toby, Sharron and Dierdre – and were joined by Audrey and Mark who’d left it late to book their passage on the Scillonian and had come over a day earlier. We agreed to make our way up through Tean Sound and explore the nearer islands.
The Scilly archipelago is a curious place, five main islands, dozens of smaller ones and hundreds of rocks with calm, shallow waters in the central lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean washing around the edges. The islands host a myriad of sea birds: gulls, shags, oyster catchers, guillemots, kittiwakes, shearwaters and puffins with many of them providing breeding sites with restricted access for visitors. The other notable wildlife to be found on the islands and outlying rocks are seals, which we saw in abundance later in the week.
The tidal range in the week that we were there was some 4.5m and low water on that first day was 11:37; combining this with the gently shelving beach meant that, having left our boats above the high tide mark on the previous afternoon, we had a long carry/drag to reach water deep enough to float our boats this morning. It was a lesson well-learned and a mistake not repeated!
Dierdre and Liz with Round Island and its lighthouse
The paddle up between Tean and the top of St Martin’s was straightforward, but as we left the sound, the vastness of the Atlantic opened up before us and the swell began to build. Rounding the top of Tean we were soon in 1m swells and heading over to Round Island with its prominent lighthouse. The swell was about as much as some of the party were comfortable with so we split into two smaller groups, Mark, Toby, Sharron and Audrey heading over to Men-a-Vaur with a view to continuing around the top of Tresco while the remainder of us headed through the gap between Tean and St Helen’s where we landed to explore the ruins of the ‘Pest House’, a small, isolated structure which had been used to quarantine the crews of disease-ridden boats returning to British ports. What life was like a couple of hundred years ago for those quarantined on St Helen’s can only be imagined; today, in the sunshine, it seemed quite idyllic.
Dierdre and Liz investigating the ‘Pest House’ on St Helen’s
Leaving St Helen’s to the gulls, we continued to Tresco and made our way to Old Grimsby where we landed at The Ruin Beach Café for lunch. No sooner had we been allocated a table than Mark and the other half of the party arrived, having reached New Grimsby a 10-minute walk away across the island and having had the same idea. It took only moments to move to a larger table where a most convivial lunch followed, some opting for mussels, others for pizza and a host of other excellent freshly prepared and fair value meals. Lunch over, we split again into our two groups to return to our respective boats. Mark’s group had the longer paddle back, we could see our destination some 2km to the east so we took time to climb up to the Blockhouse, a Tudor gun platform built to defend the harbour below.
Sightseeing over, we paddled slowly back to St Martin’s heading for Lower Town with its quay and the Karma hotel. We arrived in time for happy hour at the hotel bar, but the main reason for the choice of landing was we’d realised the beach shelved much more steeply here and the carry to take the boats off and put them back on again would be much shorter. It was a pleasant walk of 10 minutes or so back along St Martin’s only road (actually a single lane concrete strip) to the campsite.
That first day paddling in the Scilly islands set the tone and the pace for the remainder of the week – options of easier and more challenging routes and sampling each islands’ hospitality where we could. The following day we paddled, into a stiff head wind, back along the south side of Tresco and on to the now deserted Samson with its distinctive twin peaks, chambered cairns and remains of a deer park and cottages. We picnicked on another pure white beach but returned to Lower Town in good time for some of the party to enjoy happy hour at the hotel while the remainder of us walked back to the campsite to shower, change and make our way back to the Seven Stones, the island’s only pub, for dinner.
Parked up at The Ruin Beach Café, Tresco
Tuesday dawned fine and clear and seemed the perfect day to go seal watching. We’d been told that the Eastern Isles were the place and were not disappointed. An hour or so’s paddling from Lower Town took us to the Ganinick islands which we circled before landing on Arthur for a snack and the chance to see its chambered cairn. We’d enjoyed the sight of three or four seals as we’d entered Little Ganilly Neck however as approached the most easterly of the isles, Menawethan, the lower rocks were a mass of fur and blubber, stirring and bellowing as we approached. The seals made an ungainly and comical sight as dozens of them slid inelegantly into the water and floated in the swell, noses pointing at us, and then followed our progress as we rounded the eastern point and started back towards Great Ganilly. The next kilometre was an absolute delight, a 1m swell pushing us back west with seals surfacing and then submerging with a mix of gentle ‘plops’ and lounder splashes all around us. A small group of seals followed us all the way around the north end of Great Ganilly and back down to East Porth where we lunched. It would be a lazy afternoon paddle back over to St Martin’s but not before a diversion out through the swell to Hanjague, a large isolated rock lying about a kilometre to the north east.
Toby returning from Hanjague
Wednesday 6 July was a special day on St Martin’s, as it was throughout the UK – we were all Welsh that day awaiting the last of the home nation teams’ match against Portugal in the Euro 2016 semi-final. One of our neighbours was flying a large Welsh flag next to their tent, another had a Welsh flag towel prominently draped over their tent. Our Ceri, hailing from the valleys as he does, had booked a table for dinner for all of us in front of the large screen that had been set up for the occasion in the Seven Stones. But before that, some more paddling was called for. For today we had settled on a circumnavigation of St Martin’s, White and Round Islands, Men-a-Vaur, St Helen’s and Tean.
The circumnavigation proved a great success. The far side of St Martin’s showed a completely different face to tamer, cultivated southern side; heading out around the adjoining White Island gave ample opportunity for rock-hopping and then the paddle over to Men-a-Vaur took us into some bigger swells and more exciting water. Toby and Audrey made the classic run through the large gap between the main rocks of Men-a-Vaur which despite including the only swim of the week was one of the highlights of the trip – the telling of which only grew as we sat in the Seven Stones that evening reflecting on our day and the disappointment of Wales losing 2-0.
The week was passing fast and there was still so much to do! While some took a rest day, four of us – Sharron, Audrey, Toby and myself – were looking for a more challenging day and planned a circumnavigation of Tresco, Samson and Bryher. The wind and tides were favourable with the current to help us as we paddled between the Northern Rocks and Bryher’s rugged west coast. The day started overcast as we powered west along The Road and remained so as we made our way to Samson’s West Porth where we stopped for a break. It was decidedly lumpy as we made our way over to Bryher and around Droppy Nose Point. A diversion into Great Porth lined us up well for a run back towards Gweal and a surf through Gweal Neck before taking respite in Poppleston Bay with its famous piles of stones. Fortified, we headed back out and started making our way across Hell Bay. The swell was building and we could see ahead of us some very confused-looking water off Shipman Head while, to our right, waves broke on the rocky headland sending up large columns of spray. We rose and fell with the waves, momentarily losing site of each other in the troughs, a voice asked whether we might turn back, but no, we could see the exit and were soon through the worst and riding the swell into the sound between Bryher and Tresco. It was with some elation that we followed the sound to the prominent Hangman Island and very welcome coffee and cake at the Fraggle Rock Inn. Later on and back on St Martin’s we celebrated a fantastic day with a fish and chip supper at Adams, another of the fantastic eateries to found in the Scilly Isles.
Sharron rounding Shipman Head
With only one full day left I was very conscious that I still had not visited the one tourist site that had attracted me to the Scillies in the first place, nor had I yet taken a trip on one of the inter-island ferries. Friday was therefore spent taking the St Martin’s boat, the Voyager, over to Tresco where Liz and I enjoyed the spectacular Tresco gardens and more coffee and cake. It was also an opportunity to reflect on how special the Scillies are. Each island is different, the pace of life determined by the tides, the islanders working hard to make the most of their short tourist season and their visitors’ experience the best they can. The relaxed atmosphere might be best summed up by the arrangements for getting our boats back to St Mary’s. We’d had a week of generally fair weather but the forecast for Saturday was for strong South Westerlies which would have made paddling back to St Mary’s very hard work. A series of phone calls had resulted in an agreement that we could leave our boats on the quay and they would be taken back over on Lyonesse Lady, the island’s main cargo boat. The only trouble was that no one could tell us which quay the ferries would use (St Martin’s has two, at opposite ends of the island) nor at what times. Back at the campsite we shared our concerns with Ben and Caroline. ‘Don’t worry,’ we were told ‘it’ll just happen’.
It did. Saturday’s ferry trips and times were posted on the campsite notice board that evening and we enjoyed a last paddle to take our kayaks down to the Higher Town quay. The boats were still on the quay when we departed on Voyager the next morning but duly arrived on St Mary’s about an hour after us, ready to be loaded, with the rest of our luggage, back onto Scillonian. As if by magic.
A Scilly Fact Sheet (2016)
Getting there – we travelled out and back from Penzance on Scillonian III at a cost of £171 each including supplements for kayaks and camping gear. The inter-island ferries were £11 per person per return trip and we paid an extra £10 per kayak to have these taken back to St Mary’s at the end of the week. www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk
Parking – we used Isles of Scilly Parking Co in Penzance who charged £50 per car for the week including shuttles to/from the harbour. www.islesofscillyparking.co.uk
Accommodation – each of the main islands has a campsite as well as other accommodation. We chose St Martin’s for its location (more sheltered from the prevailing SW winds) and easy beach access (where our boats were left, unlocked, each night). The campsite has free wifi, phone/camera charging facilities, a modern toilet/shower/wash up block (showers £1 coin for 5 minutes), laundry and self-service barn shop; Caroline’s freshly baked croissants and aga-baked jacket potatoes are highly recommended. We paid £11.50 per person per night plus £10 each for our luggage to be transported by tractor from/to the quay. www.stmartinscampsite.co.uk
Food – on St Martin’s the Seven Stones pub offered good bar meals and the Karma hotel a more extensive menu, we enjoyed a meal at Adam’s Fish & Chips, the Island Bakery is also a must visit for bread, pasties and other lunch options and the island shop is well-stocked. We were pleasantly surprised to find prices comparable to those on the UK mainland.