Isles of Scilly – Walking on St Mary’s

Tuesday, 22nd June – Sailing to the Isles of Scilly

Phew, we made it! We have reached our goal of the season and are now anchored in Porthcressa by St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly.

We got up nice and early (hoping that the boat that anchored in front of us last night wasn’t sitting on top of our anchor) and left St Mawes by 6am. After motorsailing up to the Manacles cardinal we had good winds pretty much all the time, and even reefed once out at sea. There was a 2-3m swell but strangely Birgitta did not get sea sick. We were both a bit tense, as it’s a reasonably long passage, and neither of us have been before and we were anxiously hoping the anchorage we aimed for wouldn’t be full. But all went well. We managed to overtake three other sailing boats (always satisfying), we saw Coverack’s white houses glint in the sunshine, passed the Lizard lighthouse which marks the most southerly point of mainland Britain and later Porthcurno with its stunning sea views. We ticked off the infamous Wolf Rock in the distance by 12, sighted land by 1pm and were anchored by 3.30pm. We were soooo lucky. We came into the anchorage with a few boats there already and Dominic got us a really good place. In the half hour after we arrived there was a steady stream of further boats and there are 18 of us here now. Birgitta is going to have to get used to this more close-by style of anchoring!

We saw plenty of gannets elegantly skimming the waves during the sail, and gulls disappearing into the swells and magically coming out unscathed. Once in the anchorage a seal popped up its head only meters from our boat! Two men on their boats anchored nearby were also fishing for their dinner.

So we’re here and tomorrow our new adventure begins!

So all day long the noise

of battle roll’d

Among the mountains

by the winter sea,

Until King Arthur’s table

man by man,

Had fallen in Lyonesse

about their lord.

‘Arthur’ Lord Tennyson

The Isles of Scilly

There are several legends of a submerged land outside Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.  In Elizabethan times, antiquaries published stories of a lost land off Cornwall called Lyonesse.  Could this be what we now call the Isles of Scilly?

The archipelago of Scilly is situated 28miles west-south-west of Cornwall and consists of over 140 island, or 50 islands and a myriad of named rocks depending on which guide you read! They were at one point a single landmass but rising sea levels meant that they started splitting apart around 4,000 BC.  Even further back Scilly were joined to Cornwall and West Devon.  The islands have been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age and evidence of Roman settlement has also been found. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and the natural riches of the archipelago are preserved by 26 Sites of Special Scientific Interest

Only five of the islands are inhabited year-round with a total population of just over 2000; St Mary’s, and the off-islands of St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s.  St Mary’s is the biggest island both in terms of size and population, and there are regular ferry services from here to the other four main islands. If you can’t sail here yourself, then there is a ferry from Penzance and helicopters and small airplanes that arrive and take off regularly.

Wednesday 23rd June: Hugh Town and Garrison

A large flock of birds were feeding on the seaweed as we beached our dinghy.  We talked to a bloke about Wally the Walrus for a bit before heading to the tourist information centre where we bought some walks leaflets.  After a wander around town to get our bearings we had a fantastic walk around the Garrison, the area west of Hugh Town.  It used to be called Hugh, but since all the military installations it has been referred to as Garrison.

Walking up the street we saw a sign on a door to walk through the arch to get to the Garrison.  So we did, and it turned out we’d walked through the Sally Port, a small and very low tunnel from the defences allowing defenders to exit quickly as needed.  Upper Benham Battery gave us a wonderful outlook over our anchorage, Porthcressa beach and Hugh Town. Porth means bay, not port which is apparently a common mistake.

Walking along a greenclad tarmacked path we came to Morning Point Battery which is near our boat.  Next was Woolpack Battery which overlooks Gugh and St Agnes. The defences were renewed in the 1740s and much of what we see today stems from that period.  We exited the garrison walls and continued along the coastal path where we had wonderful views over Bryher and Tresco, on to St Helen’s Pool and St Martin’s; all very useful for when we’ll be going there.  As we were walking up a small road towards Hugh Town two people were looking through their binoculars and pointed out to sea, asking us whether we’d seen Wally?  And there he was, still in the orange RIB he had been towed out on this morning.  Great fun to see, but we do feel rather sad about him.

Up the hill, and we were now in the entrance area of the Garrison.  We saw the powder magazine, the cell, and further up the hill The Star Castle which is now a hotel. It is the oldest surviving building in the Garrison. It was built in 1593-4 to protect St Mary’s in the event of another Spanish Armada.  Hugh Town began to develop as a town after the building of the Star Castle and the other defensive structures on the Garrison and became the largest settlement in the Islands in the 18th century.

We went through the Garrison Gate down to the harbour.  After enjoying the sandy beach for a while, though the water was freezing cold, we headed back to the boat. A seal popped up its head later in the evening. A lovely end to a fantastic first day in Scilly!

Thursday, 24th June: Walking the West Coast of St Mary’s

It was a swingy and wavy night, presumably swells and Birgitta hardly slept at all. After first dropping off lots of laundry we went on the ‘Hugh Town along the west coast of St Mary’s’ walk.  Starting off on the coastal path just east of St Mary’s harbour we went past some traditional gig sheds built of granite like so much here. First stop Harry’s Wall where there is also a standing stone and a navigation marker for vessels entering St Mary’s harbour. This standing stone was first recorded by William Borlase in 1756 and may be Bronze Age.  There are holes drilled in both faces but the purpose of these are unknown.  Harry’s Walls is the name given to an unfinished Tudor fort; two artillery bastions and a length of curtain wall. Dominic stood for a long time here looking out at sea!  Lovely blue Sheepsbit grows here. Continuing uphill, we had a drink at Juliet’s with gorgeous views over the harbour and as far as Annet and Bishop Rock lighthouse.  The wrens were abundant and not in the least frightened to sit on our table and wait for crumbs!  We saw two small boats towing Wally back towards the harbour.

A little further on we came across a stone-lined kelp pit just by the path. The kelp industry was introduced to Scilly in 1684 and continued until the mid 19th century.  Kelp was collected, dried and then burned in pits to produce soda ash. It was shipped mainly to Bristol and Gloucester for use in the manufacture of glass, soap and bleach.

Again with astounding views, we spent a long time at Halangy Down ancient village, a late Iron Age and Romano British settlement. There are a number of oval and rectangular structures on the lower terrace and further up the hill is a courtyard house.  This is the best-preserved of the buildings here and probably dates to the 2nd or 3rd century AD.  It has a central courtyard with two round buildings opening off it.  Surviving features include stone-lined drains, a hearth and a small chamber which may have been a shrine. The roofs were likely of timber or whale bone, thatched with reeds or straw. People lived here until early Medieval times so a village with a 1000 year time span. Further up the hill is Bant’s Carn entrance grave which predates the village. Excavations in 1900 revealed cremated human remains and Bronze Age decorated pottery. Birgitta thoroughly enjoyed this part!

We had a good rest eating our Ginsters quorn pasties (really tasteless and not recommended) sitting there just enjoying the awesome view!

After the BA settlement we walked up to the mast where we had a good view of some traditional hedged flower fields and continued on the coastal path until the leaflet told us to take a grassy path into the Down and this was our reward: the Long Rock prehistoric standing stone, a massive triangular stone clad in wonderful lichens.  The air is clearly clean here! 

The Telegraph Tower was difficult to miss once on the road.  This is the highest point of the islands at 49m above sea level.   The tower was built in 1814 and was intended as a military semaphore station. Down the road towards the airport, after a bit of meandering we found the track to Rocky Hill, where we saw even more hedged flower fields and a traditional glasshouse.  We missed a crucial turn after that but had no difficulty in finding our way back along the road to Hugh Town, in time to pick up our laundry!

We went straight back to Idun and rested for the evening.  We both had sore feet, and Birgitta definitely had had enough physical exercise for a day.

Friday 25th June: An amble to Old Town

A rest day. Dominic had an online meeting in the morning and Birgitta worked on photos and diary.  Midday was spent sunbathing on deck in the very warm sunshine.  It’s Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden – wish we’d been there!  Late afternoon we decided to go on another of the Museum’s walks, this time up to Old Town.  (The museum, btw is very sadly closed at the moment.) We learnt that the lovely white cottages to the left of the bay were built for lighthouse keepers on Bishop Rock in 1858 and that the library is housed in the former lifeboat house. We walked up Buzza Hill with panoramic views over the bay and Hugh Town. There is the remains of another entrance grave.  There were originally three of these here, which were excavated in 1752 but no bones nor objects were found. 

Continuing on we came to the Peninnis lighthouse, the most recent in Scilly built 1911.  It marks the southern point of St Mary’s.  We could see mainland Britain from here!  There are some amazing granite rock formations and especially Pulpit Rock which Dominic climbed. Of course! We walked from Penninis Head towards Old Town on a path close to the water, along lovely fields with blackbirds and rabbits.  Dominic saw one binkying happily!  The Old Town church is on the western side of the bay. It was probably built between 1130 and 1140. There is no electricity here so the church is lit by candles. 

There are two obelisks in the church yard, one is the islanders’ memorial to Augustus Smith, Lord Proprietor of Scilly from 1834 to 1872. Our Pilot says: “At that time the economy of Scilly had fallen into a serious decline and the inhabitants of the off-islands were in a state of near starvation. A certain amount of ship-building was still carried out on St Mary’s but the off-islanders survived on subsistence farming and fishing. In 1834 Augustus Smith, a wealthy young man, took a 99-year lease of the islands … and immediately initiated changes which benefitted the islands and islanders and became their self-appointed ‘Lord Proprietor’. He built Tresco Abbey … and set about creating employment for the Scillonians by undertaking a major construction programme, encouraging shipbuilding and farming as well as formalising the tenure of property. He also insisted on education for the children in Scilly and began to develop the Abbey Gardens and plant shelter belts of trees.” But as always there is more than one side to every story. I read in ‘Agnes – the last outpost’ that “When Augustus Smith took over the lease of the whole of the Scillies in 1834 he set about revolutionising what he saw as their deprived and depressed way of life. No longer were farms and small holdings able to be divided between all tenant’s children and their offspring … Younger siblings were forced to leave the Islands and look for work on the mainland. This succeeded in his aims of reducing the population and increasing the efficiency of farming, but it changed a centuries old way of life and led to enormous resentment. Augustus Smith was impervious to this reaction. He would brook no opposition to his plans and those unwise enough to challenge him also found themselves ‘transported’ to the mainland.”

We chose to not walk into the Old Town but headed back on the main road to Hugh Town to the Coop and then back for showers and supper.  A boat came in to anchor and accused us of having our anchor buoy in the space where they wanted to anchor.  How weird.

Wally the Walrus

We were told by several people on our way to Scilly that we must look out for Wally the Walrus. On our first morning here, we met a local bloke on the beach who told us Wally had been in this very bay, trying to board all the boats here. He had apparently managed to ruin quite a few dinghies, and punctured and soaked the engine on one just like ours. And he had really scared some kids on paddle boards. So he’s creating a bit of havoc here. The sad thing the vet thinks he’s a juvenile male who has been shunned by his herd and he’s basically lost in every sense of the word.

Later in the day we saw that Wally was resting on a RIB which was tied up on a buoy outside the harbour. The next day when walking on the other side of the harbour we saw them towing the rib with Wally in it, back into the harbour. But he escaped! So we’re now taking our dingy and platform up every night as he is known for trying to board yachts in this anchorage!

Wally resting in the RIB tied up to the green buoy

Dominic the Anchor Master

This might be a qualification you’ve not heard of, but Dominic is working hard on gaining the Anchor Master, to add to his existing Yacht Master title.

He’s already mastered the ‘How to Anchor your own Yacht’ chapter. Now he’s working on ‘How to Let Other People Know how to Anchor their Yacht’ and is re-writing the syllabus for the course. It affords him endless amount of enjoyment! (And yes, he did read this before I sent the blog off ha ha!)

4 thoughts on “Isles of Scilly – Walking on St Mary’s

  1. Looks like you had a good weather window to get out there and pretty good weather once there. It’s a fascinating place – I wish that we had had longer out there ourselves. Are you planning to get to the other islands as well? They each have their own character. We had some great walks on St Agnes and Tresco. Bryher is also supposed to be very nice, although we didn’t make that. Just as well Wally kept away from you – those tusks look sharp and I am not surprised he made short work of a RIB.


  2. Yes we are very lucky with the weather here! We’ve been to a few more islands since St Mary’s and you are absolutely right, they are incredibly different. Today we kayaked over to Teän, near St Martin’s and had a beach day. Amazing!


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