Scillonian Wanderings on Bryher and Samson

I was thinking about my father as we left the Eastern Isles. It would have been his birthday today, and I think he would have liked it here. He could have sat in one of the cottage gardens on St Martin’s and had his birthday coffee in the afternoon sun. Strawberry cake and with black coffee, Swedish style.

Walking and Exploring on Bryher

Dominic had planned our passage in detail; starting off from our lovely seal haven of an anchorage in Porth Arthur we rounded Ragged Island, over St Martin’s Flats, along St Mary’s Road, and then across Tresco Flats up to the moorings and anchorage by New Grimsby, between Tresco and Bryher. All on the upcoming tide, just in case we got stuck in the sand somewhere. But of course we didn’t as the passage plan was superbly executed by The Skipper! We had a bit of bother trying to find a big enough space at the right depth to anchor in amongst all the mooring buoys (which were all full) but did bag what we felt was the last space. Then during the next few hours several other yachts came and squeezed themselves in. This is a busy anchorage in every sense; full of boats, ferries all day long, people on kayaks, paddleboards, people talking and laughing. Very different from our solitude nestled in by Great, Middle and Little Arthur islands last night!

Green is land covered at high tide, and the black/red squares are rocks. Plenty of rocks in Scilly.

As we do, we well and truly explored Bryher on foot! It wasn’t obvious how to get up to Watch Hill but eventually we found a route from the back which didn’t involve private gardens. This is the highest point on Bryher and the oldest pilot lookout in Scilly. This is also where the Daymark is. There are some shrubby trees here now, but without them you would have a nearly unimpeded ocean horizon view of south – west – north. Perfect for seeing those big ships that needed a pilot when entering the rocky environs of the Isles of Scilly and onwards to Ireland and northwest coast Britain.

The northern part of Bryher is stark and wondrous. There are coves with sand and boulder beaches, stretches of deep bracken (with painful gorse and bramble intermixed which our legs show proof of), heather and granite boulders with a variety of lichens. The views are wide ranging and startlingly beautiful!

We read: ‘On Shipman Head Down you can find one of the largest Bronze Age burial sites in north western Europe. For a long time no one knew who was buried there and many thought that Venetian royalty came to Scilly to be buried as they thought it was the end of the world. In reality, local people would have been buried here as they favoured high points where they believed the dead could look over the living.’ Admittedly, we couldn’t quite work out where this was, but it’s a truly magical here and I can quite understand why this would be a favoured place.

As far north as we’re allowed to walk; Standing at the top of Shipman Head Down looking over Shipman Head

Hell Bay opens up west, straight onto the Atlantic and you can see why so many ships were wrecked in these treacherous waters. During big storms, waves crash into Hell Bay sending clouds of spray right over the island into New Grimsby Sound. I guess that’s why a hill here is called Badplace Hill! We walked all around Hell Bay. Even today, when what wind there is comes from east, the water is turbulent in places.

Rock in Hell Bay, on a very calm day with easterlies…

But a few minutes walk further down the coast and here is the calm as anything Great Popplestone Bay. Hell Bay Hotel lies by Great Pool. This is not a natural pond but was formed from peat cutting. Hell Bay Hotel is owned by the Tresco Corporation on the island next door, and features 3 rosette dining. Not of interest to us, and the picture perfect new builds at the back look wrong on Bryher. On Heathy Hill we walked out to Dropnose Point and saw a fantastic wild playground built out of rubbish from the sea, and also another boulder maze, like the one on St Agnes.

Samson Hill is on the southern end of Bryher. We walked up here for the views and for the wonderful array of prehistoric remains. On the steep path up we saw a song thrush using a stone to crack open a snail shell held in its beak! From the northern slope you see the homes with their long gardens with masses of polythene covered greenhouses. The community centre, the church and the two quays one of which is only usable at high tide. On the southern slope of Samson Hill is the amazingly preserved Works Carn entrance grave which I particularly enjoyed. We also got good views of Idun anchored in front of North Hill, just right of Yellow Rock!

Panorama from the eastern end of Samson Hill over Bryher

Eel grass, Daberlocks, Sea spagetti; a Waterworld below

Watery maidens swimming underneath

When we floated around near Little Arthur, we had an incredible view into the underwater world filled with thick kelp, seagrass and lots of movement and strange shapes. No wonder the seals like it! The water in Scilly is so clear that when the surface is still, you can see right down to the bottom. Dominic likes trying to find the anchor, I prefer looking at the meadows and beds underneath. I’m slowly learning more about it and their wondrous names; sea tangle, furbellow, cuvie, dabberlocks. We have learnt that the tall growing sea spagetti gets tangled up in our outboard all too easily! At low tide the rocky area below the beaches are full of seaweed in green, yellow and brown hues; the bladder wrack with its air bladders, waiting on the boulders for the next submersion.

We’ve been lucky to see plenty of seagrass when close to shore, especially in the Eastern Isles. Seagrasses are different to seaweeds; they are the only flowering plants able to live in seawater and pollinate whilst submerged. Underwater seagrass meadows form incredibly important habitats being a source of food and shelter for the young stages of many fish and crustacean species. We have come across several places along the south coast where anchoring is forbidden to protect the seagrass.

Another creature of the deep?

Samson – Best Anchorage Ever

‘One of our best anchorages ever’, I told Dominic. ‘But I guess it would be unsuitable in any strong wind?’ ‘Yea’ he answered. ‘It wouldn’t be great’. We had a few very calm and hot days and after the busy New Grimsby this was just heaven. We sat near North Hill on Samson, behind Yellow Rock so within easy distance of both Samson itself and Rushy Bay on Bryher. The anchorage is big, and even with 10 yachts here is doesn’t feel crowded. There are people on paddle boards, we used the kayak a lot. The vista around you is of Bryher, Tresco, St Mary’s and all the Norrard Rocks (as in northern rocks, being north of the Western Rocks beyond St Agnes). And beyond the Rocks there’s the Atlantic. Pure heaven.

Sun setting over Norrard Rocks

Samson is named after St Samson of Dol, one of the founders of the Kingdom of Brittany who visited Scilly in the 6th century. It is a now uninhabited island of two hills with a ‘waist’ of lowland in between. The last inhabitants lived off farming (which must have been hard!) and fishing. They lived here until 1855 when Augustus Smith (who leased the islands) ‘persuaded’ them to leave. And he built a stone wall around the northern half for a deer park. This was not a success, however as the deer managed to escape over to Tresco over the flats at low tide!

Despite the bracken trying their best to hide all evidence of any buildings, we did find quite a few of them. And a well built spring that still contains clear water. And because in 1829 a Mr Edward Driver surveyed the location of all buildings on the island and their inhabitants, we could put names to who had lived where. It was really rather emotional.

These building remains are all on South Hill, but on both hills there is evidence of people being here thousands of years earlier. We couldn’t see much of it (due to the bracken!) but there are apparently remains of round houses and field boundaries and a possible causeway. It must have been quite frightening for the people here to see their farmlands swallowed up by the ever rising water. We did see several graves up on the ridge of North Hill, in a majestic and very special position highest up on the land. An honoured place.

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