I first came to Scilly fifteen years ago. At the time I didn’t really know where the Scilly Isles were. Now of course I know exactly where they are and not to call them the Scilly Isles. I had vague memories of a friend at school going with his family, but I lived way up north and so we never went.
I had visited several of the Hebrides a number of times and already knew I loved islands. The smaller and more isolated the better. And so it wasn’t a big surprise that I ended up being one of the many people who adore the Isles of Scilly (See, I know what they are supposed to be called now).
My girlfriend at the time (I’ll call her S, because that is weirdly what I actually call her) used to come with her family to Scilly when she was a child. Her father had come as a child before her, and the islands had kind of assumed a sort of magical status in her family. And so when we’d been together a little while she suggested we go together and spend some time there.
We booked a pitch on the campsite on the Garrison, a pair of tickets for the boat, and somewhere to leave the car while we were out. Then we counted off the days.
She was a lot more excited than me if I’m being completely honest. It all sounded a little twee. But I liked camping, and I had always loved the sea, so I was willing to put my preconceptions aside.
The Journey to Scilly
We duly arrived in Penzance on a gloriously sunny day. All our gear was loaded into the containers and the car was delivered to its temporary home.
I hadn’t really believed that we’d see anything of any note on the way out on the Scillonian III, but true to form we saw a shiver of Basking sharks – Did you know the collective noun for sharks is a “shiver”? I had no idea until I sat down to write this. Every day I learn…
As the journey progressed the skies got greyer, and the wind picked up a little. We made our way inside and found somewhere to sit. As we sailed through St Mary’s Sound it started to rain.
That of course was a problem. We’d packed waterproofs, after all I’m not an idiot. But we’d packed them in with the camping gear. So they were neatly stowed away in the cargo containers. It’s possible I might be an idiot after all.
Setting foot on St Mary’s
We moored up to the quay and as I stepped out into the light drizzle the heavens opened.
Seriously I have never seen anything like it. I have spent time in West Africa during the monsoon season and this was an order of magnitude heavier. Within seconds we were both utterly drenched. And then the thunder started.
I’ve always loved storms.
There is something about them that appeals to me on a deeply primeval level. Perhaps it is staring into the face of all that raw power and not backing down, but throughout my life when a storm starts I head outside to experience it properly.
This time however I was a little taken aback.
The thunder was loud.
Not the kind of loud where you turn to your companion and say “Wow that’s loud.”. But the kind of loud that hurts your ears and makes you physically flinch.
I was seriously impressed.
I was also about one minute from my first experience of proper Scilly.
My girlfriend banked with Barclays and we needed to get some cash. We waded down the street to the bank through the torrential rain and stepped inside apologizing for dripping all over their floor.
The lovely lady behind the counter laughed and told us not to worry. When S asked to withdraw some money the cashier replied that the power was out and the connection to the mainland was down so she couldn’t check her balance. But if she left her details they could sort it out later. How much did she want?
So with pockets full of cash we walked back into the ridiculous weather. We walked up the equally ridiculously steep hill to the Garrison and around past Star Castle to the campsite.
Our gear had beaten us, so we picked up the absolute essentials from the sheltered area it had been left in and went to pitch the tent. Predictably the second we had the outer up the rain stopped.
An Archipelago of Fog
The next few days were foggy and grey. I decided that Scilly was ok, but couldn’t quite understand what all the fuss had been about.
We walked around Peninnis head and I balanced precariously on pulpit rock staring out into the fog. We saw an astonishing amount of burial chambers, we hired bikes and went for cream tea at a place on the other side of the island which did surprisingly nice cake. I had no idea what it was called then, but now I know it as Carn Vean just up from Pellistry and it has become a regular haunt of ours. We go every time we’re on the islands.
The other thing we did that seems a bit odd then but has become almost compulsory was visiting John Bourdeaux’s Pottery. We’d already visited Humfrey Wakefield’s pottery and I’d treated myself to a stunning green glazed tankard, so another potter seemed a bit like overkill to me. But it was important to S, and so we went.
I don’t know if you had the fortune to visit either or both of those distinguished gentlemen, sadly Humfrey Wakefield is no longer with us, so that isn’t an option any more, but other than the dust, their potteries couldn’t be any more different.
Humfrey’s was on the ground floor of a huge imposing stone built house on the very edge of the island. It had it’s own Napoleonic battery opposite the beautifully manicured garden. It was the kind of house you’d expect a distinguished gentleman to live in, and H Wakefield Esq fitted that bill
The Bourdeaux Pottery
John Bourdeaux’s pottery in Old Town was a little different. As we walked up past the airport I could feel the anticipation building for S. This was clearly important to her.
We walked up the short driveway into an overgrown courtyard with sacks of clay roughly piled against a wall. A small door that looked like it might have been made in a children’s Woodwork class opened into an rickety Alladin’s cave of pottery.
Shelves and tables cobbled together out of driftwood and reclaimed planks filled the room and every single flatish surface was covered in a vast array of pottery. Lifesize animals glazed to look genuinely realistic. Cups, plates, and bows glazed in white blue and green seemingly at random. And all sorts of beautiful vases and jugs. I instantly knew that we could spend a lot of money in here, but that was a problem as we had very little money. We’d blown our daily budget for several days on a trip to Tresco a day earlier.
A jolly man who was covered in clay dust looked up as we went in and said hello. Then he looked at S again and said,
“You’ve been here before!”
The Man Himself
I thought it was clever salesmanship, to be fair I think I might be a bit of a cynic. But when the man who turned out to be John Bourdeaux himself started asking after S’s parents and grandparents I realised I’d misjudged him.
I didn’t really feel we could stay very long as we couldn’t really afford to buy anything, but it was hard to walk away from someone so friendly and chatty. It very quickly became clear why S had been looking forward to visiting him.
We visited him several times that holiday, and he has become a firm friend over the years. Our children are among those whose heights are marked on his walls. And somehow our daughter seems to have struck a special deal with him where she gets a ridiculous discount in return for taking us in to buy all the pots we can carry once a year. We’ve certainly made up for that first visit where we couldn’t afford to buy any that’s for sure.
Scilly in the Sun
After about four or five days of drizzle and fog interspersed with proper rain we woke up one morning to glorious sunshine.
I’d been having a pretty good time, and thought Scilly was an ok sort of place, but that morning as we walked past Star Castle to head down into Hugh Town the view genuinely took my breath away.
We could see for miles.
I could see St Agnes and the Western Rocks. I could see the Bishop in the distance. Even the ruins on top of Samson’s twin hills were obvious. I could see Bryher and Tresco even though I couldn’t tell them apart. Round island peeked out from behind, and I was utterly smitten.
“And that is why I wanted you to come,” said S from behind me as I stood with my mouth agape.
Falling in Love with Scilly
I can honestly trace my love for the islands from that very moment. We did some lovely things that holiday. Fishing with Alec Hicks who turned out to know S’s dad as they’d played together as kids. Supper at the Turks Head on Agnes, and starting the annual tradition of eating my own bodyweight in ice cream. But none of them topped that first moment when I really got what Scilly was about.
To be honest I’ve found better views. Highertown bay on St Martins looking out over the Eastern Isles. Pretty much anywhere you care to look from Signal Hill on Bryher. And looking out over the western rocks from Castella Down on Agnes are the three that spring immediately to mind. But I always expected them to be awesome. Standing on the top of the Garrison, looking out over the bright blue millpond sea in the glorious sunshine was such a surprise it’s never been topped.
Obviously we went back again. Eventually S and I got married in the Registry Office in Porthcressa (yes the old one) and now our three kids love Scilly too. But I’ll save all that for a different story.