By Rosemary Everett
Archipelago. Arguably the finest word in the lexicon of islands. Particularly fine when used to describe the Isles of Scilly. Lying just some 28 miles off Lands’ End, and these days serviced by regular flights and a ferry – weather permitting. And yet a world away, and a world apart.
It must be the nature of all islands to be separate worlds of course, and some folks will be fortunate enough to inhabit these magic places permanently. Others may visit them and perhaps be inspired to take the time to guess at what happens inside the magic when we are not there. Some people make a life time’s task of bagging as many of our island worlds as they can. Others are drawn back to the same place, time and again over the years. And so it is with Scilly.
I was introduced to their wonder by my holidaying parents and as a family, we collectively fell in love. Every year we decamped for two weeks in July or August until my brother and I outgrew the annual trip – although we have each managed to sneak back in after our parents thought they would be travelling alone. We have now passed on the magic to partners, and to our next generation. It is possible to see the place begin to exert its influence on new recruits. Like us, they are now caught up in a spell that will stay with them and bring them back when it can.
Pale, sandy beaches, littered with yellow, orange or pinky red pearly shells, that glitter beneath clear blue skies; rocks and ledges teeming with sea birds and the occasional exotic visitor; wild flowers in the hottest colours growing in abundance, as well as a garden of sub-tropical delights. Fresh local seafood and fish, welcoming bars and tearooms. Seals, dolphins and porpoises entertaining and beguiling us. Artists and craftspeople sharing their muse so we can all take a piece home. There is an underlying rhythm to this holiday life on Scilly, and the islanders are unfailingly friendly about their task to service and nourish it.
It is a peculiar tension that withstands the link between those who visit and see its pleasures for a short time, and those who live there all of the time. The permanency of Scilly is apparent, never disguised. There are schools, a medical service, Police, Fire and Rescue, the local Council. The shallows may be occasionally disturbed by less happy aspects of life, such as a mini crime wave. But like the shoals of herring that once drew the Cornish fleet into harbour, they move quickly by, realising this is not their place to settle. If the tension is worked on, it resolves into contented and creative depths.
The Hugh Town supermarket brings the different pulls into sharper focus. A constantly busy ballet of self-caterers and picnickers, moving around the residents who take the time to chat with each other and catch up on the news before getting the kids’ tea and other essentials of daily life. It is obvious who knows each other well from the more contained islands community, and who is just passing through and forming part of that week’s temporary grouping. There is a camaraderie amongst the visitors and trippers that is light hearted and full of the delight of being there and discovering, or re-exploring.
But I remember as a child wondering more about what I saw as the privileged few, the island children, and how their school days and home lives compared to mine than making friends with the other trippers. The locals seemed to have many advantages over me, and yet perhaps limitations compared to what my mainland life could offer. I watched from my hotel room window, up above the Hugh Town streets, as a fierce local girl ordered her companions in play. She seemed as romantically piratical as a child could ever hope to be. I was too shy and in awe to ask to join her crew.
On St Mary’s, the islands hub, the daily rhythm for the tourist revolves around the boats that take you to the other four inhabited islands or on trips to see the local wildlife. Everything here is about the outdoors. When it rains, it’s a case of put on waterproofs and carry on, or perhaps seek indoor entertainments until it passes (usually quickly).The museum is a fine one and worth a visit on a fine day even; other rainy day pursuits are simpler –card games in the lounge of your cottage or hotel perhaps.
My father kept meticulous notebooks of our holidays and records well over 50 species of birds – of land and sea – spotted each year. With him and our boatman guides, I learnt the names of seabirds from the giant gannet, soaring the skies before diving down like a bullet to fish to the smaller razorbills and guillemots that bob amongst the waves, chicks in tow. The tiny wren accompanied our inland walks and the Scilly thrushes were constant companions. Too constant, with their sparrow mates, on the tea tables at Seaways or Tresco Abbey Gardens. This knowledge is an island gathered treasure that I keep close, far more precious than those shells and sea glass shards that are habitually collected by outsiders from the shore.
The boatman are characters who shape the Scilly experience. Back then, they would come to the hotel breakfast rooms to announce the trips for the day. Their charm and humour heightened the anticipation about where we would travel to that day. Sometimes we combined bird watching with a landing; some days we took two trips, grabbing rare opportunities such as an annual pilgrimage to an off-island with a saintly shrine. We took to the water in the evening after dinner, to spot the elusive shearwaters or to watch the locals keeping the tradition of pilot gig rowing alive with their inter-island races. A spectacle for visitors to see but part of the social glue for the islanders.
The nautical romance of the boatman fuelled many a teenage day dream, including living on the islands myself. An impossible dream of course and one that now seems over ambitious as the tension between the delight of holidaying in a place and the endurance of living there year round is more understood. Doubtless 21st century life makes things easier, even with the cost of delivering internet ordered goods to islanders. I expect our technological driven age assists working lives too. But the realist in me knows that my post visit sense of longing is for extra holiday time here, not permanent residency.
It wasn’t always that way. Influenced by those early trips, in Primary school when our teacher asked us all what we wanted to do when we grew up, I didn’t conform to type. All the boys gave the standard “Soldier/ Police / Fireman” answers. The girls back then were expected to say “Nurse / Teacher” etc. Lighthouse Keeper threw them. But I had seen the relief of the keepers of the Bishop Rock. I’d visited Gibson’s shop and spent precious holiday money on photos of the interior of the lighthouse, and oh, how those curved bunks fascinated me. The solitude of months on the rock with few others fascinated and drew me in. To this day, I hanker for it even though Trinity House’s automation has done for my dream. What a thrill to have been there the day that the last relief of the Bishop by boat took place, with the brand new helipad atop the stack looking down on us as a beacon of the future, easier times to come. The sight of men slinging themselves and their luggage down ropes towards an open boat, heaving in the surf around the very rocks they sought to protect mariners from remains vivid in the mind decades later.
Such was the freedom that Scilly offers that my brother and I could venture out by boat to watch this spectacle without our parents’ company. We also walked around whole islands by ourselves when the urge took us, but somehow knew where to meet up without the call of mobile phone, drawn together by rather a collective, family and familiar, response to the eternal lure of ice cream.
Keeping in touch with Scilly is easy and joyful in the age of the web. Tune into to Radio Scilly online or join the thousands worldwide who follow the IoS Police on Facebook to see what I mean. The discussion forums are revealing where a debate on the Council’s economic strategy takes local contributors to the heart of the conflict between a healthy but seasonal tourist industry and prioritising sustainable year round lives. The tension strains on; I hope that it can continue to resolve itself in order to keep the magic going, meeting modern needs but in the charmingly idiosyncratic Scilly way and not feeling the need to give credence to all the demands we might bring with us.
We visitors must help by walking a mile in local shoes, and taking time to linger over thoughts of respect for these tenacious islanders who no need to longer feast on limpets to survive as their ancestors did. Unless it is us limpets of tourists who come and go, heading the call across the years to return to their home-place, renew our spirits by sharing their paradise for a while and then leave them to enjoy it for what it really is – their islands which have to be distinct and a world apart from our ones but which can be joined to us in the best of mutually supportive ways.
Rosemary Everett lives in Scotland and enjoys sailing on its West coast. Islands have nourished her wanderlust and provided inspiration since she first visited Scilly in 1973. Originally a museum curator, she helped set up the Scottish Parliament in 1999. She has written magazine articles and reviewed books and exhibitions. Presently she is on a career break and spends her time volunteering, sailing, travelling and writing.