A Scilly idea?

July 2011

Last year, when I was down in Cornwall walking part of the South West Coast Path for what I expected to be the last time that year, I began to plan my return the following year, to continue along the coast. Standing at Lands End near the end of my trip last year it struck me I had reached a frontier of sorts, the most South Westerly point of mainland Britain. Until I reach Dungeness I will be heading east. Except, it is only the most south westerly point of mainland Britain. As the sign at Lands End reminded me, it is not in fact the most South Westerly point of Britain – the Isles of Scilly are another 28 miles further to the south west.

I had never planned to includes the Isles of Scilly in my coast walk, but so far despite having said I won’t walk all the islands, walk all the islands is exactly what I have done. So over the long winter months, when I don’t do so much walking, I started to look into it. The first thing I did was to buy the Ordnance Surcey map and although there is not an official coast path as such, all the main islands had a footpath around the coast (though oddly, a permissive path in orange rather than a right of way). I had heard Scilly was expensive, and a quick look at all the hotels I could find on St Mary’s confirmed this to be the case, they were all very expensive. So having camped for some of my previous walks I decided to see if there was a campsite on Scilly. There were in fact several, but never having been to Scilly before I decided it would make sense to stay on the main island, St Mary’s as it has the most facilties. There is a campsite there and it was not especially expensive either, so that was settled

The next thing to look into was transport. Camping has the downside that I have more luggage (at the very least, a tent and sleeping bag over and above changes of clothes etc), so it seemed sensible to go on the ferry. There is only one ferry to Scilly, the Scillonian III, which is a passenger ferry (there isn’t a car ferry at all), that runs once a day from Penzance to St Mary’s (other than for a few months in the winter, when there is no ferry at all). The problem is the ferry departs at 9:15am now (I think it may have been earlier then though), which means a very early start, or an overnight stay in Penzance, which adds to the cost. In fact I wonder who this schedule is really aimed at? It’s a bit early for most holiday makers, given they would likely face a long journey to get to Penzance. For Islanders wanting to head to the mainland the ferry leaves Scilly at 4:30pm, arriving in Penzance after all the shops shut, and they’d have to spend the night for the ferry back the next day, which of course leaves early enough very little would be open. It’s only really useful for a night out for islanders, or a longer trip over. Indeed it seems the schedule is only really suited to day trips from Penzance.

So I looked into the air options and found First Great Western offer through tickets to Scilly by either ferry, helicopter or plane (the helicopter option is no longer available, though). Although oddly, these tickets can only be booked by telephone. I was surprised to see the helicopter through this package was cheaper than the planes. I looked into it more and found the luggage limit for both the planes (Skybus) and the helicopter was 15KG (including hand luggage), which would be a struggle with camping equipment too. I rang and asked if it was possible to take more than one bag. It was, and for no extra charge provided the total weight was less than 15KG. Excess baggage was also available and whilst not cheap was not stupidly expensive either. So the helicopter it was, which would be a real treat. I settled on booking it from Reading and the helpful lady on the telephone made the booking for me and promised to send the tickets, which duly arrived a few days later.

So fast forward a few months and I was off. I had to make an early start and walk to the station, and soon regretted not having called a taxi, because my bags began to feel much heavier after walking for a few minutes. I had, of course, forgotten to weigh them, so I hoped I’d be under the magic 15KG weight. I had to change take 4 trains, with changes at Basingstoke, Reading and Plymouth, which was a pain with all the luggage I had. But it was a beautiful clear, sunny morning, so my trip was off to a good start. I got to Reading on time and found the correct platform. My train was going to Newquay, but a train was shown on the departure board 5 minutes earlier, going to Penzance, which is where the helicopter left from. Why hadn’t I been booked on that? I checked the timetable and soon realised there was an oddity. In the summer, the first train of the day heading west goes to Penzance, but it goes the long way round via Bristol (rather than Newbury and Westbury). The second train goes to Newquay (and runs non-stop from Reading to Exeter). This train overtakes the Penzance train and hence allows for a later departure from Reading. I wasn’t sure of the conditons of my ticket allowed me deviate from the schedule (I know you can’t on Advance tickets), so reluctantly, I watched the Penzance train I would be joining later come and go, and await the Newquay train I was booked on, a few minutes behind.

This arrived on time and made quick progress to Exeter. The train journey west of Exeter is a beautiful journey and one I never tired off when I lived in Exeter. The train heads past a flood channel of the Exe, giving good views of Exeter cathedral and then follows right along the western bank of the Exe estuary, giving good views over the vast expanse of water, to Topsham, Lympstone and Exmouth beyond. It then swings round onto the coast past Dawlish Warren and on a sea wall at Dawlish. This famously fell in the sea earlier this year, but has been repaired now (although I noticed when travelling that way a couple of weeks ago, not all of the coast path along the sea wall has been re-opened). West of Dawlish the line goes in and out of tunnels in the cliffs, giving brief glimpses of the sea and then resumes it’s journey along the sea wall to Teignmouth. After Teignmouth it follows the banks of the river Teign, another wide estuary, to Newton Abbot with views to Shaldon on the way. I’m amused to hear one of a group of teenages further down the carriage say “Oh my god is that the ocean? It’s beautiful”, as we turn onto the coast. I used to love watching the reactions of visitors on the trains on this line when I lived in Exeter.

The line then crosses the Dart and hugs the south edge of Dartmoor, with occasional glimpses of rocky outcrop and then reaches the river Plym into Plymouth.

I change train here and stop at the Spar supermarket in the station to buy lunch and await my Penzance train I saw earlier. It arrives on time, and I get on for the last couple of hours to Penzance. Once again, the views are wonderful, as we climb out of the city centre on a viaduct over the docks and reach the wonderful Royal Albert Bridge, which crosses the Tamar high above the water below, which is full of moored boats. This marks the border of Devon and Cornwall.

Crossing the Tamar on the Royal Albert bridge.

Crossing the Tamar on the Royal Albert bridge.

There are various creeks and estuaries crossed on the way to Liskeard after which the line becomes hilly and wooded for a while. A brief glimpse of the coast can be seen near Par and then the line continues inland until Hayle. Here I remember to look right for a brief glimpse of the coast before we come to the final few miles, were the line runs along the back of Mounts Bay, offering a view of St Michael’s Mount to the south. The train arrives at Penzance on time. My ticket includes a transfer to the heliport, although it is only about a mile away. Coming out of the station the mini bus to the heliport is already there and the friendly driver loads my bags and says he will wait around for a few minutes for anyone else. There are 3 of us in the end and he sets off only around half an hour before the helicopter is due to leave.

It takes less than 5 minutes though and we are there. The driver is enthusiastic about the area and tells me of the various things that have happened in Penzance in the last few weeks and how lovely the islands are. He also says that if I come back next year the helicopter will be going from St Erth as Sainsbury’s want to buy the current heliport. I wonder for the future of the service and am right to, since in the end, this proves to be it’s penultimate season that the helicopter ran. I thank him and head into the terminal. I hand over my bags, and seeing my tent it causes a brief moment of panic  amongst the staff when they ask me if I have any gas cylinders. I confirm I haven’t which calms things down and my bags are checked in. I assume they must be under the magic 15KG, since there is no query. I’m given a plastic boarding card but I’m pleased to note you don’t have to go through the usual security theatre here of going through scanners, taking you shoes and belts off and all the other rubbish that airports usually entail. Soon we are asked to go to the departure gate to watch a safety video. As we are doing so the helicopter arrives, which distracts the few who were watching the video to the window!

Helicopter at Penzance

Helicopter at Penzance

The helicopters fly to both St Mary’s and Tresco (the second largest of the islands) from here. I’m surprised from the video to find out we get on the helicopter whilst it is running, I had assumed they turned the engines off between flights, as on an aeroplane.

Soon we are lead out and pass under the hot engine exhaust of the helicopter and on board. Inside it is larger than I expected, with higher ceilings and the seats are 2 abreast on one side and single seats on the other. It was noisy inside too and looking up at the yellowing plastic, it looks old (when I got home I found that the helicopter I flew on entered service in 1965, making it now nearly 50 years old). Soon everyone is on and the hostess closes the doors. This helicopter looks a little unusual, as it has what I presume a floats above the skids. I hope they won’t be needed! Soon an increase in noise makes it clear we are taking off. I’ve never been in a helicopter before and it is a good experience, it lift off smoothly, a very different experience from the high speed charge along the runway of planes. Soon we are almost hovering over the A30 with the sea beyond and then head out over the bay.

Heading out over Mounts Bay

Heading out over Mounts Bay

We head further out to sea giving a panoramic view over Mounts Bay, which is looking lovely on this warm summer day. The helicopter then turns along the coast and I can see Mousehole down below.

Flying over Mousehole

Flying over Mousehole

Having walked all this stretch of the coast before, it was lovely to be able to see it again from the window of the helicopter. Before, I had been looking up from the coast at the helicopter, and now I was doing the reverse. We continue over the fields and coast of West Cornwall and I spot a lovely beach, which I recognise as Nanjizal which is looking so beautiful today. I can’t see a single person down there, either.

Flying over Nanjizal

Flying over Nanjizal

Soon we are out over the open sea, but the helicopter remains fairly low and you can see all the white horses and waves not far below.

It doesn’t take long to approach Scilly which looks more rugged than I expected.

Flying over St Mary's

Flying over St Mary’s

Touch down at the little airport at St Mary’s is smooth and we are soon off and heading for the little terminal. It was a brilliant experience and I’m so glad I picked the helicopter. This coast walk has taken me on a few adventures, and this is another of them.

Arrived at St Mary's

Arrived at St Mary’s

Our luggage is soon brought round on a trailer towed by a van, we pick it up straight from the van, there is no luggage carousel to contend with here. I grab my bag and outside there is a fleet of minibuses waiting. For a small (fixed) charge, they will take you to your accomodation on the island, or the quay if you are staying on one of the other islands. I say I’m staying at the campsite and the man directs me to a different mini bus from everyone else, which left me wondering why I had been singled out, but all becomes clear later.

A few minutes later, all the passengers are dealt with, the driver gets on and off we go. He is a lovely man, full of enthusiam about the islands and tells me all the different sights to see on the island, and some of the history, slowing to point things out on the way. I’m enchanted almost as soon as we set off, as it’s beautiful here. Soon we arrive at the islands capital, Hugh Town, which my driver, rather optomistically, describes as “the city centre”. He points out the various shops and pubs and the all important bank. There are in fact two banks here, but only one has a cash point (which serves all the islands), so if it runs out of cash you are in trouble. There is also a Co-Op supermarket.

Hugh Town

Hugh Town


We head through the town and up a steep hill. Here, the reason why I am the only passenger becomes apparant. The campsite is at the top of an area called the Garrison, a walled area to the west of the town. The only road into this area is this one, which goes through a very narrow gate through the wall, and this is the only mini bus that will fit. Even then, we have to fold the wing mirrors in to get through the arch. It is rather narrow, and this is the only road to this part of the island.

The narrow arch to the Garrison

The narrow arch to the Garrison

We soon arrive at the campsite and I check in. The driver who is very friendly asks when I’m leaving and if I want to be picked up on the way back. I confirm I do and pay him in advance and he gives me a reciept. I’m pleasant surprised that a week later he arrives bang on time and remembers my name. The people here are very freindly.

The owner of the campsite seems surprised to see me, as she says most people arrive by boat, which of course had arrived earlier in the day. She shows me round and it is built into an old fort. Despite being high up, it is very sheltered. It turns out to be a lovely, well kept and peaceful campsite. I wish more campsites did not allow cars onto their main camping fields, it makes it so much more pleasant.

I soon set up my tent and head off to explore the island, but I save my walk around the island until the next day, since it is now around 4pm. Heading down to the harbour I can see the ferry, Scillonian III is still in dock, but soon it sounds it’s horn and departs.

View over Hugh Town

View over Hugh Town

The Scillonian III

The Scillonian III

I decide to have a little explore of Hugh Town, which is just as lovely as it looked and there are several pubs, which is a welcome bonus. I start to head north along the coast and before I know it, I’m starting a coastal walk, the one I promised to do yesterday. In the end I walk several miles up to a point called Telepgraph and the follow roads back. I’m a bit surprised to find some are little more than dirt tracks and later find the road laws are a bit different in Scilly. For one, there are no speed limits and secondly cars on the island are exempt from an MOT test and looking at the state of some of the cars I see, it shows!

I then walk back to Hugh Town and have dinner in the Atlantic Inn, which is a very traditional and pleasant pub, run by St Austell Ales. In the evening I head down to the coast over the garrison and walk most of the coast of that part of the island, and then sit and watch the sunset, just as one of the boats returns (from St Anges, I think).

A boat returns from St Agnes as the sun sets.

A boat returns from St Agnes as the sun sets.

It has been a wonderful start to my holiday and I am really looking forward to exploring these islands over the next week.

If you are planning a trip to the islands, unfortunately the helicopter service I used no longer runs. The company that operated it decided to sell the Heliport to Sainsbury’s to build a supermarket (virtually next to a Tesco and a Morrisons) and decided to build a new heliport at St Erth. Not surprisingly, this attracted a considerable amount of opposition from the locals (and from Tesco, who likely didn’t welcome any more competition). The company that operated the helicopters claimed the money raised from the sale was essential to keep the service going. However with the rising costs (not least because the helicopters were nearly 50 years old) they decided to pull out and the helicopter service has now ceased. This is a big blow for the islands, as the helicopter provided a link to both St Mary’s and Tresco, the latter of which now has no direct link to the mainland. They also provided a vital lifeline in winter, when the ferry does not run, as the helicopter was able to run in worse weather conditions than the Skybus planes can. The year after the helicopter ended, there was a significant drop in visitor numbers to the islands, with the knock on effects that has. There is much talk of the service coming back on the islands and I really hope it happens, but finding a suitable base to fly from will be a problem, now the old heliport is a supermarket. A shame.

If you are planning a trip to the islands, the Isles of Scilly Steamship company operate the Scillonian III ferry from Penzance and the Skybus planes. The planes fly from Lands End and Newquay all year round and from Exeter during the summer months. The ferry runs for most of the year, except during November to March. All the details and prices can be found on the link above. At the time of writing, there are no services to and from the island on Sundays, although it is rumoured this will change next year.

First Great Western also offer through tickets to Scilly either by ferry or plane (from Lands End) and details of this can be found on this page.

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