St Mary’s is the largest of the Isles of Scilly and my base for the week. I soon learnt than on the islands, St Mary’s is known as “the mainland” and the other islands the “off islands”. The Cornish mainland? Well you don’t go there unless you have to!
I was staying up on the Garrison, an area to the west of the main town of the island (and indeed islands), Hugh Town. St Mary’s is almost two distinct islands, with Hugh Town, the islands capital on a low narrow strip of land on either side and the Garrison to the west. This is a part of the island that is heavily fortified and the campsite I was staying at was situated within one of the old forts, with the remains of the walls around. The whole area was fortified from 1594 with the building of the Star Castle (now a hotel). The walls were then built around the whole of the Garrison area, and numerous gun batteries are still present along the wall, which surrounds the entire Garrison part of the island.
Even today, as the Garrison is still surrounded by walls, there is only one road off this part of the island, which is under a narrow arch. I followed the coast path around the north of the Garrison which gives a good view over the archipelago.
It took me a few days to get my bearings as to what all the islands are, but the uninhabited island of Samson is the one closest. There are in fact 5 inhabited islands (St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher) and numerous uninhabited islands, some of which can be visited. Out in the bay there is a small cruise ship. Tourism is big business (and in fact the main business) on Scilly and cruise ships provide a large boost to the industry. That said I was advised to avoid visiting Tresco when a cruise ship is in, as it gets crowded.
The good thing with walking around an island, and the one I am staying on, is I’ve no need for transport. I head down to the hill through the narrow arch to the town centre, and emerge by the harbour.
Here the Scillonian III ferry docks and the boats leave to the other islands, and on various boat trips. The main street of Hugh Town runs just behind the coast, with some of the buildings backing right onto the beach and others having a small garden or terrace between. The beach is lovely sand, but not easy to walk along, as the ropes from the various boats tied up in the harbour stretch over the sands.
I stopped at the Co-Op to buy lunch, although there is not much choice (because it is Sunday and as I understand it, there are no deliveries from the mainland to Scilly on Sunday). It’s times like this you can appreciate the problems that living on a remote set of islands must bring. I’m told that at times in the winter the shelves in the supermarket are virtually empty, as if the weather is bad for a few days, only limited supplies can be delivered by air.
With supplies obtained, I headed on down the main street to a little square with a green in the middle (the park), and took the left fork.
Soon I passed the last of the buildings on the left and had fine views to the sea to my left and a good view back over the busy harbour. At the end of the bay is a little headland with a lifeboat station on the end.
I hope this doesn’t see much use, but with the sea such an important part of island life, it is good that it is there. I note that the cycle hire shop on the sea front is closed, but someone has lent their cycle up against the shop. This is another thing I noticed in Scilly, it feels so safe and there is virtually no crime. I’m told residents leave their doors unlocked (I didn’t try any doors, obviously) and I noticed that locals normally leave the keys in the ignition of their cars when parking up, often with the window open too. It is nice to be somewhere that feels so safe and where everyone is so trusting.
I take the road past the end of this beach around the back of the little rocky headland with the lifeboat station on and come round to another small beach, This is Porth Mellon beach and behind it are a few boat houses.
Gig Boat racing is the big sport on Scilly and there is a weekly competition on the islands, the boats are stored in these sheds (amongst others). There is a small industrial area on the right but soon the coast path forks off to the left, around the back of the beach. This is a good sandy beach, although with a bit of sea weed.
The coast path goes round another low rocky point to the next beach, just a few metres away at Thomas Porth.
Already I can see how far I’ve come, with Hugh Town no becoming a little distant. The coast path goes behind the back of the beach and then joins a track. At the north end of the beach is a small island, Newford Island. I had hoped to walk out onto this, but there is a sign painted saying Private on rocks nearby, so I keep to the mainland.
Still, I did find a report about the island, but it doesn’t look like I missed much!
Passing a small boat yard the coast path soon ends up behind another beach, at Porthloo. Less than a mile from Hugh Town and this is the 4th beach. This is what island life is all about!
From Porthloo the coast path heads one field back from the coast and passes the Juliets Garden restaurant, which has fantastic views from it’s terrace. It’s the end of the beaches for a while though now, as the coast path now skirts the edge of the Isles of Scilly golf course. Yes it has one, although it is only 9 holes.
By the 4th tee, I take a path down back to the cliff edge above a rocky beach at Carn Morval Point. The path goes past low cliffs and a rocky beach but soon there is sand ahead again, at Toll’s Porth. Backed by trees and with lovely soft white sand, this is paradise. Better still, there is no one else here!
The coast path sadly heads a little inland after this beach though, but I can soon return to the coast and look south over the lovely beach backed by lush green bushes.
Looking north, I can see another lovely sandy beach, this time backed with dunes, the first I have seen.
I have reached the most northerly point of the island, Bar Point. The beach here is like something from a holiday brochure from the Caribbean with a calm turquoise sea and deserted white sands. It is just as nice as it looks and the small number of people on the island, and the large amount of coast means there are plenty of good beaches to choose from. It probably helps that this is about the most remote beach, too.
I can see numerous other islands out to sea, including one with a lighthouse on it (Round Island) and make out the golden sands around the other islands. The sea is crystal clear and so calm it looks like you could swim out to some of the other islands.
I stopped for a while on the beach and had an early lunch. Continuing the walk after lunch I headed past a chambered cairn, an ancient burial chamber of which there are many on Scilly.
It is beautifully preserved and without the beer cans and crisp packets that can often be found at such places. The coast path now heads through bracken around low cliffs with views over the various other islands. This is one of the things I find so appealing, there is always another island off the coast to be seen too.
I soon come to a second, much larger chambered cairn which I look in. There is no one else there and it is a lovely peaceful spot.
The low cliffs are lined with pine trees in places and soon bring me around to Watermill Cove, which presumably once had a water mill, but doesn’t any more. This is another gorgeous sandy beach with pine trees on the low cliffs at the south side.
Once more, there is no one else here and I stop for a paddle and the rest of my lunch. Heading away from the beach the coast path gets a little higher although it is hardly steep, I don’t think I have been more than 30 metres above sea level all day!
Just past the beach is a little jetty with a single boat on it, but it doesn’t look like it’s used much. I go around the rocky low headland to reach another good beach, Pelistry Bay. It has a little rocky island just off it, Toll’s Island. This beach is a bit rocky at the shore line but once again the sea is so calm it is like a pond with mirror like reflections.
The coast ahead gets rather more rugged now and feels a little like moorland meets the sea, with low rocky outcrops and rocky beaches. The air is so clean here that the rocks are all covered in lichens that are so thick they make the rocks all hairy. The rocky path goes over breacken and heather around several rocky headlands to reach Porth Wreck. I can hazard a guess at how that got it’s name! There is sand here, but it is mostly rocks, so it doesn’t detain me for long.
Onwards I go around Porth Hellick Point to reach another large bay, Port Hellick. This beach seems to double as a small harbour, with a few boats moored up, probably because it is very sheltered, being a narrow little cove, which is almost a circle. The sand here is coarser than some and with the tide now out, there is mostly rocks at low tide, so it is not as nice as the beaches I saw earlier. Ahead is more lovely countryside, with heather and gorse lining the cliffs, which begin to gain a little height.
The path soon comes to the edge of the airport and I am amused to note there is a sign saying to stop when the red light shows or the buzzer sounds, as the path goes right along the end of the runway. It doesn’t sound as I pass, so I carry on along the path which soon descends to Tolman Point. Here there is another rock and sandy beach, although the sand is only at high tide, so not a good beach for bathing.
Rounding the corner from Tolman point I reach Old Town. As the name suggest, this was once the main town of the island, but when the Garrison walls were built, the town migrated west to the percieved safety and became Hugh Town and this became Old Town.
There is a cafe and a pub behind the beach here, and some pleasant stone houses. There is another good beach here, with the road, protected by a low concrete wall behind it.
Soon the road turns off to the right up hill and I can take up the coast path again to reach a beautiful old church and by it, a seat made of the remains of an upturned boat. I stopped for a rest and a drink in the church yard and look out over the lovely peaceful bay, with the only sound that of the birds.
From the church the path becomes more rugged and remote, gaining the most height and with numerous rocky outcrops. At the end of the large headland, Peninnis Head (be careful how you say that!) is an odd little lighthouse on stilts, unlike anything I have seen before.
There are also some quite incredible rock formations here and they are huge too.
Rounding the corner, I can see Hugh Town ahead.
The path continues right along the coast until I reach some allotments ahead. Here the path in front of them has been lost to erosion, so I have to take the diversion, which is not very well signed, but some locals have written on the rather unclear signs to show the correct route. Once back on the correct path I descend down to the flower backed beach at Porthcressa. This is the largest and most popular beach on the island, perhaps not surprsing since it is right in the town centre.
As I had made a fairly early start I am back at Hugh Town and decide to leave the last part of the island, around the Garrison, to the evening and head back into town.
Later that day I am back at Porth Cressa Beach and take the road south although I end up having to head quite a way inland to get to the right road, which heads past some flats and then out past a very grand house on the right. Quite a bit of height has been gained and soon I reach the Woolpack Battery, one of a number around the Garrison. All the guns are still in place and it looks just as if it was still in use. It is nice these forts are simply left open to the public.
I pass several other forts built into the walls and soon I am back at the campsite where I started the day. I head down to the rocks in the evening and watch the sea splashing over the rocks.
It has been a wonderfully relaxing day, and I am impressed at how much varied scenery is packed into this small island. Despite being only 3 miles or so wide, there is nearly 10 miles of coast to explore and the nice thing is that the furthest point is all within a 45 minute walk of Hugh Town, so you are also never very far from civilization. It is a lovely little island and I’m so glad I made the effort to come over to these islands.