Tresco is the second largest of the Isles of Scilly and perhaps the best known, since it houses the Tresco Abbey Gardens which is probably the biggest tourist attraction on the islands. As a result I was advised to pick a day when no cruise ship is in, since the majority of cruise ship passengers want to visit the gardens and hence the island becomes very crowded on those days.
As I walked from the camp site down to Hugh Town I could see there wasn’t a boat in the channel where there was one yesterday so today looks good. I was a bit concerned about the weather. The BBC forecast suggested sunshine in the morning but with rain later. The man on Radio Scilly suggested it was going to stay sunny all day. I hoped the man on Radio Scilly was right. He was.
Tresco used to be one of only two of the islands linked to the mainland, with a helicopter service running daily from Penzance throughout the summer months. Sadly, the helicopter service to both St Mary’s and Tresco ceased a couple of years ago. St Mary’s has an airport so still has flights but Tresco only has a heliport and so no longer has any scheduled flights. However it is typically linked with the other islands with boat services, the most frequent being from St Mary’s, although I have put details of the various boat services at the bottom of this post.
Due to it’s popularity, Tresco generally has the best choice of sailings from St Mary’s with several crossing a day usually with the first around 9:30 – 10:30am. On this day, it was 10:15am. Tresco is north of St Mary’s and is also the closest of the other inhabited islands, being only around a mile at the nearest points.
I got a few provisions for lunch from the Co-Op on St Mary’s but was rather disappointed to find there was very little choice of sandwiches, so I didn’t buy one. I think the problem was the shop doesn’t get a delivery on Sunday (as the ferry and planes don’t run on Sundays) and the delivery for Monday had not yet arrived, so there was not much stock left. I hoped the shop on Tresco might be better.
The boat heads out into The Road, as it’s known and passes the uninhabited island of Samson on the left and then heads into the Tresco flats, the water that separates Tresco and Bryher. Although the islands are far out in the Atlantic, more than 20 miles from the mainland they are mostly surrounded by calm seas, as the sea is very shallow around the islands. So much so, that it is possible to wade between some of the islands (including between Tresco and Bryher) at low spring tides. This makes it rather a challenge for the boatmen and because of this, the landing place on Tresco, as with most of the islands, varies with the tides.
The boatmen tells us that the boat will drop as off at New Grimsby on the west of the island, but we will be picked up in the afternoon from the Carn Near slipway right at the south of the island on the way back. It’s therefore always worth carrying a map, although it is well signed on the island, but I bet a lot of people get caught out like this. It is a calm and very pleasant sailing over to the island and we are soon dropped at New Grimsby around 15 minutes later.
The name of the town surprised me a bit. I’ve not been to Grimsby yet (although I will) but I don’t imagine it is as scenic as New Grimsby. Perhaps the island had aspirations to be a fishing port in the past and thought naming itself after Grimsby might be a good idea? Oddly, it liked the name so much there is a New Grimsby on the west of the island and Old Grimsby to the east.
All the Isles of Scilly are owned by the Duchy of Cornwall although most of the houses are leased or privately owned. Tresco is different however. The entire island is leased to a single family, who run it as a business. If you want to stay on the island, there are several (expensive) holiday cottages and the New Inn, but much of the accommodation is time share. The residents of the island, are typically employees of the family that own the island and can only live on the island whilst they are employed there. This means it is in the rather unique position that the family must get much of the money they pay their staff back in rent, food from the shop and the boat service. This doesn’t seem to be universally popular, as the island is known to be expensive, a comment echoed by the boatmen, who told us we can pick up a free map from a box on the quay and added the comment “It’s about the only thing you will get for free here”. I opened the box. It was empty. Maybe not then.
The sea here is crystal clear and a lovely turquoise shade and you have good views over to neighbouring Bryher, with numerous boats moored in the sheltered waters between the islands. The island is largely and island of two halves. The south is mostly flat, with a number of pools and the Abbey and gardens, whilst the north is more rugged and rocky, with the two towns, New Grimsby and Old Grimsby roughly in the centre of the island one on the east and the other on the west coast.
For no particular reason, I decided to walk clockwise around the island (along with most other people, it seemed). The low path runs right along the coast and begins just behind the quay. It goes through bracken and gorse, with some rocky outcrops above.
Height is soon gained, giving a lovely view over the sound between Bryher and Tresco. and south to Samson and St Mary’s.
Viewed north from this rocky outcrop I can most of the wild and unspoilt north coast of the island, which has a ruined castle at the end. The low path hugs the coast line and after about half a mile I am at the small castle.
This is known as Cromwell’s Castle. It was originally build in 1651 and expanded in 1739. It is now mostly complete and in the care of English Heritage. Best of all, it’s open to the public (free of charge) and you can go to the top.- So much for the boatments comment about nothing being free here.
Naturally I go in and climb to the top and yes, it was a lovely view.
This is not the only castle though. Just up the hill inland from Cromwell’s Castle is a second castle, Kings Charles’ Castle. This is an older castle, built in 1551. It was originally the main fortification of the islands, but was not very satisfactory, as the guns could not be angled at the harbour, so the Star Castle was built on St Mary’s later instead (which is now a hotel). It was later used to house soildiers but subsequently became derelict. As with Cromwell’s Castle, it is owned by English Heritage and open freely to the public. From the top you get a nice view of Cromwell’s Castle below and the harbour.
The path heads north from here to the northern point of the island, Gun Hill, which as you might expect, is a hill. There are good views to Shipman Head over on Bryher, which is virtually another island and not accessible to the public all year.
The view from here gives a good view over almost the whole of Bryher and looking east over the very rocky north east corner of Tresco. Beyond it, I can see the island of Round Island which is a high island with a lighthouse on. The waters north of Tresco get deeper and that probably explains the lack of sandy beaches here, as it gets pounded by the sea. Rounding the corner I can see the islands of Round Island and St Helen’s, both uninhabited now, although Round Island has a lighthouse and St Helen’s has the remains of buildings, a church and a field system, so has clearly been inhabited in the past. Behind them both is Tean, another uninhabited island which has been inhabited in the past.
From here I get a good view over Gimble Porth and the north east corner of Tresco. It feels like moorland, with gorse, heather and numerous rocky outcrops, although not with the climbs usually associated with moorland. Nearby is another rocky island, Northwethel which is again uninhabited, but shows signs of past habitation, including a field system.
All these little islands can be visited but you typically need to charter your own boat to get here or hire a kayak, although there are occasional trips over to them too in the summer.
As I near Gimble Porth the coast becomes less ruggged with a shingle beach which becomes sand at the end.
Here the coast path leaves the coast and heads higher up onto a path above the town of Old Grimsby. There is a wonderful view here over the archipelago of rocks and islands, with the large island of St Martins in the distance. I can also see the Eastern Isles beyond St Martins.
Immediately west is Northwethel and I can see pretty much all of it from here, with St Helen’s and Round Island beyond, with the lighthouse now looking like it is on St Helen’s instead.
Descending back down to sea level I’m soon on the narrow streets of Old Grimsby with the numerous houses, although I think they are mostly holiday lets, but they have lovely gardens. The street brings me down to the beach, with the old quay in the middle of it.
I don’t think the quay here is used by the trip boats, but there is a boat moored here, so it is probably still used by fishing boats. South of the quay the beach is stunning. Known as Green Porth the water is shallow, warm and a lovely turquoise colour with virtually no waves to speak off. It really does look like the Caribbean.
I took far too many pictures, as you can see, but it was such a beautiful spot it was hard to drag myself away. I did though, eventually, to head up on the coast path which climbs again around a small headland, where there is another old ruined castle which offers a lovely view back over the beach at Old Grimsby. Somehow I doubt the Grimsby in Lincolnshire is so nice.
The view south is also impressive, with the fine sandy beach at Rushy Point backed by dunes and a distance view to St Martin’s. This is another thing I like about these islands, the horizon out to sea is never dull, there are always rocks and other islands to see.
The Block House itself is quite small and partly ruins but still worth the climb to see (the English Heritage website seems to be confused here, as it lists the address as St Martins but it is on Tresco).
From the block house there was an upper and a lower path, but I took the lower path back down to the dunes behind the beach, which was another deserted white sandy beach. I was really enjoying Tresco, it feels like a different country.
Rounding the little headland at Rushy Point the beach becomes a little more rocky but it’s still stunning. And deserted.
Beyind this is another point Lizard Point, not to be confused with the better known one in Cornwall. South of here is another gorgeous beach and again, there is no one there.
I could certainly get used to life on these islands. After checking the map I realised I’m around ⅔ of the way around the island and it is still not late. I hadn’t originally planned to visit the Abbey Gardens but as it was only early afternoon and I decided I had time. It also had the bonus that I hadn’t had lunch yet and it had a cafe. So I headed inland to the Abbey which I believe is the home of the family that owns the island and not open to the public.
The drive leads from the house past the heliport to the entrance to the gardens. I stop for a pasty at the cafe (that was lunch sorted, then) and then pay my fee to enter the gardens. The gardens here are rightly famous and known as “Kew with the roof off”, because the sub-tropical climate means plants can survive here that would not survive outside in other parts of the UK. Although they weren’t there at the time, I believe the gardens are also home to red squirells now, that have been re-introduced to the island.
I won’t bore you with hundreds of photos of the gardens but here is one view that gives a taster
I have included more photos in the link at the bottom. I’m no botanist I only really know the common flowers (Daffodils, Tulips, Hyacinth, etc) but there are some very odd plants here I’ve never seen before including some that are black. It’s not just the flowers that are tropical either, there are also some tropical looking birds around the island which, again, I’m afraid I have no idea what they are.
Within the gardens is a beautiful shell covered shelter and also, to my surprise, a little museum, Valhalla, of ships figureheads, many from ships that have been wrecked on the islands. It is quite an interesting and unexpected little surprise. All in all, I really enjoyed the gardens, more than I had imagined and glad I took time out to visit them.
Having spent a happy couple of hours at the gardens, I resumed my walk along the coast re-tracing my steps back to the coast path. The tide had gone out in the time I was in the gardens revealing more sand and rocks at the Pentle Bay.
The coast path returned to low cliffs lined with bracken along the south coast with views to St Mary’s in the distance. Sadly cloud had come over by now, so I’d lost the glorious colours from earlier in the day. I think this was as close to rain that the BBC had forecast as we came – just a bit of light cloud.
Reaching the south west tip of the island I headed down to check where the slipway at Carn Near was, where I needed to catch the boat later. There is another old fort here, but little remains apart from the earth works. This is Oliver’s Battery, but I headed up to it to enjoy the view over the south of the island.
Heading back down the path goes back along the back of another lovely beach, Appletree Bay. Having said that, now the tide was out it reavealed lots of sea-weed covered rocks rather than white sand, diminishing it’s appeal a bit.
Heading further north along the coast I soon reached another little beach just south of New Grimsby. To the north is a litle island, Plumb Island. This is a better beach with good sand at both high and low tide.
Heading round the corner I’m now back at New Grimsby where my walk started. I walked back along the beach and interested to note the quay is now devoid of water with a boat beached on the sands. I guess that makes it clear why more than one landing place is needed, and why I won’t be leaving the island from this jetty. On reaching the quay I spot something especially lovely.
A money trail of coins along the sea wall to raise money for the island. The last money trail was apparantly used for a fountain at the school. Yes people just leave money on the wall in a long line and the best thing is no one steals it. I think such a scheme would last less than hour in my neighbourhood and it made me wish more places could be as safe and friendly as Scilly.
The beach in the harbour is surprisingly good too, backed by cottages and boats.
There are also the modern timeshares as well though although they have at least been built in different styles.
I decided at this point to cut back across the island to the lovely beaches around New Grimsby and spent some time on the beach there before sadly it was time to leave on the last boat back. This departed from Carn Near, so I had to be careful to leave enough time to get there, which I did. By this time the sun had returned and it had been such a lovely day, made all the better for such lovely weather.
You can see St Mary’s in the distance too, so it was not far to travel back. It is a gorgeous island and I’m so glad I made the effort to come to Scilly. I expected it to be nice, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so lovely, it really does feel like a tropical island.
The only access now to Tresco is via one of the other islands. To get to Tresco from the mainland it is best to travel via St Mary’s which is linked by a daily ferry service to Penzance (except during Winter) and regular flights to Lands End, Newquay and Exeter (the latter during the summer only).
From St Mary’s the St Mary’s Boatmen Association run regular trip boats over to Tresco :
From St Martins : St Martins Boat Services